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How Three Birmingham Shelters Adjusted to the Pandemic

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Phonzie Forbes (left) and Reginald Franklin inside the laundry area at the Firehouse Ministries in downtown Birmingham. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)

By Sydney Melson

The Birmingham Times

A number of Birmingham organizations are fighting to prevent and end homelessness in the metro area and provide services for a vulnerable population especially in the midst of a pandemic.

Here are three:

JIMMIE HALE MISSION

JHM has implemented big changes to its recovery program in the past year, said Executive Director Michael Coleman.

“When I came in a year ago, our program was basically a book that taught people how to recover from addiction. It was kind of a self-paced thing, and we didn’t even have anyone on site that was certified in addiction recovery,” he said.

“We’ve drastically changed that. Now, people who come to us go through a dynamic recovery program that helps them get to the root of their addiction. It’s a 15-week-long program, but if they’re not ready to transition back into the community they stay with us until they are ready.”

Jimmie Hale takes a different approach to providing shelter for people who are homeless—those who come for a place to stay need to want a different outlook on life.

“When [people get into bad situations], it’s a good thing because it prompts them to change their lives. Some people want to get better, and some people just want a bed to sleep in. Now, if they don’t want help, they can’t stay for long: two days, and then they have to leave,” Coleman said. “Normally, around this time of year, people start seeking shelter more just because the weather’s getting colder. We’ve had our normal uptick for the last few nights, but when they come in, we challenge them to let us help them.”

The shelter, which provides 160 beds, partnered with the city of Birmingham to provide extra beds.

“We are the only shelter that I’m aware of that is able to take overflow from the Boutwell Auditorium,” Coleman said. “We’ve given 15 beds to the city for overflow on cold nights. They can’t put too many on Boutwell because they’re spacing out.”

Fundraising has taken a hit, Coleman said, in a unique way: “We have such a broad range of donors. Some wealthier donors have increased their giving. Where we have been hurt, though, is among people who give $20 to $25 a month because many of them have lost their jobs or have had to relocate.”

JHM has been handling things well and gaining momentum to provide new resources and services for the community, Coleman said.

“Right now, we’re beginning a feasibility study that will establish a women’s recovery center … to expand capacity not just in numbers but in the number of ways we have to serve our population. We have Jessie’s Place, [a homeless shelter for women and children], as well, but my personal goal is to establish a women’s recovery center,” he said, explaining that some facilities house women for free addiction recovery, but those are for sober living.

“Addiction recovery is deep counseling, getting to the heart of what the cause is and what leads to recovery,” Coleman said. “We’ll put a big focus on breaking down barriers for young mothers who are having trouble transitioning. We’re also looking at ways to provide options for men and women to develop skill sets for self-sufficiency.”

Jimmie Hale Mission is located at 3420 2nd Ave. N., Birmingham, AL 35222. To learn more, call 205-323-5878, look them up on Twitter at @jimmieHale and @JessiesPlaceJHM, or search for Jimmie Hale and Jessie’s Place on Facebook.

FIREHOUSE MINSTIRIES

FM is a homeless shelter that has been providing services to the Birmingham community since 1983. Though they’ve seen challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve seen no signs of slowing down.

“We have not quit doing what we do, not one day,” said Firehouse Ministries Executive Director Anne Wright Rygiel. “We built a new building that we moved into in early March (2020). This facility increases our occupancy capability.”

Since relocating, the Firehouse staff spent a lot of time revitalizing the facility’s program to better suit the needs of the homeless population—and then the pandemic hit in mid-March. The previous location, at 1501 Third Avenue North, had a maximum capacity of 50 beds. Though the new location provides space for 100 beds, the pandemic limited the max capacity to 50.

“We are gradually opening our beds because when it’s cold outside it’s truly a matter of life or death. We’ve increased our capacity to 70 beds, and we always have a waiting list. There are more people who need a place to stay overnight than those who need our day services.”

At its core, Firehouse’s mission is to provide housing and services to people dealing with homelessness, no matter what—and they’re staying true to their word.

“We prioritize youth and people fleeing from domestic violence, as well as those discharging into homelessness from the hospital. That’s a lot of what we’ve seen,” said Wright Rygiel. “We believe it’s a basic right for all people to have a safe space to sleep and eat.”

Still, the pandemic has been tough on both the staff and people in the shelter.

“People might be cut off from family and friends and wait times for mental- and physical-health providers have increased,” said Wright Rygiel. “For our staff, the median age is 55, so they’re in higher risk categories and still coming in every day. It’s a constant balance: How do you serve [people who need housing] when the need is increasing and also protect your staff?

“It seemed like things were getting better, but now the need for our resources is as bad as it was back in May [2020]. People have COVID-19 fatigue. They want to spend time with their families or have to go back to work. … Every time a client walks through the door, there is the possibility of infection.”

As the weather gets colder, more people are moving indoors, and the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak is increasingly possible.

“During the summer, when it was nice outside, it was safer for people to sleep outdoors and not in congregate housing. We’ve got people with stage 4 cancer, some with emphysema. Our oldest resident is 84-years-old. … If COVID-19 hit our shelter, it would be devastating. The only way to prevent that is to stop providing services”—and Firehouse has no intentions of stopping, Wright Rygiel said.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Firehouse looks toward the future with optimism.

“Even when this is a terrifying, distant memory, we want to move forward with this spirit of collaboration with other agencies and make sure that no one is left out,” Wright-Rygiel said.

Firehouse Ministries is located at 626 2nd Ave. N., Birmingham, AL 35203. To learn more, call 205-252-9571 or look them up on Facebook at Firehouse Shelter.

BROTHER BRYAN MISSION

BBM, founded in 1940, is dedicated to helping adult men get through addiction and homelessness economically, emotionally, and spiritually. In 2020, the shelter purchased an additional building, which is in the process of being renovated to provide more beds and increased services.

“We’ve had a great year [in 2020] as far as funds go,” said Stanley Dodd, a chaplain for Brother Bryan. “We’re still seeing people typically giving, and we’re thankful for that. We still do fundraising mail-outs, and we did a golf tournament back in October, the same typical stuff. It’s been consistent with other years.”

The consistent funding has allowed the shelter to expand the services it provides to Birmingham’s homeless population.

“We purchased the building next to us, so we own three buildings on our block, [Second Avenue in downtown Birmingham]. We’re trying to get to 100 beds,” Dodd said. “It will take several months before the [new] building is ready, but the downstairs will create a safe space where people can do job searches. We also plan to expand on our current clothing closet.”

While the Brother Bryan Mission hasn’t seen an unusual increase in need for beds and services, they aren’t out of the woods yet.

“As the pandemic goes along, the more people lose jobs. We’ve seen a typical year for services, but we’re expecting an uptick at some point. I think it may be coming, we just haven’t seen it. So far, we’ve done well. We’re running our recovery and beds program the same way, so we’re grateful for that,” he said.

Brother Bryan Mission is located at 1616 2nd Ave. N., Birmingham, AL 35203. To learn more, call 205-322-0092 or look them up on Facebook at Brother Bryan Mission or Twitter at @BryanMission.

Click here to read more stories about Birmingham shelters.