Special to The Birmingham Times
If you’ve driven down Birmingham’s 3rd Avenue North, chances are you’ve passed the red brick Firehouse Shelter countless times. But you may not know what happens within those walls.
Firehouse Shelter is the headquarters for Firehouse Ministries, which serves more chronically homeless men than any agency in the state of Alabama — over 4,000 each year. More than an emergency shelter, the Firehouse Shelter works with its clients to address the complicated, systemic challenges of homelessness. As Birmingham evolves, the Firehouse Shelter is making vital plans for the future.
“People often don’t want to talk about homelessness because they feel like they can’t relate to it,” says Anne Darden Wright, Firehouse Shelter executive director. “But the reality is these are residents of our city, and they live on the streets where we live.”
More than half of Firehouse clients have a drug and/or alcohol addiction, and many have a dual diagnosis of mental illness. “We consider Firehouse Shelter to be the last house on the block that will welcome these men,” says Anne, a Birmingham native.
The building sleeps 50, and staff and volunteers provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Clients range from age 18 to 80. Some grew up in poverty, others did not. Most recently, the shelter has seen an increase in teenagers who have become addicted to opioids and heroin, who come to Firehouse from across Birmingham and its suburbs.
Each client is assigned a caseworker who works with him to identify challenges and solutions. This includes medical care, addiction and recovery programs, skill-building classes, and placement into long-term housing.
The shelter, located in a firehouse that dates back to 1906, opened in 1983. Now Anne and her colleagues are planning for the future while tending to daily needs, raising $7.8 million for a new building two blocks west of the current site. It’s designed for practicality and the dignity of all men, with features like an indoor lobby (so clients won’t have to wait in lines on the street), and will be fully accessible for people with disabilities.
Community partners are vital to the Firehouse Shelter’s mission. Protective Life Corporation supports Firehouse, through a matching gift on monies raised at the annual employee-led IT golf tournament.
Spearheaded by Mark Cyphert, Senior Vice President and Chief Information and Operations Officer, the tournament raises funds for Firehouse and First Light, a shelter for women and children.
The tournament involves 200 participants a year.
“Some companies might not support a charity golf tournament in the middle of the week. But at Protective, this kind of an event is embraced,” Cyphert says. “It’s not just about playing golf, though that is fun. It’s about giving back and investing in the community where we’re from.”
He says it’s important for golf tournament participants to understand Firehouse’s impact.
“When our employees and partners learn about how hard the staff and volunteers work, they always ask what else they can do to help. That’s our culture.”
“The success of Birmingham as a city is deeply connected to how we treat all residents,” Anne says. “Our homeless and poor are part of our city center, so I ask, how can we help them? It’s going to take everyone in Birmingham to rally together. And I have faith we can do it.”