How Birmingham cut homelessness by 53%

Teresa Thorne, Executive Direct or City Action Partnership (CAP)
Teresa Thorne, Executive Director, City Action Partnership (CAP)

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Teresa Thorne.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

We in Birmingham are doing a lot of things right.

If you don’t believe me, jump in your car and drive all over downtown and midtown.

There’s construction everywhere.  In fact it’s difficult to get around because orange plastic barrels are blocking lanes, and fences are blocking sidewalks.

This is exciting—and you can see it with your own eyes.

But there is less of one thing–and I bet you didn’t notice.

The number of homeless people in Birmingham is plummeting

Homelessness in Birmingham has fallen 53% over the past 15 years—compared to 26% nationwide.*

These numbers are stunning considering the recent housing crisis and national trends of increasing income inequality and rising poverty.

But how have we exceeded the nation?  What have we done right?

Michelle Farley, executive director of One Roof, the agency whose mission is “uniting central Alabama to end homelessness” credits Birmingham’s significant drop in relation to the national trend to four things:

  • the focus on the development of permanent supportive housing for people in need
  • a partnership with the City in providing an annual event called Homeless Connect
  • the growing involvement of the legal community
  • the expansion of assistance for veterans

To the 4 things listed, I would add the leadership and commitment of One Roof, which has initiated, coordinated, and/or shepherded many of these initiatives.

Concentrate on ‘chronically homeless’

National research has revealed that most homeless people cycle in and out of homelessness, but a small portion of them—the roughly 10% (of the total homeless population) that are considered “chronically homeless”—use a disproportionate amount of resources.  If those people could be targeted, it would free up resources that could address other challenges. Efforts in Birmingham have produced a 63% reduction (from 648 to 239) in the number of chronically homeless on the streets of Birmingham from 2005 to 2015.

Farley says, “We have worked very hard to structure programs following national evidence-based practices. These proven methods include Housing First, a model that houses someone first and works on their problems second. In the past, we often asked people to ‘earn’ housing before we put a roof over their heads.”

Research data has indicated that for many chronically homeless individuals, the old model just didn’t work. “Now we know,” Farley says, “that people with mental illnesses, substance abuse disorders, and physical disabilities are often far more successful in regaining a healthy, productive life if they are safe and warm in housing and then needed services are offered to them. Housing First programs have helped us get many of our very long-term homeless clients into stable housing.”

Project Homeless Connect

Another successful program that Birmingham began over eight years ago is Project Homeless Connect**, an annual day of service, coordinated by One Roof in partnership with the City of Birmingham. “Last April,” Farley said, “Homeless Connect served almost 700 clients with 1000 volunteers and 63 agencies providing services.” Representatives attended from three other states that wanted to create a Homeless Connect modeled after Birmingham’s.

Help from the legal community

The legal profession’s involvement has made a huge difference for the homeless in Birmingham. Many homeless individuals get caught up in a revolving door of either not being able to produce needed documentation or not having the funds to pay for minor offenses or court costs, resulting in more fines or imprisonment.  Fear of being arrested can keep an individual from obtaining housing or other help.

Lisa Borden at Baker Donelson started several programs, which are now being continued by the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyer Program.  The BBVLP hosts free legal clinics for homeless clients in shelters and in homeless agencies.

Farley explains that “Attorneys, law students, and paralegals work with homeless men and women to help them resolve any issues that are keeping them from successfully moving into housing. This could be as simple as assisting a client in getting documentation of a marriage or divorce or it could be assistance that is far more complicated—anything that keeps a client from accessing housing.”

Judge Andra Sparks and his team at the Birmingham Municipal Court now do a specific docket for homeless clients.  The specialty court is designed to put clients at ease, to recognize homeless-specific factors that contribute to legal problems, and to allow homeless clients to pay for misdeeds in ‘currency’ other than money. “I strongly believe,” Farley says, “that the involvement of these legal professionals has made a striking difference in our homeless numbers.”

Caring for homeless veterans

Another area where Birmingham is seeing improvement is in addressing homeless veterans. TASC (Treatment Alternatives for a Safer Community, an outreach program of UAB) has initiated a Veteran’s Court, in addition to a Drug Court, a Family Drug Court and a Mental Health Court through the Jefferson County court system.

“It is shameful,” Farley says, “that any man or woman who has fought for our country would come ‘home’ to lay their heads on the asphalt streets, to bed down in the sewer tunnels, and to be forced to seek shelter in the abandoned buildings of Birmingham.” Ending street homelessness for veterans is an obtainable goal. Mobile, Alabama has accomplished this, along with other cities in the U.S., and Birmingham is moving toward that goal. “As our various programs have increased efforts to work collaboratively, we have seen more and more veterans get stably housed.”

Proud of Birmingham

Homelessness is a complex problem and solving it is not an easy task. Yet many in our generous community have stepped up to take it on, to look beyond the stigmas and see human beings.

*Sources: National Alliance to End Homelessness, “The State of Homelessness in America,” April 1, 2015; Lurie, Stephen, “The Astonishing Decline of Homelessness in America,” The Atlantic, August 26, 2013; One Roof, “Point In Time 2015 Tables.”

**The next Project Homeless Connect will be February 27, 2016. If you would like to be a part of this life-changing event as a volunteer, partner, or with a financial contribution financially, contact One Roof.

A retired Birmingham police captain, Teresa Thorne is the executive director of CAP, stepping occasionally into a phone booth to become T.K. Thorne, author of Noah’s Wife, Angels at the Gate: the story of Lot’s Wife, and Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers. (www.tkthorne.com).

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, leads business development for the Small Business Division of the Intermark Group, and is co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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