In another sign that Chicago Public Schools isn’t keeping good enough track of transit fare cards that are supposed to be distributed to homeless students, a Chicago man was recently arrested for allegedly hawking L and bus passes that were swiped from the school system.
Mohammed Abdullah, 24, was arrested on Oct. 15 and charged with theft of more than $500 and less than $10,000, according to court records. He sold paper CTA Ventra cards intended for homeless students to customers who turned out to be undercover police officers, the records show.
When police searched Abdullah’s place of employment – a convenience store at 79th and Saginaw – they found 300 cards, authorities said. The cards contain cash value, and when they’re tapped at L turnstiles and bus fareboxes, the fare amounts are deducted.
How Abdullah ended up with the cards isn’t clear. But they were stolen from CPS and he was selling them for less than their actual value, officials said. A CPS spokeswoman released a written statement indicating a CPS employee had been fired in connection with the incident, and that CPS handed out about 1.9 million two-ride cards to homeless kids last year.
Amber Damerow, a former CPS official who oversaw the school system’s program for homeless kids until resigning last year, called the management of the CTA cards at CPS “a hot mess.”
Damerow says that each year she got reports about schools where cards were stolen, lost or handed out to ineligible students. In four of the past five years, problems with keeping track of CTA cards have been highlighted in the CPS inspector general’s annual report.
Among the problems noted by the inspector general in recent years:
- A principal kept lax records on who he handed CTA cards out to, and sometimes gave them to students going on field trips and parents who fell on hard times.
- A CPS headquarters employee was suspected of stealing $107,410 worth of fare cards.
- Transit cards were being kept in unsecure locations.
The inspector general took CPS officials to task in 2011 for not recording serial numbers on the transit cards. If CPS had serial numbers it would be easier to monitor whose hands they passed through and to de-activate them if they are misplaced.
Meanwhile, CPS spending on CTA cards has increased, from $4 million in 2010 to $8.7 million in 2015, according to CPS records.
Federal law requires that homeless students get access to transportation so that they do not have to change schools because of the instability in their housing. Last year, 20,205 CPS students were identified as homeless, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which monitors CPS’ program. There are roughly 400,000 CPS students overall.
When she was at CPS, Damerow says her bosses seemed more interested in changing rules to make fewer students eligible for CTA cards and cracking down on parents who lie to get bus cards than punishing CPS officials who steal or misuse transit cards.
Last year, 62 percent of homeless CPS students got transportation help, compared with 70 percent two years ago, says Patricia Nix-Hodes of the homeless coalition.
Nix-Hodes says that helping homeless students stay in the same school, despite instability in their housing situation, is critically important. “We have had high school students say that without the bus cards they would have dropped out of school,” she says. “Transportation can be a huge barrier.”
CTA “internal controls” detected problems that led to an investigation and Abdullah’s arrest, according to CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase, who declined to elaborate.
Chase says that, considering the large number of cards that CTA sells in bulk to the school district and to social service agencies, fraud is rare.
“This is one of the instances where someone made a decision to do something improper,” she says. “This is not about lack of controls from CTA.”
That being said, CTA officials know that paper cards with rides on them are like cash and therefore are especially vulnerable. Later this year, the CTA is going to test a program in which students get plastic cards that school staff can add value to.
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool says he plans to use technology to better track fare cards from now on.
Representatives of the Chicago Police Department and Cook County state’s attorney’s office declined to say if Abdullah’s investigation is ongoing. Abdullah’s attorney, Steven Muslin, says Abdullah will be in court on the Nov. 16 for a hearing, but had no other comment.