Community members in District 2 of Atlanta respond to evolving incidents involving a homeless person of color, revealing the city’s dire need for reformed systems and current leadership’s failure to act
ATLANTA — Since July, there have been numerous reports of a man in District 2 in Atlanta following and intimidating multiple women near their homes, workplaces, and local businesses. I am one of those women.
On the morning of Sun., July 26, around 11:30 a.m., I was returning home from a jog, walking down the street outside of my apartment building in the Poncey-Highland area. I was walking headphones-free and responding to a text on my phone when I paused outside my building’s steps and felt someone bump up against me. I turned around and realized a man was directly behind me. Not assuming any foul play and yielding to the idea that perhaps it was my fault for stopping mid-walk, potentially disrupting his path, I apologized. He didn’t respond and I continued to walk up to the door of my building. He continued to follow closely. Still carrying benefit of the doubt and a hope that this wasn’t a serious altercation, I quickly told myself he was probably just coming to visit someone in the building.
He stayed close behind me, his face over my shoulder. I felt myself freeze in not knowing what to say or how to confront the issue, and proceeded to walk to my building’s entrance without a word. I entered the door code to the building as I felt his hand touch my hip and thigh area. He didn’t follow me inside. When I turned around, a bit in shock, I was able to see and realize who it was: a Black homeless man in our neighborhood who frequently hangs outside the neighborhood gas station, a nearby grocery store, and a bench across the street from the apartment building. I recognized him from seeing him around and from buying food for him in the past. Normally, he carries a blanket with him and is dressed down in pajamas or sweat pants. On this day, he was wearing jeans, a shirt, and a hat, with no blanket in hand.
Before I proceed, let me explain why noting this person’s Blackness and my whiteness is relevant to this story. Blackness has not only been criminalized in this country, but it has in part been through the perpetuation of certain narratives that have been prescribed to Black men specifically, particularly in regards to their relationship with white women. The narrative that Black men are a threat to white women has been ingrained in our nation since the first screening of Birth of a Nation following the Civil War, because the confederates were determined to hold Black men to a certain standard: one that is dangerous, one that needs to be controlled, one that is cannibalistic, one that is a threat to not only the safety of our institutions, but to the safety of our country’s white women (who are being controlled, managed, and manipulated by the patriarchy, as well). This myth, this narrative of “they’re raping our women,” serves to not only keep Black men down, but secondarily to keep this certain sect of women down, too.
This construct, completely misguided and controlled, has been perpetuated and instilled in our nation’s population for generations. It contains a deadly history and has been used to justify racists in their terroristic acts of racial violence, as explicitly seen in the case of Dylann Roof.
Cognitively aware of this, I was confronted by my own response — the level of fear I felt — to this interaction with this man outside of my apartment. I am a sexual trauma survivor, with two events in my teenage years that are formative experiences in regards to how I relate with men in the world. The first incident involved a Black man who attempted to assault me, but I managed to escape. The second case involved a white man, and that time, I was not able to escape. After months of seeking within and years of therapy and recognizing my own internalized racism that was instilled in me through public school systems in the suburbs, the media, and our own government, I arrived at an important realization: my abuser when I was a teenager was white, but somehow, someway, I learned to trust white men again, to a certain extent (a level of trust which is also currently being deprogrammed). However, society did not grant me that opportunity with Black men; and there’s a reason for that, as explained above. These types of realizations and the work that leads to these realizations are, truthfully, a vital part of the anti-racism work white women need to do.
Calling 911 in response to this incident momentarily appeared in my mind, because that is what we are trained to do. I rejected it. In a panicked response, I contacted a couple people only to be told that I “absolutely needed to call 911,” because the police needed a report of the incident. When I resisted the suggestion to call 911, I was told to modify my behavior — “you need to take this seriously,” “be aware of your surroundings,” “carry some mace”. This is characteristic of our country’s rape culture (which goes beyond matters of sexual assault) in promoting impunity and implying blame on the person violated rather than offering a concrete solution to address what led to the incident. This didn’t surprise me, but it was nonetheless equally as frustrating as the first time I’d ever experienced it when I was a girl.
