COLE THALER | December 11, 2017
Safe and Stable Homes Director Cole Thaler tells the story of veteran and mother Bobbi Ann Jones.
At Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, our staff and volunteers dedicate an ocean of time to our clients. We make every human effort to ensure that they are cared for, supported, and understood—and that a lawyer stands with them every step of the way.
Cole Thaler is a principal example. He’s the director of AVLF’s Safe and Stable Homes Project, overseeing our Saturday Lawyer program, Standing with Our Neighbors program, and more. Ask anyone in our office—Cole has an absolutely unyielding commitment to justice for those he defends.
That’s because they’re not just clients—they’re our friends and neighbors, too.
Cole represented Ms. Bobbi Ann Jones in an eviction case in 2016. He was so intrigued by her life that he sat down with her to document it—all so that we could share it with you.
Here’s what Cole has to say about our neighbor, Bobbi Ann Jones.
Ms. Bobbi Ann Jones has been wearing her West Fulton High School class ring since 1977. She has sent the ring to Jostens for repairs many times over the decades, she explains; five years ago, Jostens said that the metal of the ring was so damaged, they had to replace it completely. Ms. Jones laments that the shape of the owl is not quite the same as before.
I see the ring flash as she slides her resume across the table to me. “Objective: To obtain a clerical position in a fast-paced environment with room for growth, continued learning, and education.”
Her resume is remarkable—as is her eye for detail and sharp memory—but this is not a job interview. Ms. Jones came to us for help through AVLF’s Saturday Lawyer program, which assists tenants with problems they are experiencing with their landlords.
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Ms. Jones was born in Manhattan on August 7, 1961. She was raised by her father, who worked as a sexton, and his wife, a nurse—the woman she thought to be her mother. Two younger brothers soon followed. Although her father did not earn a lot of money, he was thrifty and good at stretching his dollars to provide for his family.
In 1968, her father’s wife passed away. Eight years later, she would learn that the woman who had helped raise her for the first seven years of her life had not been her birth mother.
She told me that she had always felt a pervasive sense of alienation—as if “I just appeared,” Ms. Jones said. “No kindred spirit.”
After graduating from high school, Ms. Jones enrolled at West Georgia Technical College. “We only learned one thing at a time,” she explained. But her wide-ranging interests and infinite curiosity left her frustrated, and she left college after a year, enlisting in the Army shortly after.
“Objective: To obtain a clerical position in a fast-paced environment with room for growth, continued learning, and education.” Her resume is remarkable—as is her eye for detail and sharp memory—but this is not a job interview.
She married in 1983. Her only child, Keyvee Jr., was born two years and two days later. Ms. Jones was stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, where she and her new family lived until October 1985.
When Ms. Jones speaks about the military today, her voice is full of disappointment and anger.
“Uncle Sam only taught me exactly as much as he needed me to know to do what he wanted me to do.” Her telecommunications training did not provide her with skills that were transferable to civilian jobs. Worse, as her marriage began to sour, the Army did not provide her with any support or assistance—although they held her responsible for her husband’s brushes with the law.
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Her active duty service ended in October 1985. Although wishing desperately to avoid returning to Georgia, she had few options: there was a six-month residency requirement to file for divorce, and by the time the six months passed and the divorce had been filed, Ms. Jones had settled into an apartment.
Her first post-military job was working as a housekeeper at the Omni Hotel for $3.35/hour.
Ms. Jones moved around a little before renting a Stanton Road apartment in May 1993, where she would live for 11 years. During this time, she worked as a security specialist at the Fulton County Jail, an administrative insurance clerk for an auto insurance company, and as a temp throughout most of the 1990s, cobbling together enough income to take care of herself and her son.
When her low wages did not cover her bills, Ms. Jones relied on the social safety net. At times she turned to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, abolished in 1996) or food stamps. She used WIC benefits to pay for diapers and formula when her son was small.
“I had resources on speed dial,” she explains.
Ms. Jones began to research her birth mother in earnest during this time, discovering that her mother had passed away in the 1980s, leaving five children behind. Ms. Jones’s half-siblings were able to send her a precious photograph of their mother.
During these years, Ms. Jones also sold candy out of her apartment to the children who lived in the apartment complex, and provided bill pay services, copying and faxing, and notary to residents—an entrepreneurial endeavor that sometimes allowed her to set aside a few dollars in savings.
In February 2004, the Stanton Road apartment complex was sold, and she and Keyvee were given 30 days notice to move out. She moved to Oakland City for a couple of years but lost that apartment—and, critically, her Section 8 voucher—when the landlord discovered that she had not reported her candy-sale income.
From that point on, Ms. Jones was forced to rely on the private landlord-tenant market, and pay full-market rent.
* * * * *
While living in a different apartment on Stanton Road in 2009, Ms. Jones became romantically involved with a man named Thomas, who was writing books by hand from prison. He needed help typing and editing them. After being released from prison, Thomas was able to cover Ms. Jones’ rent and other expenses.
Ms. Jones’ way of life—low-wage but steady employment, and occasional reliance on the social safety net—served her well until 2016. In her words, “Everything worked for my first 55 years and six months. When I was 55 years, six months, and one day old, it stopped working.” In 2016, her partner’s gambling addiction took its toll. He stopped paying the rent and eventually moved out of the apartment.
“Being a veteran and homeless was not enough.”
Ms. Jones turned to her “resources on speed dial”—only to discover that she was ineligible for programs that had helped her in the past. New programs had not replaced them. She searched intensely for a job but came up empty-handed.
When Ms. Jones reflects back on this time, she mimes reaching her hand out—and grabbing empty air.
She fell behind in rent—and for the first time, she couldn’t catch up. This is when I met Ms. Jones.
She called AVLF for help with the eviction her landlord was threatening. I learned that her unit had a bedbug infestation and numerous other repair issues. AVLF accepted her case, and I attempted to negotiate with her landlord for a reduction of rent based on the lack of repairs.
Ms. Jones’ landlord eventually took her to court in November 2016. We worked out a consent agreement that waived much of the rent and set up a payment plan for the rest.
But Ms. Jones was still struggling to find a job or any meaningful source of assistance. Despite her most courageous efforts, Ms. Jones’s circumstances prevented her from making the payments required by the consent agreement. Her landlord evicted her on February 8, 2017.
* * * * *
Ms. Jones spent a few nights with a neighbor who was also a veteran, then in a motel, then with a friend, before landing with her cousin in Southwest Atlanta, where she is living now while continuing to look for assistance.
This past summer, she told me that she plans to enroll in a Microsoft training class to improve her computer skills. (Ms. Jones’s hunger for “growth, continued learning, and education”— emphasized on her resume—is authentic and unabated.)
Even better, she was approved for a supportive housing program for veterans through HUD VASH that has awarded her a rent subsidy; she is now searching for a one-bedroom apartment of her own. Her application for this program was not approved until she disclosed to HUD VASH that she has been diagnosed with major depression. “Being a veteran and homeless was not enough,” she says ruefully.
She also found a charity that will assist her with new furniture once she finds an apartment, to replace the items that got ruined by bedbugs or lost in the eviction as well as pay any and all deposits or other fees associated with her move.
Ms. Jones, always meticulous, is taking her time with apartment-hunting. She wants to be sure that the place she chooses will be a stable home for a long time.
Want to learn more about our housing programs? There’s tons of information about them on our blog.
Before joining AVLF, Cole was a supervising staff attorney with Georgia Legal Services Program, where he represented low-income rural Georgians in civil matters. From 2005 through 2009, Cole worked for Lambda Legal, a national legal organization that works on behalf of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and those with HIV.