By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Birmingham City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved an agreement to purchase at least 50 micro-shelters for homeless residents and to seek proposals from organizations to provide services to address chronic homelessness.
However, some councilors had questions about the process of selecting service providers and how money would be spent.
Councilor Valerie Abbott asked if anyone could provide cost projections for what the city may have to invest into a selected proposal.
The plan, proposed by the city, is called “Home for All” and will see officials spending an initial $975,000 for the purchase of micro-shelter materials and supplies from Everett, Washington-based Pallet Shelter, which bills itself as “The Leader in Rapid-Response Villages.”
“Do you have projections based on all these other cities where these villages have been put in?” Abbot asked the mayor’s administration.
Costs vary at different cities for any wraparound services, so an estimation wouldn’t be possible, said Dr. Meghan Venable-Thomas, director of Community Development for the city of Birmingham.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said any estimate given to the council would be “premature” and has to be worked out through the proposal process.
While the cost of the project is important to consider, lots of money is spent on doing nothing, Abbott said.
“We don’t want to think that it’s a $10 million project, but we have a lot of homeless people, and there are so many impacts, so people who say, ‘Well, we shouldn’t waste money on those folks.’ Well, listen, you’re already spending a lot of money on those folks that you don’t even know about,” she said.
Councilor Carol Clarke asked what happens if proposals submitted to provide services for the homeless residents were not accepted.
“If a year passes, and we haven’t gotten what we want in the way of an RFP or viable proposal that we can afford to aid in the implementation and feel comfortable that it’s going to be done, are we still obligated to buy these [shelters]?” Clarke asked.
If none of the proposals are selected, then there are terms for cancellation of the contract, Woodfin said.
Councilor Hunter Williams, who expressed confidence in the city’s Community Development team, said homelessness is a problem that Birmingham “needs to tackle head-on.”
“We owe it to the citizens of Birmingham, whether they be experiencing homelessness, or whether other communities with those experiencing homelessness, that we have something that is proactive, like this program …” Williams said.
Williams also said there are many costs that “we don’t talk about … to the city from an economic development perspective, to the city from Birmingham Fire and Rescue and Birmingham police responding, to different issues around homelessness…so this is a city responsibility, and it is something that we absolutely have to be intentional about addressing,” Williams said.
Councilor Clinton Woods said he was excited to see work begin on addressing homelessness, which is “a nuanced” conversation, he said.
“People are in that same situation for so many different reasons, so it’s not one solution to solve it all. I am excited to start seeing some solutions being put forward to be able to improve on the problem,” Woods said.
Council President Wardine Alexander said the shelter project will bring meaningful relief to many homeless residents who are caught in the cold or “having to camp out under freeways…this is an opportunity. It’s not permanent. It’s a transition,” Alexander said.
Council President Pro Tem Crystal Smitherman emphasized the necessity of the services for people who could benefit from the micro-shelters.
“This is really helping people to be job ready, helping people to transition and maybe it’s a full-time position in a company…you can afford to get groceries, you can afford to make sure your kids have the best education. It just goes on and on and on,” Smitherman said.
Councilor LaTonya Tate said transitioning from homelessness is similar to reentering life after prison.
“Reentry is not an overnight process. You have to walk people from traumatized situations that they’ve come out of to make sure that they get the best and can be the best that we want them to be, so I’m forever grateful that we are moving in this direction and really want the community to really just wrap their arms around this and embrace this,” Tate said.
Councilor Darrell O’Quinn said it’s important to note that Tuesday’s agreement is merely the start of an ongoing conversation between the city and members of the Birmingham community about how to address homelessness.
“I want the community to understand that what’s being presented is not a neatly packaged, wrapped up, silver-bullet solution. It is the beginning of a conversation and one that every member of the community should feel responsible for having a part in,” O’Quinn said.
O’Quinn said that making the choice do to something about homelessness in the city can be good because it reduces costs to taxpaying residents, but the real reason to work at reducing homelessness runs deeper.
“Personally, I think we need to be doing this simply because it is the right thing to do, and I don’t need any more reason than that. However, some people aren’t compelled by morality and are going to think about the cost, and please know that it is cheaper to directly engage this…” O’Quinn said.
Abbott, who was first elected in 2001, said she’s been on the council long enough to know the city “has talked and talked and talked” about homelessness, and that talking “wearies people,” she said.
Woodfin said “Home for All” enables the city to do everything it can to help the homeless. “It’s past time,” he said. “It’s been time that we find a more aggressive way to approach how we support our neighbors who need shelter. I’m very proud of the team for the work they’ve done.”
In the city of Birmingham, there are 943 people who are either in homeless shelters or completely homeless on a nightly basis, according to data presented by Venable-Thomas.