Rayshard Brooks — unarmed, Black, and 27 years old — was killed by APD Officer Garrett Rolfe not long prior to this incident on the night of June 12. Since I was covering local news and Atlanta City Council rather rigorously at the time, tracing local government’s movements in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and its demands to defund the police, I was extremely attuned to the fact that nothing meaningful had been done to rectify APD’s dangerous flaws or achieve justice. The APD, to my knowledge gained from reporting and consequential research into entities like the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, showed that officers with violent histories, sexual assault complaints, mistreatment incidents, and more in their jackets are still employed in the force. Further, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had vetoed the unanimously City Council passed 8 Can’t Wait legislation and tanked the Rayshard Brooks Bill.
Nothing had been done in the city of Atlanta to address its issues of police brutality or to give me any reason to trust the APD as a whole. After expressing this to some, it was still suggested I drop these notions. I held my ground, refused, and sought out alternative options to calling 911. I called the Georgia Crisis Hotline, which did not ultimately lead to a solution, but that was a result that I expected. I reached out to my leasing office, notifying them of the incident and to ask if they could change the door codes to our building. I was told it would be two weeks; the door codes have still not been changed, despite the fact I sent another email weeks later attempting to apply more pressure.
Feeling as though I didn’t have the emotional or mental bandwidth to further address the situation, I resorted to simply avoid the man in our neighborhood. I later spoke with a close friend relaying the experience and things I noted in the man’s behavior. Being a longtime professional in the field of mental health, they told me there was a very good chance this person could be suffering from psychosis or a stage of schizophrenia. I was told if he was in fact experiencing this, it’s best to not purchase him food, because it could register to him that it’s okay to follow me and diminish certain boundaries. I was told to speak up in the moment if it happened again. To be clear, I haven’t come across any formal record pertaining to this person and their mental state; this is merely based on observations in mine and others’ experiences.
On Tue., Aug. 18, I was returning home from another jog around the same time. The same man was walking towards me on the same street outside my building. I moved into the street to maintain six feet, as my jogs are the only time I don’t wear a mask when I go out. He immediately turned around to follow me and started to accelerate his pace. I walked up the stairs outside my building and he followed me up, getting closer. One of the maintenance workers and an Amazon Prime delivery driver were outside, noting the interaction. The maintenance man intervened and asked if I was okay. I snapped out of my flight response and was able to respond, turning around to the man saying this was not okay and he needed to stop. The maintenance guy approached him more firmly, ultimately shooing him off and sending him on his way.
I took a minute to speak with the maintenance man and asked what he thought I should do. I remained clear I did not want to call 911 on a Black man who appeared to me and others to be mentally ill. Police are simply not equipped to handle events that involve people who are suffering from a mental illness, especially if they are untreated or behaving erratically, which was tragically demonstrated in the Aug. 2019 police killing of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colo., and many others.
When it comes to mental illness, history may explain why someone may be picked up, detained, and released into the streets again, even if it’s clear they are mentally ill and need help. Or in other cases, they may not be released and simply pitted into the machine of mass incarceration if the charges are severe enough to deem them a threat to society, themselves, or others.
The criminalization of mental illness in the U.S. can be traced back decades, but it was especially sparked in the 1950s and 1960s with the trend of deinstitutionalization of mental health patients and the abolition of state sanctioned mental hospitals with nothing substantial to take their place. The closure of U.S. psychiatric facilities left entire populations of patients to turn elsewhere to have their needs and care met. Simultaneously, over the years, state mental health budget cuts have continued across the country and were identified as a national crisis in a report by NAMI in March 2011. Community programs have become increasingly underfunded, under-resourced, and unprioritized on local, state, and federal levels, meaning that mental health is going severely untreated in America, with a population of about 45 million Americans suffering from some form of mental illness. Add this to the ongoing health care crisis in the country, with nearly 90 million people either uninsured or underinsured, and we have the makings of a very sick and untreated nation with no access to material resources to better their standards of living unless they have the means for it. This in turn singles out the growing homeless population in our country, who are deadlocked in a system of oppression that seeks to put down Black communities, the poor, and the marginalized, too many times with no way out.
