Cepia Harper was already fighting a losing battle to move up Atlanta’s socioeconomic ladder when the manager of her Midtown apartment complex gave her a month to find a new place to live. The property owners had decided not to renew the single mother’s lease without telling her why, Harper said.

“She just said she didn’t have to,” Harper, 40, told Capital B Atlanta. “I had never missed a rent payment or anything, so I was confused.”

Unable to immediately afford a new home, Harper and her two school-aged kids had to move into a friend’s rented two-story house in the Old Fourth Ward. But overcoming the housing setback became a lot easier after Harper started receiving an $850 monthly stipend from the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund’s In Her Hands initiative — a no-strings-attached payout that she used to help cover her bills. 

The first check came in June 2022, a month after she lost her apartment. By July of this year, Harper had saved enough money to secure a new, two-bedroom apartment in South Fulton for her family.

The GRO Fund launched In Her Hands in 2021. The $13 million program began in partnership with Give Directly, a nonprofit that empowers donors to directly send money to some of the world’s poorest households.

In Her Hands has provided a “guaranteed income” to 654 women struggling to survive amid rising inflation and spreading gentrification. The program targets income-eligible Black women living in Old Fourth Ward, College Park, and Southwest Georgia, providing a monthly average of $850 for up to two years.

Recipients can’t earn more than two times the federal poverty level, which amounts to less than $50,000 for a family of three. 

In Her Hands doesn’t mandate or monitor how recipients spend the money, operating on the philosophy that families are the best judges of their own financial needs. The problem isn’t poor budgeting, the organization believes, but the widening gap between wages and the cost of living.

The average In Her Hands participant has a job, according to GRO Executive Director Hope Wollensack, but only earns about $15,000 annually, despite having at least one child and carrying roughly $35,000 in debt.

“Our program really thinks about how can we share this prosperity,” Wollensack said. “Worker productivity continues to grow, and yet it is harder and harder for everyday working folks to benefit, and the cards continue to be stacked against them.”

Wages for many in Atlanta have failed to keep up with the city’s rising cost of living. Wollensack said guaranteed income is one policy solution to help combat inequality in America’s most unequal city, where an estimated 29% of Black people live in poverty.

Black women have the highest labor force participation rate among all women in the U.S., but still face major barriers to economic stability.

“For some folks, this is going to help them transition into that higher-wage job,” Wollensack said of guaranteed income. “This is going to help them go back to school and get that degree. It’s going to help them pay off some debt.”

More than half of participating women have saved some money since the program launched. It has helped three times as many women afford child care and reduced the share of women whose cellphone service was shut off due to unpaid bills from 60% to 40%, according to a spokesperson for the GRO Fund.

The organization recently received a $6.2 million grant from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. The nonprofit’s leaders say they’re using the money to expand In Her Hands to Vine City and English Avenue next year. They expect to open enrollment for the two new sites in the spring. Enrollment periods for the first three sites have closed. 

Vine City and English Avenue are majority-Black neighborhoods where 43% and 36% of residents, respectively, make less than $25,000 a year. Wollensack said 54% of Black women in the area live below the poverty line.

“That is very significant need,” she said.

Struggling to get ahead

In Her Hands chose Harper via lottery from its 2022 Old Fourth Ward applicant pool. Prior to that, she was living paycheck to paycheck and didn’t have enough savings to afford a rental deposit for a new apartment, despite receiving a master’s degree from Georgia State University in 2021 and working three jobs simultaneously a year ago.

Rising rents and evictions have forced many lower-income Black folks into homelessness in recent years. Some have left the city entirely. Longtime Black residents like Harper, who has lived in Atlanta for more than two decades, have struggled to secure higher-paying jobs as tech employers and other top companies move into the city along with an influx of high-skill laborers from out of state.

With her bills covered by the In Her Hands stipend, Harper was able to focus on pursuing a teaching career. She took a lower-paying teaching job through AmeriCorps to gain the experience she needed to eventually become a full-time educator with a much higher annual salary.

Today, she works as a teacher at The Kindezi School in the Old Fourth Ward. 

She’s due to receive a $20,000 raise next year after completing a certification program, but estimates she only makes $49,000 a year teaching now, which is why she’s continued working at a Nike store in Atlantic Station. 

“That’s an extra $25,000 a year added on to what I make,” she said. “I can’t just work one job. It’s impossible.”

‘Using it just to eat’

Tamicka Royal, a participant in the In Her Hands program, says the money helped her make her car loan payments. Royal, now training in North Carolina to be a flight attendant, says she isn’t sure she will be able to return to her apartment in Sweet Auburn after receiving an eviction notice in September. (Chauncey Alcorn/Capital B)

Fellow In Her Hands program participant Tamicka Royal has her own unique set of financial problems. 

The 46-year-old Sweet Auburn resident has been training in Charlotte to become a flight attendant since Sept. 18. She’s due to finish on Oct. 13, but isn’t sure she’ll have a home when she gets back to Atlanta after receiving an eviction notice from her landlord in late September.

Evictions skyrocketed across Atlanta during the first half of the year, partly due to rising rents. Mayor Andre Dickens unveiled a new set of programs on Monday to help combat the problem.

“I don’t know when the sheriff’s going to come,” Royal said. “I can’t leave training because I have to complete it.”

Royal hasn’t had a full-time job since July 2021 when a violent attack by a man outside her home left her hurt and unable to work as an independent property manager.

She applied for, but ultimately was denied emergency rental assistance through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, and estimates she now owes $21,000 to her landlord, who she said won’t take partial payments.

Without guaranteed income, Royal said her financial crisis would be even worse. The estimated $700 monthly payments she receives from In Her Hands have helped her pay her car note, which allowed her to work as an Uber Eats and Instacart driver before landing her new flight attendant gig.

“Even now, in training, I’m using it to just eat,” she said of her guaranteed income funds.

Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.