In recent weeks, the issue of ubiquitous youths selling water at Atlanta’s intersections and highway exit ramps has become a tale of society cracking at the fringes.
At first glance, the young entrepreneurs are employing American capitalism at its most basic: They’re buying low and selling high, and providing a needed product. A case of 24 bottles costs five bucks and can earn you $24. It’s a profit margin that would make Apple execs salivate.
Most are from poor homes with a whole litany of struggles and travail. So you can’t help but root for them.
But this summer, something has changed. Groups of teens and young men (but mostly youths) are converging on corners and getting more insistent, even aggressive in their tactics, grabbing the vehicles, pounding on windows and standing in front of cars to allow their marketing pitches to continue. Some have spilled over to criminality. In a recent story, Channel 2 Action News said Atlanta police have investigated two dozen incidents involving water sellers since June 10, including at least two shootings and a handful of teens with guns threatening people. An 18-year-old water seller was shot to death arguing over $10.
It has caused Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to call for cops to run them from the streets while a city task force figures out what to do. The move came after Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore called for action, having received complaints from irate and frightened motorists.
“It has just gotten out of hand,” Moore said. “I saw 20 or 30 in one place and was like, ‘This has to stop.‘“
She and others venture theories about what has happened: There are no summer jobs or sports programs. They feel the pinch from the recession. There are more kids selling, so they’re more competitive. The pandemic cooped them up and then pushed them to the streets.
Harris Lamar feels all that. He works security at the BP station at the corner of Northside and Joseph E. Boone and now wears a bulletproof vest after getting threats for calling the cops on a teen with a gun. The teen was arrested but quickly released.
Lamar said things got crazy a month ago when “a different group came up, saw opportunity, pushed the other kids away and took over that corner.”
He said the station’s customers are now afraid to come there, having had teens converge on them. “The problem with these kids is they are unmanageable.”
Lamar said the troublemakers have largely drifted away since Boyd arrived at the corner. “They’re being controlled, but for how long?” he asked “They’ll go back to street behavior because that’s what they know.”
Boyd has been mentoring teens for years and approached this group with the intention of imparting life skills. At first they pushed back. “How you gonna make us more money?” they asked.
In talking with several of them this week I saw some business acumen and a will to hustle on hot Atlanta pavement.
Sheldon Peoples, 16, said, “Each person is his own management,” adding, “You have to know how to talk to (drivers). You have to have energy. You have to smile.”
Teek Smith, 17, takes an Uber to the corner. He’s been selling for four years and can make $100 or even $200 a day.
I asked if that’s net or gross? He shrugged. “I don’t count what I spend,” he said. “I count what I have in my pocket.”
Boyd smiled and said a business lesson is in order.
“Every day it’s a different set of rules,” Boyd said. “Each corner is its own turf. It’s all different how they split the money. How they don’t. Who gets each corner. How they do it.”
Boyd uses some of that as real life lessons. The average traffic light revolution is 27 seconds, he said. “We timed it. It was a math lesson. You have to figure the number of cars and how many sales. You have to do transactions in three to five seconds.”
He taught in Atlanta schools for AmeriCorps while laid off from Lockheed and learned to reach youths with hands-on teaching, such as bringing 3/4-inch and 7/16-inch wrenches to teach fractions. He and others have formed HEY (Helping Empower Youth) and have brought teens to his garage to enthuse some with basic mechanics.
Some even phoned him to return to the corner. “They just don’t have enough options,” Boyd said. “They haven’t been in school for months. They basically have no supervision.”
Walter Jordan, a restaurant consultant, has also jumped in. He helped two teens get jobs with a restaurant down the street. They made it one day, he said, and never returned. It seems the comparative low pay and structure of a job is daunting.
Jordan said this corner has all the ills inner-city youths face: Hunger, poverty, poor education. “The problem is many have not spent time with a man. They don’t know their fathers,” he said.
Jordan, like Boyd, is trying to organize them. “I’m buying them belts because I’m not going to let them go to cars selling water with their pants hanging low.”
Why is he there? “I saw some of me in them. The entrepreneurial spirit. I sold candy at school,” Jordan said. “When you look at these kids, there are those with no hope. No one is talking to them. We can’t give up on them.”
“I know some of them will disappoint me. But if I can save one, I’ll be doing my job.”
More of Atlanta’s corners could use a Mark KD Boyd or a Walter Jordan.