Statistics suggest there are 600,000 to just over one million Americans who are homeless, and for a variety of reasons. Some become homeless because of the inability to cope with the trauma of the death of a loved one or because of divorce. Others are homeless because of economic or social circumstances — a lost job, lack of affordable housing, lack of education or job skills to support themselves. Still others are escaping abusive situations or suffer from emotional or mental illness. Many are veterans.
And there are indications that the number of homeless has increased steadily since the 1980s.
Richard Bonds, Prevention Services coordinator at Cheaha Regional Mental Health Center in Talladega County, said that during the 1980s there was a significant reduction in mental health funding by the federal government. Consequently, many patients were turned out of facilities. Some may have said they had family but they either didn’t or things didn’t work out and they became homeless.
“Birmingham has become a Mecca for the homeless,” Bonds said. “The word is out that there are a number of shelters and people with resources that are willing to help with meals.”
People from throughout the Southeast travel to Birmingham and consequently U.S. 280 has become a main thoroughfare for the homeless traveling to the city, Bonds said.
Margaret Morton, director of Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement, agrees there is a problem of homelessness.
“SAFE deals with families on a regular basis who are homeless,” she said. “Homelessness is a broad spectrum issue and is not just about people living on the street. It is families who are living with family/friends, some move around frequently, some are victims of domestic violence, some with mental health and addiction issues, some through job loss or health issues can’t maintain housing.”
Lecia Whiteside, SAFE’s Special Services coordinator, also agrees that homelessness is a problem.
Whiteside said that during 2009-2011, SAFE received a grant to providing more than $205,000 to target the low-income and intervening by providing money for rent and utility assistance.
“The program targeted low-income households who had not yet become homeless but would become homeless if they did not receive assistance,” Whiteside said. “This program served 207 participants in Talladega County, all of which had to have an income in order to participate.”
She said those without incomes are offered case management services but often are sent to shelters outside Talladega County due to a lack of living accommodations in the area.
In Pell City and the larger municipalities in Talladega County, the homeless seek shelter under bridges, behind utility sheds, abandoned cars or anywhere they can find seclusion.
Pell City Assistant Police Chief Ed Brasher said a homeless individual was found camping in a wooded area just off the interstate. In Sylacauga, a popular temporary shelter is under a bridge on Talladega County 511.
With no homeless shelters in St. Clair or Talladega counties, local authorities and agencies are hard pressed to find shelter for the homeless.
When a need arises, Brasher, Talladega Police Chief Alan Watson, Sylacauga Police Chief Chris Carden and the Talladega County Department of Human Resources all attempt to house the homeless either at the Jimmie Hale Mission in Birmingham or a Salvation Army shelter in Anniston or Birmingham.
Nicole Parker, who works for the Talladega County DHR, said DHR tries to assist when they are called on. What assistance is available may be determined by individual circumstances. When circumstances prevent any assistance, Parker said they attempt to find those in need shelter at the Jimmie Hale or the Salvation Army.
“Time and time again I have seen different community organizations make attempts to fix the issue. We have had voucher systems for food and lodging in the past, but due to the rarity they are used, the initiatives give out and we find ourselves scratching our heads and calling everyone in the book to help,” Carden said.
“We do not have a sound plan of action in place to deal with the problem when it comes up. A lot of that has to do with the infrequency in which we are called on to handle these delicate situations,” he said.
The Jimmie Hale Mission has served the homeless in Birmingham since opening its first mission in 1944. Since then, it has added a women and children’s center and a center for a holistic approach to addressing the emotional and spiritual needs of the homeless coming to the shelter.
“The homeless represent a deep need and their situation represents internal issues, including motivation, self-esteem, and there are spiritual as well as emotional needs,” said Jimmie Hale Mission executive director Tony Cooper,
For anyone contemplating opening a shelter, Cooper said the challenges they would face include developing a strategy that reveals the need for the shelter and provides the financial support to create and sustain a shelter.
“Many wear a veil and do not see the homeless unless they are touched by the homeless and then the veil is removed,” Bonds said.