These days, the most popular person on Buckhead’s PATH400 greenway seems to be Walter Dixon, the new community programs coordinator for the Buckhead Community Improvement District.

Carol Niemi is a marketing consultant who lives on the Dunwoody-Sandy Springs line and writes about people whose lives inspire others. Contact her at worthknowingnow@gmail.com.

People along the path say he knows the name of every dog-owner and dog he meets.

“We first met Walter in March, when my dog Lou was a puppy and we had just begun walking the PATH400,” says resident Jackie Greene. “Walter always stopped to say hello, and Lou got used to seeing him every day. She can spot him from far away and starts tugging on the leash to get to him.”

“My dog Scarlett knows Walter too,” said Stephanie Midkiff, “and loves to see him.”

But dogs aren’t the only ones who like Walter.

“I look forward to seeing him and catching up each day,” said Greene.

Walter’s new boss, Matt Gore, the Buckhead CID’s projects and programs manager, says he hears such comments frequently.

“Walter is a really kind-hearted human being,” said Gore. “He always represents the CID well.”

What most of Walter’s fans don’t know is that a year ago, he was homeless and just released from stints at the Clayton and Fulton county jails after pleading guilty to simple battery and criminal damage to property, which violated a prior probation for assault and battery. He got the job through a program called Georgia Works.

“I heard about Georgia Works in jail,” said Dixon in a recent interview. “The day I got out, I went straight there.”

“There” is the Gateway Center in Downtown Atlanta, where Georgia Works occupies the second floor. But even though he thought Dixon was “clean and sober,” he flunked the required 12-panel substance test that picks up even the tiniest amount of a banned substance. A person who tests positive for even one fails.

That was a cold Thursday in November. He could try again the following Monday.

“I spent the next four nights out in the cold,” said Walter. “I never want to drink again.”

On that Monday, he passed the test and entered the program.

At Georgia Works, homeless men who are substance-free and willing to face their addictions, criminal past and other factors that led to their homelessness get a second chance — a chance at a job, their ticket out of homelessness.

The program provides them with a bed, food, help dealing with their issues and a case manager to guide them. For the first 30 days, they take classes and receive therapy for everything from anger management to addiction to become job-ready.

Since few employers hire people coping with addiction or convicted felons, Georgia Works contracts with organizations that will. One of its most important partners, the Buckhead CID, hires its clients to pick up litter along major corridors within the CID, including the PATH400.

Walter Dixon pauses in his PATH400 work to say hello to Lou, who, along with owner Jackie Greene, has gotten to know him in recent months.
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The men usually work in pairs, often with minimal supervision. Dixon started working for the Buckhead CID under the Georgia Works program in early 2020 and soon stood out.

“Walter’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met,” said Al Sims, Dixon’s case manager. “We needed a leader to take ownership of that site. We had already rotated several people out trying to find the right person.”

Dixon was that person. He immediately went beyond just litter pick-up to noticing things like a handrail needing to be painted, doing the painting, and advising and guiding other Georgia Works clients assigned to the CID.

“It was evident to everybody he’s a special man,” said Buckhead CID Executive Director Jim Durrett. “His attitude and personality convinced us to keep using Georgia Works and ultimately offer him a full-time job.”

Dixon credits his faith, Georgia Works and Al, his case manager, for his success.

“Al kept telling me to let my ego die,” said Dixon. “I prayed and prayed and finally had to admit I had a problem causing my life to be unmanageable.”

Everyday for 30 days, he went to group therapy, took classes and met with Al. He also joined Narcotics Anonymous to deal with his alcoholism.

“I had to change my thought patterns, do something positive instead of something negative, do what’s right even when nobody’s watching,” he said.

Dixon readily owns his mistakes.

“I got sick and tired of being sick and tired and learned to live a new and better life,” he said. “That’s when good things started happening.”

Despite his celebrity, he keeps his ego in check and even seems a bit surprised at his success.

“People living in huge homes say I inspire them, and I don’t have nothing but what I have in that little dormitory.”

And about Jim Durrett, the man who hired him?

“A great guy. He gave me a second chance.”

Georgia Works is supported entirely by corporate and private donations. To donate money, clothing or toiletries, go to georgiaworks.net.