In Georgia, there are five support centers for people with mental health problems, which faced a $1 million budget cut for fiscal year 2021 during the public health crisis of COVID-19. Further, in Atlanta, the homeless population, which is overwhelmingly Black, continue to not be provided for or widely considered. In Georgia, there are 9,499 people homeless on a given night; in Atlanta, that number is 3,076. In the city, we are confronted with many issues concerning the homeless and those that are additionally mentally ill; namely, that there is not enough access to beds in shelters for them to stay due to limiting policy. For example, in Atlanta, a homeless person must have a valid ID in order to stay in a shelter, which is difficult to attain when living without an address This is one of the reasons why the city has so many empty beds and yet thousands of homeless people on the streets.
To make matters worse, Atlanta legislation has consistently worked to crack down on the homeless and even passed legislation criminalizing the very act of providing food to them. Mayor Bottoms has been a longtime supporter of these types of legislation, stating in 2012 about an aggressive anti-panhandling law that, “This is not heartless legislation.” She then pointed to the city’s initiatives and services maintained to help the homeless; and yet, in this particular case, there was nowhere for me or other residents to turn to other than the police. Because of the way our system is set up — after years of defunding mental health services and consistently placing barriers to the homeless to actually receive help or find shelter — there is no way to not involve the APD. In Atlanta, an option in the past would have been to call Grady mental health services to come and assist. That particular unit has been disbanded.
This means that citizens are practically forced to participate with an institution whose very conception is rooted in racism and continuing legalized slavery, or what we know today as mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, and the school-to-prison pipeline. As these issues concerning mental health, the health care crisis, and homelessness continue to escalate and devolve with less and less funding or resources going in — while the police and its respective departments continue to receive pay raises and increases in funding — individuals remain untreated and together, we are pitted into dangerous situations, like the one we see escalating in Atlanta’s second district.
One of the greatest forms of resistance to oppressive systems is to refuse to participate in them. As I was repeatedly told to consider calling 911, it was important for me to remember what could potentially be on the other side of that phone call beyond the potential of police brutality, which is only one existential threat to Black people in America. Not to mention, we are still living during the COVID-19 pandemic, and conditions for incarcerated persons have proven to be deplorable, unsafe, and deadly. While my personal encounters with this man were alarming and frightening, it did not outweigh the fear I felt of what could happen next.
My roommate helped me by contacting United Way, National Alliance Mental Health and Illness (NAMI), Community Friendship, Inc., and the Salvation Army, in hopes of finding a long term solution that included this man getting the help he needs. While we learned some valuable information along the way, like the fact that you can request a CIT-trained officer who is trained to assist in matters concerning mental health, those were ultimately a dead end.
I later got in touch with Councilmember Amir Farokhi to alert him of what was going on in his district. I spoke with him that week and was again urged to call 911, while I continued to insist on other solutions that could potentially help the situation. I was told he would be in contact with our police precinct in Zone 6 as well as a local church that has relationships with the homeless people in the neighborhood. I also reached out to another contact in Atlanta City Council who has ties with homeless advocacy groups in the city. Again, these organizations don’t have much power or resources to do much.
I contacted our leasing office after the second incident, and was again encouraged to call 911. At this point I was frustrated with almost everyone I was in contact with that went to this non-solution so quickly. After months and months of seeing communities en masse touting Black Lives Matter memes, educational one-liners, and claims to personal responsibility in our nation’s racist systems, when push came to shove, it felt like awareness had availed us nothing. As soon as discomfort arrived on my doorstep, despite everything we’d seen since Floyd was murdered, I was encouraged to submit to the very system that killed him and countless other Black Americans to seek help.
