By John Cole Vodicka
On Saturday, I came across Nancy G. as she walked along Hawthorne Avenue. We stopped to talk. She told me it was her birthday. She allowed me to take her photo.
On June 25, 2021, thanks to a community bail initiative my church (Oconee Street UMC) has established, I was able to post bond for Nancy G. It cost $33 to get this 54-year-old woman out of the Clarke County jail. She’d spent 13 days behind bars because she was penniless and unable to purchase her release from bondage. Charged with two misdemeanors, one loosely involving “family violence,” state law now requires magistrate judges to set a good security (cash) bond in every case where family violence is alleged. In this instance, Magistrate Judge Benjamin Makin purposely set Ms. G.’s bond at the low end of the scale: $10 on each misdemeanor charge. Our sheriff’s office adds a $13 “transaction” fee to these small money bonds. Hence, on June 25 I forked over $33 to a deputy sheriff at the jail, signed a few pieces of paper, and met Nancy G. for the first time as she walked through the steel door that had separated her from the free world for almost two weeks.
I wrote about Nancy G.’s “liberation” two weeks ago. After posting her cash bond and waiting over an hour for Ms. G. to be “processed” out of the jail, she and I put our heads together in the jail parking lot to decide how we should proceed. In my mind, we needed to set a few priorities. For me, a first order of business was to find shelter for this vulnerable woman. For Ms. G., her immediate need was a cigarette. “Do you smoke?” was one of the first questions she asked me.
Second on my priority list was to help Nancy G. make good on the conditions of the bond issued by Judge Makin: She needed to establish a mailing address at the Athens Homeless Day Shelter and, second, make an appointment with Advantage Behavioral Health Services. Nancy G. wanted a cigarette.
In the car, Ms. G. pulled a sparkly necklace, earrings, and several other pieces of jewelry from her plastic property bag. “Do you like the necklace?” she asked me. We drove to the North Avenue location of the Day Shelter and spoke with an employee who added her name to their lengthy list of homeless women and men needing a fixed mailing address. Luckily, we were also able to rustle up a couple of leftover breakfast sandwiches, donations from nearby fast food restaurant. “That’ll be my lunch,” Ms. G. smiled. “I need a pair of socks,” she added.
There were no socks to be found but, thanks to a woman sitting at a table outside the Day Shelter, we obtained one precious cigarette.
I offered to take Ms. G. to Advantage Behavioral Health Services but, taking a deep draw from the cigarette, she declined. “The papers say I have three days to go to Advantage,” she advised me, correctly. “I can get there on Monday. I know the bus routes.”
She also told me she’d ride the bus to Salvation Army later that afternoon to try and access a shelter bed there. Or she’d walk down North Avenue to Bigger Vision, another overnight shelter facility. “I’ll be fine,” Nancy G. assured me.
I gave Ms. G. my business card and insisted that she call me to let me know she was safe and had found shelter for the weekend. I reminded her that she was scheduled to be arraigned in State Court on July 8 and that the magistrate judge had barred her from an apartment complex off the Atlanta Highway. “I’ll be fine. Thank you so much.” We hugged, and I drove away.
I have to confess I left Nancy G. that morning feeling that by bailing her out of jail – after all, until I came to her rescue the system had completely failed her by caging her and forgetting about her for nearly two weeks – I’d done my job. “She’s a savvy person,” I told myself, and despite her physical and mental health disabilities, she’d navigated the streets of Athens before and she’ll land on her feet somewhere this time. “She can manage on her own,” I convinced myself as I drove home.
Nancy G. called me several times in the days after she was released from jail. She didn’t have a cellphone, so she relied on other folks’ generosity to make the calls. She told me she’d found somewhere to sleep with a friend the first night out, and that she was “doing fine, staying safe.” She’d gone to Salvation Army but was told she wouldn’t be able to access a bed there until Monday, still two days away. She promised to call again when she found shelter.
