Community-based care and support are foundational in addressing the systemic issues in our country that lead to homelessness, poverty, and overall lack of access to basic needs. Instead of offering support to help an individual, police often arrest individuals experiencing homelessness, substance use, or mental health issues.
Lack of access to basic needs and facilities forces people to commit “quality of life” offenses. These offenses can specifically target people experiencing homelessness, criminalizing vagrancy, and loitering. Bathing in public or using the streets to go to the bathroom in a city like Atlanta, which offers only two public restrooms, are also common offenses. Quality-of-life offenses are common, low-level, nonviolent offenses that call for an alternative to arrest, known as pre-arrest diversion.
Pre-arrest diversion is an alternative to arresting individuals who could be charged with a low-level, nonviolent offense and show a clear need for assistance. If the police have probable cause to arrest someone, they may be able to identify that the individual needs support. This can be support for people experiencing needs related to substance use, mental health, or extreme poverty.
Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD) is an Atlanta-based organization that offers alternative policing and strives to mend a system that leads people to experience extreme poverty, substance use, and mental health crises. PAD was born thanks to queer and trans people of color, led by the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaPCO). In 2017, with unanimous approval from the Atlanta City Council and Fulton County Board of Commissioners, PAD was launched as a non-profit that partners with the city and county.
SNaP Co and its affiliated organizations are leading Atlantans to reform the city’s criminal justice system and offer more reliable, effective options for public safety. In 2021, they launched Community Response Services with ATL311. Community members in Atlanta can call 311 regarding issues of community concern related to behavioral health or poverty. PAD’s Harm Reduction team responds to the referral request, engages the person, and assesses their needs – whether that’s a warm meal, clean clothes, or transportation to a shelter.
As an organization led by queer and trans people of color, the call for reforming the criminal justice system is deeply rooted in fact, trans and queer people are disproportionately subjected to police brutality and violence in their communities.
When it comes to responding to calls, Moki Marcias, Executive Director of PAD, said, “We have to recognize that officers are under a lot of pressure to, when they show up, make the problem go away, and in these types of situations [that often means] making that person go away.”
The problem, however, is not the individual. Individuals experiencing trauma, such as extreme poverty or living without shelter and/or food, are not always equipped to deal with these issues independently.
In the state of Georgia, there are reportedly 10,000 people experiencing homelessness, a third of which reside in Atlanta. According to Atlanta Mission, a Christian organization that seeks to empower Atlanta’s most in-need residents, 81 percent of that population have experienced physical or sexual abuse, and a majority report symptoms of trauma and/or have a chronic medical condition.
According to Marcias, criminal trespassing is the most common quality-of-life offense that police encounter. Criminal trespassing can describe someone seeking shelter or rest where their presence is considered unlawful, from private property to public parks.
At the responding officer’s discretion and with consent from the person in need of aid, they can be referred to PAD to get the help they need.
With the individual’s consent, PAD will arrive to offer support in numerous ways. If someone needs immediate shelter and basic needs (clothes, food, cell phone), PAD offers emergency shelter, transportation, and food assistance. People with open and eligible criminal cases in the City of Atlanta or Fulton County are provided with long-term case management, legal navigation, and housing support.
To provide long-term support, PAD offers care navigation, recovery support, employment, and service providers to help recover identification documents. Care navigation is essential to empowering those in the community that needs help. PAD reported in August that 436 participants were enrolled in care navigation.
Participants with PAD for longer than six months benefit from the support provided. In August, 86 of the 89 active participants were not arrested or cited by Atlanta police. Marcias believes that the continued success and sustainability of programs like PAD rely on support from the community.
“The point is: what community members in the city of Atlanta want is to have options like PAD,” Marcias said. “It’s up to the people to say, ‘This is what we want. This is where we want our public dollars to go. This is what we want our policies to respond to. This is what our communities, as a whole, deserve to better meet our needs.’”
Working closely with the MARTA and Atlanta Police Departments, among other city institutions, to educate on how most effectively to address and identify situations where an individual requires care and support, PAD accepts pre-arrest diversion referrals from the Atlanta Police Department, MARTA, and Georgia Tech. As a community member, you can refer an individual by calling 311 for non-emergency assistance (police do not respond to 311 calls).
You can see the PAD team in this year’s Pride Parade on Sunday, October 9. If you want to learn more about supporting the mission of PAD, visit atlantapad.org. For community outreach, you can email the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org.