MARTA’s panhandling problem

By Tom Sabulis

After a weekend in New York, I caught an early plane home to Atlanta Monday morning. As I was coming up the escalator to the MARTA train platform, I saw a man standing in the doorway of my North Springs train. He was politely, if loudly, asking fellow travelers where they were going on the system, and then directing them to either the Doraville or North Springs trains, both idling at the station.

If a person piped up “Midtown,” he would reply, “Either train, 11 stops.” “Five Points?” “Seven stops.” “Sandy Springs? Get on here.”

Not thinking anything about it at first, I happened to board the car the man was occupying. And as he continued to solicit travelers and give out information — quickly and quite accurately  — I thought to myself, “Dang, MARTA is really stepping up its service.”

Almost simultaneously, the truth dawned on me.

Even though the man was dressed in a dark blue windbreaker and trousers, looking and sounding the ambassadorial part, his manner was a bit too insistent. And a little too loud. And, as I predicted to myself, once the train doors closed, our ride into the city became his panhandling opportunity. To his now-trapped audience, the man explained that he was homeless, that he did what he did to help out, and that he was looking for some handouts. And he wasn’t shy about it. There were several visitors to the city on the train, evident by the maps, phone apps and meeting schedules they were consulting, and their perplexed, eyes-darting reaction to the guy’s true identity was painful for an Atlantan to watch.

What a first impression. What an embarrassment. A freelancer practically takes over the terminus of the region’s biggest transit agency, posing as a traveler’s aide at the world’s busiest airport, and tries to fleece the conventioneers and tourists the city so desperately courts to come here. The most infuriating part of it is that a few uniformed MARTA employees walked right by him on the platform as he conducted his spiel, and did nothing. Nor were there any MARTA police officers nearby to tell him to knock it off. As the train left the station, he made his pitch to the riders, then departed at the first stop, probably circling back to the airport to start all over again.

Despite its “Ride With Respect” PR campaign, now over a year old, MARTA’s improving service still has a begging problem, at least in the experience of this weekday rider. The agency has tried to fight it with “see something, say something” public-service announcements and emergency contact phone numbers. But, in reality, these mendicants are flash nuisances, gone by the time you think to call something in. Probably nothing will ever stop them, be it on the Dunwoody platform, on a moving train, or at the airport.

In this case, this guy’s performance, as creative as it was, went on long enough that it should have been stopped. Did I think to alert someone? No. But it’s not my job to police MARTA. They have paid uniforms for that. They need to make themselves more present. Or at the very least stop this official Atlanta greeter.


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