And she did call one more time, that following Monday afternoon, to tell me she had spent much of the day at The Sparrow’s Nest on Prince Avenue. “I took a shower. I was able to do my laundry. I got a pair of red and white shoes.”
But she hadn’t yet checked in with Advantage and was still uncertain whether she had a bed at Salvation Army. But again, she assured me she was doing alright and felt safe.
After that second telephone call I heard nothing more from her. She didn’t have a phone, so perhaps that’s why she hadn’t been in touch with me. Or she’d lost my business card. Maybe she was safe and housed now and feeling no need to check in with me. But last week, as her July 8 court date grew closer, I began searching for Ms. G. I visited the Sparrow’s Nest, the Homeless Day Shelter and Salvation Army, but there was no sign of her.
On the day before her scheduled arraignment, July 7, I was on my way to the courthouse to observe first appearance hearings in Magistrate Court. As I approached Prince and Pulaski, traffic had slowed to a crawl while a lone figure was slowly jaywalkng across Prince Street, holding a hand up to encourage automobiles to stop. It was Nancy G. As she walked toward the Golden Pantry store, I made a U-turn and drove into the store’s parking lot and hopped out of the car. She greeted me warmly. She told me she was doing “okay.” She apologized for not being in touch but said that she’d lost my phone number. She’d also had her necklace stolen since I saw her last. To replace it she now wore a leather shoestring tied around her neck with a key chain-sized Kroger card dangling like a pendant. She gave me a wry smile. “Do you like it?” She was wearing different clothing than when I first met her at the jail, including a new pair of red and white shoes. She told me she’d been denied shelter at Salvation Army and was camping in a wooded lot off of the Atlanta Highway. “People are so mean,” she advised.
I reminded her that her court date was the next morning. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, that,” she remarked, and then informed me, “I’m down to my last dollar.” I gave her a couple of bucks and she wandered into the Golden Pantry.
I drove to the courthouse where, later that morning, I talked with the public defender who will be representing Nancy G. going forward. I told him I thought the odds were not very good that his client would show up the next day.
Indeed, Ms. G. was not present at her State Court arraignment on July 8. I was there. After the lengthy arraignment docket had been called, Ms. G.’s lawyer assured State Court Judge Ethelyn Simpson that his homeless client would show up for her next court date and urged the judge not to issue a bench warrant for her arrest. I also was able to briefly address the Court, letting the judge and prosecutor know that I had been in contact with Ms. G. and would continue to assist her where I could. Judge Simpson did not issue the arrest warrant, instead ordering that Ms. G. next appear on Friday, July 23.
I’m not feeling very optimistic that Nancy G. will show up voluntarily for her new court date. It’s certainly important that she do so, if for no other reason than to avoid being sent back to jail. But even if Ms. G.’s mind and body were functioning well – that is, if she weren’t paranoid and delusional, without money and transportation – I don’t think she’d be convinced it was in her best interest to ever set foot in an ACC courtroom.
Since her “non-appearance” in court on Thursday, I’ve looked at Nancy G.’s rap sheet on the Clerk of Court’s website. Her criminal history – that is, her journey through Misdemeanorland – started 17 years ago, when she was 36 years old.
In July 2004, Ms. G. was arrested for “theft by receiving stolen property,” “operating a vehicle without a tag” and “driving the wrong way on a one-way road.” All three charges were misdemeanors. The theft accusation filed against her stated that she received “property which she should have known was stolen.” She pleaded guilty to that charge and was sentenced to 12 months on probation. The court ordered that she “continue with treatment at Advantage,” indicating that her mental health was of concern.
Less than two months later, in September 2004, Ms. G. was arrested for misdemeanor criminal trespassing. The Athens Housing Authority had barred her from their properties, and she violated that order. She spent 37 days in jail before pleading nolo contendere and was sentenced to 60 days confinement, credit for time already served. There was no mention of her mental health needs in the sentencing order.
