Stranded in the Magic City? Travelers Aid will pay your way home

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Mollie Hester (left),  manager at Travelers Aid Greater Birmingham with Glen Robinson, interim director, with City Action Partnership. (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)
Mollie Hester (left), manager at Travelers Aid Greater Birmingham with Glen Robinson, interim director, with City Action Partnership. (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

A young man from the Northeast found himself stranded in Clanton and heard that a service in the Birmingham area would help pay his way back to New Jersey, where he lives—but, he learned he would have to work to earn his bus fare.

Welcome to Travelers Aid Greater Birmingham, which assists people who are stranded and trying to get home anywhere in the U.S. The program works with City Action Partnership (CAP) in downtown Birmingham to give people like Cory, who didn’t want his last name used, a way to work their way back home.

CAP, created by downtown Birmingham property owners, is a nonprofit business improvement district set up by legislative act in 1995 and has become a Birmingham success story.

The service responds to thousands of calls for assistance every year, and its officers perform myriad services, including jump-starting and unlocking vehicles, fixing flat tires, and even providing a gallon of gas when a car is completely on empty. CAP officers also help keep the city clean by picking up litter and cleaning graffiti.

After visiting Birmingham to help a friend move, Cory said he found himself stranded in Clanton: “I hitchhiked to Birmingham, and I’ve been here a little longer than two weeks now. … As soon as I came into the city, I got robbed. So, I’ve been homeless, just trying to figure out a way to get home.”

Travelers Aid is a network across the U.S. that helps tens of thousands of people who find themselves facing difficulty while away from home. Travelers Aid of Greater Birmingham has been around for more than 100 years.

The Travelers Aid movement in America dates back more than 150 years. It began during the westward expansion, when the mayor of St. Louis sent food, water, and other supplies to travelers stranded on the outskirts of his city. The program offers information, directions, and travel-planning support, as well as a Senior Ride program that provides free transportation to and from health-care-related appointments for low-income elderly and adults with disabilities.

As for the bus tickets, Travelers Aid does extensive background checks, including calling family members to make sure the traveler has a stable place to go upon arriving at their destination.

Cory worked two and a half days—starting on a Thursday and finishing on a Saturday—to pay off his ticket to New Jersey. By Monday, he was on a bus headed back home.

“The people here are very nice. It’s a blessing,” he said. “Sometimes you get jammed up in life, and there’s no one to help you. When you’re down on your luck and there are great people like this to help you, it’s a godsend.”

‘Mutual Resource’

Traveler’s Aid is one of the many partnerships CAP has with the city.

It’s a “mutual resource,” said Mollie Hester, manager at Travelers Aid Greater Birmingham, adding that it’s helpful that they are only one block away, at 1605 5th Ave N.

“[CAP finds] people on the street who are stranded, and they bring them to us. And if we need to take somebody to the bus station, [CAP] is happy to oblige,” Hester said.

Funded primarily through the United Way, the Travelers Aid Work Your Way Home program offers those looking for a way back home an opportunity to give back to Birmingham by keeping the heart of the city clean, Hester said. CAP and Travelers Aid split the cost for bus tickets.

“On average, we send about two people a week to CAP. Most of them are thrilled and happy to do it, though there are some who don’t show up,” Hester said. “We look at the cost of the bus ticket and average it out to about $10 an hour. So, if the bus ticket costs $100, that’ll be about 10 hours of work. It’s not hard work, but I think it’s a dignity thing. Most people who come to us have never had to ask for help before, so this is their way of earning it [without feeling] like they are getting a handout.”

Travelers Aid will send people wherever they need to go in the country, but only one time.

“There are no second chances. The offer is good for one time only,” Hester said. “We’ve offered the Work Your Way Home [program] to people, and they declined. … The next week they come back, and we can’t [help them]. If you’re in a real bind and you really want to get out of here, that’s what you’re going to take.”