I continued to seek other options and talk with others about what was happening. The events that day led me to speak with another resident and friend of mine who told me she had similar interactions with this man. She shared her experiences which involved the individual following her closely and staring at her in the area outside her apartment. On Tue., Sept. 1, she let me know that around 8:30 a.m., he had followed her into traffic right outside her building.
I followed up with Councilmember Farokhi, applying a little more pressure. This time I was not interested in more numbers to call, because the fact is once city leaders are alerted of a public safety issue, it becomes their responsibility; not the burden of those who are being violated and experiencing interactions that are in and of themselves emotionally and mentally taxing, trauma inducing, and tenuous. I was offered an apology and a more thoughtful response, which I didn’t deem disingenuous. Nonetheless, it wasn’t indicative of any tangible progress. Throughout the weeks, the most significant update I’ve received from Farokhi is that a homeless organization has begun to build a relationship with the man, but it takes time before anything concrete can be done. As far as Zone 6 goes, he said they are currently undergoing leadership transitions, so no movement there.
That week, the other resident and I met to discuss what to do as we continued to feel outside sources to be of little help. The general response to the situation had been “our hands are tied and there’s nothing we can do.” Our sense of safety and security in our neighborhood was dwindling while interactions between her and this person were increasing and becoming more aggressive in nature. Although she has not been physically harmed, we were concerned that this man’s state of mind was deteriorating, as hers and other cases showed an escalation in becoming more hostile. We reluctantly agreed to visit our district’s police precinct to file a report, with hopes that it would be taken more seriously.
Upon our arrival to the Zone 6 precinct, we saw a sign that said it was closed due to “recent events,” which we later learned was a reference to COVID-19. A plain-clothed officer with a badge stepped out to ask us what we were there for. We explained that a man was following and stalking women in our neighborhood and wanted to file a report. He said, “That’s fine,” and directed us inside. We walked in to see two officers, unmasked, on their way out and spoke with a young woman behind the desk, who was confused as to why we were let inside. We were instructed to file a police report online. When doing so, we learned that you can not file a report of in-person harassment; the only types of harassment you can file online are incidents that occur via text messages, phone calls, or emails.
I was then connected with another woman who shared on Facebook about a recent encounter with the same man, providing the same physical description with me on the phone. It was in this conversation I learned the man’s name and learned that although he’s been unresponsive with me and other women, some folks in the neighborhood were able to engage with him. She shared with me that there had also been numerous reports of his behavior on the Next Door app all sounding similar. One report described an instance where he pushed a woman’s stroller over and another where he publicly masturbated in front of another woman. All of these incidents, to my knowledge, occurred during broad daylight. This woman shared that she since learned he has a police record.
Feeling completely powerless, I chose to speak with businesses in the neighborhood to learn more and provide information about the situation. I wrote a letter explaining certain incidents, sharing what’s been attempted in the way of solution, and the resources available that I knew of. I distributed that letter and spoke with business owners and local employees in an effort to get the community on the same page. It was an attempt to create a sense of community around the issue, inform people of their options, and culminate a greater sense of safety for residents and visitors of the area. While my personal stance remained to not call 911, I knew I couldn’t control what other people did in response to this person’s behavior, especially as it appeared to be getting worse. I provided the information pertaining to CIT-trained officers as well as what to do if you ever witness police mistreatment, brutality, or abuse of power, praying that wouldn’t be the case.
What I learned as I canvassed the neighborhood and spoke with multiple people confirmed something I suspected all along: that there were more women who experienced this and that at some point, police had been involved. One incident, as it was described to me, involved a woman being chased to her car; she called 911 and he was detained, reportedly being released a week or so later. The guys who work the counter at the local gas station told me the police told them they had called 911 on this individual too many times. Meanwhile, residents in the apartment building feel unsafe to leave their homes while another individual may be continuing to suffer from a condition that could lead him to harming someone else and himself in the process.
