Street Saviors: How Atlanta is helping—not jailing—the homeless, mentally ill, and addicted

As part of the city’s Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, “care navigators” like Robby Ivy assist people who commit nonviolent minor crimes like begging and prostitution
Robby Ivy
Robby Ivy

Photograph by Melissa Golden

Robby Ivy’s job description reads like that of a paramedic: irregular hours and long, idle stretches, then rushing to an emergency at a moment’s notice. On a brisk Thursday night, her pink cell phone rings after a quiet four hours at her downtown office. She jots down the details relayed by the police officer on the other end: Male. 51. Forsyth Street. Criminal trespassing. “We’ll be there shortly,” Ivy says.

She tosses a set of car keys to her coworker, Justine Ingram, and within 10 minutes, their bright-yellow taxi van pulls up to the Five Points MARTA station. Atlanta Police Officer Kelvin Crawford introduces the pair to “William,” a homeless veteran who asked one too many customers for spare change inside a McDonald’s. Instead of putting William in handcuffs, Crawford places him in Ivy’s care.

Ivy grabs a cheeseburger, fries, cookies, and a coffee for William and escorts the south Georgia native back to her office, where she gives him clothes and books him a weeklong stay in an extended-stay hotel. Then, Ivy gently prods William for personal details, hoping his answers reveal why he’s been homeless off and on since 1996. William stares at Ivy, wondering why someone would drive around downtown after dark helping Atlanta’s forgotten residents.

“People’s outlook on the homeless, drug addicts, and sex workers is that they choose to be like this,” Ivy later says. “I do what I do now because I understand. I know what it’s like. I’ve done all of that.”

Look at Ivy now—a bubbly 51-year-old mother who collects singing stuffed animals and knows all the words to “Rapper’s Delight”—and you’d be hard-pressed to see the scars of her past trauma. A military brat, Ivy left Valdosta for Atlanta at the age 0f 15. She met a pimp on Auburn Avenue and started frequenting clubs and using cocaine. Multiple times, she quit drugs and the sex trade, only to fall back into that world.

Following another relapse in 2009, after six years without drugs, she grabbed her .38 pistol, put it in her mouth, and pulled the trigger. No bullet fired.

“The folks we’re helping have fallen through the gaps of social service providers. We want to help them stop falling.”

Ivy has been drug-free since the suicide attempt. She now uses her experiences to help others get off the streets. The Mableton resident’s work as a “care navigator” is part of a $2 million experiment from the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, and private foundations that has created an unlikely alliance between police officers and criminal justice activists. Together, they’re trying to answer a key question: Can helping the addicted, mentally ill, and homeless instead of hauling them to jail make Atlanta safer?

Robby Ivy and other navigators respond to officers’ calls before people get arrested.
Robby Ivy and other navigators respond to officers’ calls before people get arrested.

Photograph by Melissa Golden

Five years ago, after activists defeated an Atlanta City Council proposal to banish convicted prostitutes, they teamed up with officials to create the Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, which tries to keep people who commit nonviolent minor crimes like begging and prostitution out of jail. PAD takes cues from similar programs in cities like Seattle, where participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested again. Unlike other cities, where the person is linked to services after an arrest, a PAD participant gets access to services instead of being placed in handcuffs. Ivy works as part of a two-person team responding to calls during a four-day-a-week trial period.

“The folks we’re helping have fallen through the gaps of social service providers,” says Moki Macías, executive director of PAD. “We want to help them stop falling.”

For people like William, who does not own a car or have a steady job, a process as simple as getting a new ID can take weeks. And not having an ID is often a barrier to getting into shelters or receiving other services. The care navigators, while not directly involved in treatment or job training, guide people like William through the complex web of services. With Ivy’s help, William hopes to find work and go back to school. First, he must kick his long-term crack habit and learn to cope with the pain of his daughter’s murder three years ago. Ivy vows to stick with him “through the end of time,” no matter his struggles.

Before someone can get Ivy’s help, APD officers must persuade both the accused (for example, a hotel lobby loiterer) and the accuser (a hotel manager calling 911) to choose diversion over arrest. Not everyone qualifies. PAD currently operates only in select parts of downtown, Midtown, and the Old Fourth Ward.

To date, PAD has taught roughly 70 officers how to use its services. The more officers trained, the better APD can further “change the police culture,” says APD Chief Erika Shields, who helped design the program. But even if every eligible officer is trained, the program may have limited success until more care navigators come on board.

PAD, a two-year pilot that started last October, aims to divert 150 people to prove that the program should be extended. The effort started slow, with only five diversions during the first 90 days. But after tweaking the hours of availability, the team diverted nearly as many in the following two weeks. They’ll need to divert seven people per month to meet their goal by the end of 2019.

One freezing night last winter, Ivy and Ingram carried Krispy Kreme donuts into the CNN Center, a treat for night-shift police officers attending a briefing session. An officer joked to Ivy that he’s already diverting people—to Fulton County Jail on Rice Street. She smiled, and, in case he was serious, walked through the program again. He promised to try calling PAD.

“We may not change the world,” Ivy says. “But we can show it doesn’t have to end at Rice Street.”