The city of Atlanta has unveiled the incentive part of its carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with  youths who sell bottled water in the streets.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Aug. 7 released recommendations from a Youth Entrepreneurship Advisory Council on ways to steer youths into safe and legal ways to make money.

The report says that many youths are making $100 to $300 a day selling the water, so actual money-making has to be the core of an alternative program. And some youths will choose to continue selling water regardless, the report said.

“The main way to steer them away from selling [water] is to offer a more enticing alternative. In short, they need to be compensated for their time,” said the report, adding that alternatives will require “robust” partnerships with nonprofits, businesses and Atlanta Public Schools, among others.

“Thank you to the members of the Advisory Council for their thoughtful recommendations and diligent work towards creating a successful path forward for youth in Atlanta,” said Bottoms in a press release. “We must continue to make bold investments in our young people and steer them toward productive and beneficial outcomes.”

The administration will continue to work on the recommendations with such partners as Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, and the jobs program WorkSource Atlanta. Anyone wanting to participate can email the city at youthentrepreneurship@AtlantaGa.Gov. To see the full report, click here.

On the enforcement side, the Atlanta Police Department has begun cracking down on some alleged criminal activity by or related to water-sellers, including recent arrests in Buckhead on charges of firearm possession and armed robbery.

The advisory council’s report says it worked on principles of racial and economic equity — part of Bottoms’ overarching city policy goals — and the ideas that the youths themselves should have input on solutions that will benefit everyone in Atlanta. “Youth need support and opportunity, not punishment,” reads another principle.

The water-selling business

The report, based partly on interviews with water-sellers and APD officials, provides a variety of statistics and estimates about the street business.

An estimated average of 150 to 300 youths are selling water on city streets each day, the report says. Water-sellers range in age from 8 to 21, but are “typically” 12 to 16 years old. Most work in groups. Many are working during school hours, and some were not in school due to suspensions.

The business involves reselling bottled water that is typically purchased from stores near the sales sites. The youths typically enter the street to sell the water to drivers at traffic lights.

The youths report making $100 to $300 a day through sales or tips. Many are seeking money to support their households and were meeting basic living needs, though some were also raising “entrepreneurial resources” for start-up businesses or music studio time. A few said they would take a traditional job if it was offered, while many said they preferred working for themselves, according to the report.

Police response

The report notes that the water-selling is fundamentally illegal under city ordinances prohibiting vending without a license and obstructing traffic, and under state law prohibiting pedestrians from entering roadways. While that has sometimes been cited as a simple solution, the report said that APD interviewees “emphasized that a better approach should not depend on the police to solve the problem, nor should it be a police-led effort.”

With the popularity of the business, the report said, there is an increase in robberies where older youths steal the day’s earnings from younger ones.

From Jan. 1 through July 5, the report said, APD recorded 694 calls for service related to water-selling. More than 400 calls involved complaints about related behavior like “aggressive sale tactics,” obstructing traffic or an unwillingness to clean the sales area. Thirteen calls were reports of people with weapons. From all of those calls, there were 11 incidents of youths aged 17 or older being cited and arrested, and four incidents of minors cited and released to parents.

Program recommendations

For solutions, the advisory council particularly cited a multi-prong strategy in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, where youths were engaged in a similar business of washing car windows in the street. The strategy involves mentorship, skill-building and entrepreneurial programs.

The report contains 13 recommendations elaborating ideas of overcoming inequities, conducting outreach, creating programming hubs, and partnering with APS.

On outreach, the city needs an “authentic, credible” approach and must gather more data about the youths, the report said. The city needs to recognize the “entrepreneurial energy” and have a campaign with the message, “We see you. We hear you. We support you.”

The report suggests using the city’s Centers of Hope after-school program as one to create hubs of programming for the youths and their families. It also suggests working with a nonprofit partner to create pipelines to jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as working with community leaders on “earn and learn” workshops. The city also must recognize that some youths will continue selling water on the streets and find ways to manage that safely, the report said.

Working with APS on similar programming is another recommendation. That would include identifying young entrepreneurs and developing a non-traditional business program for them; providing interactive, hands-on training in entrepreneurship; and providing stipends and other paid incentives for staying in such programs.

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