HOPE at the end of the line: meet the team responsible for aiding MARTA’s unsheltered

When Gloria Woodard encounters people experiencing homelessness on the job as a MARTA HOPE Atlanta case manager, she doesn’t see panhandlers or public nuisances. She sees her past self.

Once homeless herself, Gloria is now part of a team of HOPE Atlanta social workers and MARTA field protective specialists who work tirelessly to engage people who have taken refuge on the transit system and connect them with the resources they need to transition out of homelessness.

“The reason why I’m very passionate about my job is because I’ve been homeless before, so I can self-identify with the people I interact with.”

– Gloria Woodard, MARTA HOPE Case Manager

A compassionate approach to a persistent problem

The MARTA + HOPE Atlanta partnership officially launched in August 2020, amid the COVID-19 crisis and nationally spiking homelessness rates. With homelessness suddenly presenting a public health issue as well as a humanitarian one, local agencies and organizations (including HOPE Atlanta and MARTA) quickly mobilized to transition high-risk people sheltering on MARTA and at the airport to designated hotel rooms to quarantine. There, they would receive hot meals and individualized support to help them toward self-sufficiency.

“The airport situation got a little more under control when the hotels were open,” said Timothy Robinson, another HOPE Atlanta case manager, referring to the many people who were riding MARTA to the airport at night seeking a safe place to rest. Last spring, up to 350 people slept on chairs and benches across the airport terminal every night, fueling concerns about a COVID hot spot.

Since then, Hartsfield-Jackson International has moved to restrict overnight access to the airport. Instead of criminalizing homelessness, authorities have emphasized the need to connect individuals experiencing homelessness with shelters and social service agencies. Enter HOPE Atlanta.

A day in the life of a MARTA HOPE case manager

A small office at the Five Points MARTA station serves as MARTA HOPE’s home base. Here, the team counsels clients, coordinates with dozens of other agencies and nonprofits, and stockpiles supplies like food and hygiene kits to offer people they meet — who often have nothing.

It was a hot Monday morning in July when we met Gloria and Timothy, the two case managers on duty. The young man Timothy was assisting in his office was growing increasingly agitated, and tensions soon spilled over into the lobby; Protective Specialist Dunn, on duty at the time, swiftly intervened to defuse the situation.

“It’s a team effort,” said Gloria. “Sometimes people get combative or just downright ugly.”

Not everyone is receptive to HOPE Atlanta’s assistance or willing to go to a shelter, especially during warm weather. Many people experiencing homelessness can’t produce identification or negative COVID and tuberculosis tests, making it frustratingly difficult for them to secure a shelter bed.

The team not only meets with clients in the office, but also makes referrals, and works the phones from their office. They ride the train and streetcars several times per shift, actively seeking out people who need their help. Today they found a receptive audience at the Indian Creek Marta Station, the easternmost stop on the Blue Line.

Timothy helped a 20-year-old man secure bus transport to get to Covenant House, a youth shelter in Atlanta. At the same time, Gloria encouraged another man to get to St. Jude’s Recovery Center, where he could receive detox treatment despite lacking health insurance.

“We’ve been trying to catch him for four months,” Gloria said. They often encounter the same people during their routes, offering compassionate support and letting them know they’re here when they’re ready to receive help.

“They want to know that someone hears them,” she said. “You work hard to get that person to a better place on that particular day.”

After counseling several people, Timothy and Protective Specialist Dinkins (who accompanied the case managers) escorted the first man back to the Five Points station to see that he safely got on the bus to Covenant House.

“I want you to call me when you get there,” Timothy could be heard saying on the train. Besides being many people’s “ticket” into a shelter like Covenant House or Gateway Center, where the MARTA HOPE program has five designated beds, the HOPE Atlanta case managers often become friends to people who have nowhere else to turn.

Once individuals are sheltered and consistently showing up to case management appointments, the HOPE Atlanta team can connect them to programs like Georgia Works, substance abuse treatment, or permanent supportive housing. You can learn more about the team’s process and see them in action by watching MARTA’s video here.

A coordinated response to an overwhelming need

Sadly, they can’t assist everyone. One major challenge Timothy noted is the lack of shelter space for women, who make up around 20% of the unsheltered people he encounters. Many of them have children in tow.

“It hurts my heart when I don’t have somewhere to refer people,” he said.

Still, the team exhausts every possible option to keep them safe, even using patrol cars to escort women to shelters or crisis centers when domestic violence is involved. “Any time I run across women with kids, that’s a high priority,” said Timothy.

Then there is the sheer number of unsheltered people on MARTA and throughout Metro Atlanta. Gloria estimated that, at one point, they would see ten people experiencing homelessness on every train. During the January 2020 Point-In-Time study, volunteers counted 939 unsheltered individuals in Atlanta neighborhoods, though homelessness is also a growing problem outside city limits.

With many experts bracing for an eviction crisis when the federal moratorium expires, the situation could get even worse. Fortunately, MARTA HOPE plans to add resources to meet the need.

MARTA HOPE gains momentum

If word-of-mouth is any indication, the program has been wildly successful.

“People come to the station because they know we are offering assistance,” said Protective Specialist Dinkins. “We go out of our way. We will escort people home, assist with reunification. I’ve had a lot of [MARTA] customers thank us for what we do.”

After learning about the HOPE MARTA partnership last September, an anonymous benefactor donated $500K to further the program’s impact. The gift was instrumental in providing much-needed designated beds and additional case management support. According to HOPE Atlanta CEO Jeff Smythe, the gift was “nothing short of transformational.”

Since the program launched, the team has assisted more than 2,100 individuals and helped to transition more than 498 into permanent housing.

One such person was a young man that Case Manager Vinson Allen encountered in June, asleep on the southbound Gold Line. After engaging the man in conversation, Vinson learned that although he was homeless, he was employed and had recently moved from California to Atlanta seeking a better life for him and his son. While he briefly stayed at the Gateway Center, the HOPE Atlanta team worked tirelessly to find affordable housing for him.

Not only did they find suitable permanent housing for the young man, but they helped him back on his feet by securing money for a deposit and the first month’s rent. Today, he’s working toward his GED and hoping to go to college.

Outcomes like this don’t come easily, but with the community’s continued support, the HOPE MARTA team will continue to fight for as many success stories as possible.

“I’ve seen these people pull some miracles,” said Protective Specialist Dinkins of the MARTA HOPE caseworkers.

Put your HOPE in Action. Be the reason someone sleeps in a bed and not on a train. With your donation, you’ll help us meet a growing need for social services on the MARTA system amid the looming eviction crisis. You’ll help provide HOPE. Donate Now!

Our vision is to end hunger and homelessness for every Georgian.