Chicago Sun-Times: CTA cards for homeless students stolen

By Sarah Karp, Better Government Association

A Chicago man has been charged with hawking L and bus passes that were swiped from the Chicago Public Schools — the latest sign CPS isn’t keeping good track of transit fare cards that are supposed to be distributed to homeless students.

Mohammed Abdullah, 24, was arrested Oct. 15 and charged with theft of more than $500 and less than $10,000, according to court records.

He’s accused of selling paper CTA Ventra cards meant for homeless students to customers who turned out to be undercover police officers.

Mohammed Abdullah

When the police searched Abdullah’s workplace — a convenience store at 79th and Saginaw — they found 300 cards, authorities say. The cards have a cash value, and when they’re tapped at L turnstiles and bus fare boxes, the fare amounts are deducted.

Abdullah sold them for less than their value, authorities say.

How someone other than homeless students ended up with the cards, which were stolen from CPS, isn’t clear.

Emily Bittner, a CPS spokeswoman, says the district “received a tip from the CTA about the missing cards and worked closely with the CTA to investigate the scheme and identify the perpetrator. CPS turned over all information to authorities to complete the investigation and terminated an employee in connection with the events.”

CPS distributed 1.9 million transit cards last year, according to Bittner.

Amber Damerow, a former CPS official who oversaw the school system’s program for homeless kids until resigning last year, calls CPS’ handling of the CTA cards “a hot mess.”

Damerow says she’d get reports every year from 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 cited in recent years:

• A CPS headquarters employee was suspected of stealing $107,410 worth of fare cards.

• Transit cards were being kept in unsecure locations.

• A principal kept lax records on who he gave CTA cards to and sometimes gave them to students going on field trips and parents who’d fallen on hard times.

In 2011, the inspector general’s office criticized CPS officials for not recording serial numbers on the transit cards, saying that would make it easier to monitor whose hands they passed through — and to deactivate them if they’re misplaced.

CPS spending on CTA cards has grown from $4 million in 2010 to $8.7 million in 2015, school system records show.

Federal law requires that homeless students be given access to transportation so they don’t have to change schools because of changes in their housing situation. Last year, 20,205 of CPS’ approximately 400,000 students were identified as homeless, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which monitors CPS’ program.

While at CPS, Damerow says her bosses seemed more interested in changing rules to make fewer students eligible for the CTA cards and cracking down on parents who lied to get bus cards than punishing CPS officials who stole or misused the cards.

Last year, 62 percent of homeless CPS students got transportation help, down from 70 percent two years ago, according to Patricia Nix-Hodes of the homeless coalition.

Nix-Hodes says helping homeless students stay in the same school, despite the 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.

CTA “internal controls” detected problems that led to an investigation and Abdullah’s arrest, according to transit agency spokeswoman Tammy Chase, declining to elaborate.

Chase says that, considering the large number of cards the CTA sells in bulk to the school system and to social service agencies, fraud is rare.

“This is one of the instances where someone made a decision to do something improper,” says Chase. “This is not about lack of controls from CTA.”

Still, CTA officials know that paper cards with rides on them are like cash. So, later this year, the agency plans to test a program in which students get plastic cards that schools can add value to.