A decade later (the website shows no run-ins with the law between 2005-2015), Ms. G. was arrested again for trespassing. This time she violated a barring order from Salvation Army. She went to jail for a week, plead guilty and was sentenced to time served. The court also ordered that she pay $50 to something called a “Drug Education Fund.” Go figure. The judge made no mention of mental health treatment.
In August 2016, Ms. G. went to jail after trespassing at the CVS store on Oglethorpe Avenue. She plead guilty and was sentenced to 20 days in jail. Again, no mention of any mental health issues.
One month later, September 15, 2016, she was arrested for shoplifting at Bell’s grocery store. In October, she plead guilty and received a 12-month probation sentence.
Just one week after that, she was jailed for trespassing at the Eastside Coin Laundry. Another guilty plea, 30 days confinement, 12 months on probation to run consecutive with the previous shoplifting sentence. She was ordered to pay the $45 per month probation fee. The court barred her from the Eastside Coin Laundry and all of downtown Athens. In this sentence though, the judge ordered that she “be transported from the Clarke County jail to Advantage Behavioral Health, participate in the treatment court and take all medications prescribed.”
From that point until her most recent arrest last month, Nancy G.’s criminal history showed no more arrests, jail time, or misdemeanor convictions. Could it be that her mental health needs were being adequately addressed during the last four years? And if they were, what happened that sent this woman into a tailspin?
On Saturday, I went looking again for Ms. G. I wanted to let her know what happened in State Court on last Thursday and tell her she now had a July 23 court date in her future, and that I thought it wise if she and I made an appointment to meet with her public defender.
First, I drove to an area west of downtown where Ms. G. had told me she was camping. I think I found the campsite, but no Nancy G. I drove to The Sparrow’s Nest. No luck there either. Same result at the Athens Homeless Day Shelter. On my way home Saturday afternoon, driving on Hawthorne – lo and behold – appearing in front of me was Nancy G.! She was walking very slowly along the sidewalk, a large plastic bag dangling from one arm. I honked the horn, pulled into the Family Dollar to park the car and walked a half-block to meet her. She smiled as I approached and called her name. She did not look well at all.
I explained that she had to be in court in a couple of weeks and it would be a good opportunity to talk about her case with her appointed attorney. I gave her another of my business cards and scribbled the lawyer’s name and phone number on the back. I asked her where she was sleeping. “On a park bench,” she said. I asked her where she was going. “I walk one side of the street and then come back on the other,” she said, pointing to Hawthorne. “Will you help me cross over?” She handed me flyers that she’d pilfered at the nearby used tire shop, and with a twinkle in her eye, gave me a small strand of electrical cord she said would hot wire “her” truck.
She smiled and told me it was her birthday. I congratulated her. We hugged. I gave her a little celebratory money. At that, she thanked me and promised to call me before her court date. She turned and walked toward the Family Dollar. As I watched her enter the store, I couldn’t help but notice the sign bolted to the outside wall. It read: NO LOITERING. NO SOLICITING. NO PANHANDLING. Violators will be prosecuted.
Curious when I returned home, I went onto the Clerk of Court website again. I checked out Nancy G.’s birthdate. It isn’t until next month.
As of Monday, 346 women and men were confined in the Clarke County jail.
258 of this total were African American. There were also 10 Latinx people behind bars.
32 women were locked away in our jail.
One 73-year-old – George F. – remained in custody, along with one 67-year-old, one 66-year-old, one 65-year-old, one 63-year-old and two 62-year-olds.
All told,46 people 50 years old and older were in confinement.
There were four 18-year-olds and nine 17-year-olds in jail.
A 15-year-old, Marquise M. was incarcerated in the Rockdale (near Conyers) kiddie prison, charged as an adult with murder.
Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 106 people into the jail, 73 of whom were BIPOC. The oldest person arrested last week was 67. The youngest was 17 years old.
John Cole Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street UMC and is one of the leaders of the Courtwatch program.