All in all, it appears that distributing the letter did something. Members of the community and business owners are now at least more informed and on the same page of what to do if another situation arises, all with the intention of not wanting anyone to get hurt — including the person who’s been engaging in concerning behavior. Business owners and employees appear to be on high alert, and while I do not currently know of this man’s whereabouts, I feel something that resembles safety as I leave my home to go on a jog or to my car.
Efforts like this in the interest of promoting public safety are, ultimately, something that should be done by public servants who are appointed to serve their communities. And in Atlanta, apparently, that doesn’t necessarily include the police. Currently, only a small percentage of APD officers live in the city they are policing. Further, let’s not forget the massive walk out that occurred within the APD in protest to the murder charges brought forth on Rolfe following Brooks’ death, or the officers’ $500 bonus that followed. This is the police force Atlanta taxpayers pay for. The calls to action for resolutions to solve systemic issues concerning Black communities, poor communities, the homeless, and mental health from community organizers, activists, and organizations have resounded in Atlanta long before the murders of George Floyd and Brooks. And the silence from Atlanta City Council and the Mayor’s Office in the wake of these demands has been even more deafening.
In this particular case, it is patently clear that our current systems do not consider and much less actually show up for the marginalized: women, Black people, homeless, and mentally ill. And let’s be honest: if this man had vandalized public or private property, I would be writing an entirely different article. If I were calling members of City Council threatening to take my property, business, and wealth (things I don’t have) to another city, maybe more action would be taken. It wasn’t that long ago we saw the council swiftly pass legislation in response to a handful of Buckhead residents’ threats and concerns regarding the matter of street racing. But women coming forward saying they’ve been harassed, followed, and even touched by someone who is clearly mentally ill and is in need of immediate help? Silence, apathy, a lot of runaround, and a lot of “this is what you should do.”
Since the perspective of a woman is the only one I can speak to personally, the situation further illuminated to me that our system’s resistance to support women is yet another means to keep us down. Throughout my research and personal experience here, I experienced defeat, discouragement, trauma, difficulty eating, and debilitating anxiety — all hindering my ability to show up to work and speak out in a society that perpetuates those very things. In this case, the community was able to come together and show up in some capacity to provide a greater sense of safety; it was not the police and not City Council. Since I distributed the letter, I have not had an altercation with this individual or have received any further updates from other women, business owners, or neighbors regarding this matter.
While I do not have the answers to what seems to be insurmountable problems in our society, I do know this: protections for women’s safety, the mentally ill, homeless, and Black people are things that should be able to coexist. The means for that to happen would involve major systemic adjustments and reform, reparations, and transformation in local, state, and national political representation. None of these things will come to fruition as long as our current bureaucratic and legal systems place patriarchal and capitalist standards and principles above all else.
Further, that change will not arrive unless we begin to do the work ourselves and continue to push against the grain of what we’ve been taught and told — including the instruction to call 911 for every inconvenience, perceived threat, or societal impairment. It is important to pause and consider what is showing up within us that is prompting us to make that call, whether it’s a preconceived notion of someone who is mentally ill or Black, a personal issue, a past trauma, or plain misunderstanding. It is important to seek other solutions, even if there might not be any that resolve whatever discomfort and inconvenience we might feel in the very moment. It is important to recognize the myths and the constructs that are at play because someone’s very life could be at risk on the other end of the line. And this, white and white-passing friends, is something we will never, ever fully understand; but these are concepts we need to begin to internalize. If you want the police defunded, act like it. Own it. Make a point. Because as long as we keep showing up for these systems, its enablers will feel no real pressure to change them and they will continue to thrive. And they have to be stopped.