Gary Thurman does not mince words. He doesn’t have time for it. Slight and self-deprecating, with a perpetual half-smile and a look in his eye that hovers somewhere between hopefulness and skepticism, he speaks his mind gently but compellingly — especially when it comes to issues facing the homeless population of Birmingham.
“I’m on a mission,” Thurman declares. “For homeless people who want to find a way out of homelessness and have a decent quality of life for themselves, there are a lot of obstacles that keep them from that. I want to do everything I can to remove those obstacles.”
The primary focus of Thurman’s mission at present is a website he’s developing in conjunction with the Committee to Protect the Homeless (CPH), a Fairfield-based partner organization of the Community Affairs Committee of REV Birmingham.* Scheduled for launch within the next several weeks, the site is intended to serve as an informational hub, linking the local indigent population, providers of services to the homeless, and the general public.
Thurman says the site will increase the level of interaction between those groups, helping to fill gaps in the “continuum of care” that integrates various types of homeless services, from mental health and substance abuse counseling to employment opportunities to housing.
“Right now, it’s too easy for somebody to fall through the cracks,” says Thurman. “If you’re homeless, you might get access to a particular agency or service, but if the agency can’t help you or you need another type of service, what do you do then? There has to be a multifaceted approach, where all of the problems that affect the homeless population are addressed in a more coordinated way.”
It’s not as if coordination is totally lacking, notes CPH executive director Rodney Cole. The problem is that individual agencies often are so focused on their own missions — and some, he adds without naming names, on serving a certain number of clients to maintain funding from key donors or keep grant monies flowing — that they fail to communicate with other service providers to ensure that people are moved efficiently through the system and toward the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.
“Intentionally or not,” Cole says, “the system is set up to keep people dependent. For instance, if you send a person through a substance abuse program for 30 days and then put him back out on the same corner you picked him up from — an environment that almost ensures that he’ll be sucked back in — have you really done anything to help him? Do you really have that person’s best interest at heart, or are you just justifying your own existence?
“We have to shift from band-aiding these problems to actually resolving them. That means addressing the whole picture, and no one can accomplish that by themselves. We need to increase the level of coordination and partnership.”
Filling the gaps
While readily acknowledging the issues raised by Cole and Thurman, Michelle Farley suggests that the problem has less to do with coordination than with prioritization. Farley is executive director of One Roof, an organization funded primarily by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development — along with Jefferson County, the City of Birmingham and several nonprofit and faith-based partners — to coordinate a range of homeless services provided by 24 agencies in central Alabama. For the most part, she contends, the various individual service providers in the Birmingham area “play very well together.”
“Does that mean it’s perfect? No,” Farley says. “We can always benefit from better communication and cooperation among agencies. But it’s not as cut-and-dried as just saying we need to coordinate services.”
According to Farley, the real challenge is a cumulative shortage of resources that stems in part from a lack of overall understanding of homelessness among the general public. There is too great a focus on visible symptoms of the homeless problem, rather than addressing the complex issues that contribute to the incidence of indigence.
“So many people think that homelessness is all about substance abuse and mental illness, and that all we can do is hand out sandwiches in Linn Park,” says Farley. “Well, that’s not going to solve the problem, because the problem is a lot more complicated than that. There are homeless families, homeless children, people whose situation has nothing to do with drugs or mental health. We need a new understanding of what homelessness actually is.”
Like Farley, Cole sees the public perception of homelessness as a hurdle. And, even while challenging homeless service agencies to do a better job of actualizing a system of “wraparound care” that meets all needs, he concedes that part of the problem stems from a lack of awareness among the homeless population of the interrelation of issues that can make their condition chronic, if not permanent.
“Some people fall off the edge because they do not recognize that there are multiple issues that brought them to that place,” Cole observes. “But I never heard anybody say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be homeless.’ If people know that the services they need are available to them — and if we can do more to ease their access to those services — they are going to grab those opportunities to turn their lives around. It doesn’t have to be as difficult as we make it.”
Working toward the goal of making things easier — easier for agencies to coordinate, for homeless individuals to obtain the services they need, for the public to understand the complexity of the issues and engage in their solution. Farley says she has been “thrilled” to have CPH become involved with One Roof. Cole and Thurman have helped call attention to a critical gap in the coordination of services, she adds.
“A fault of One Roof has been that we have not been able to get the Rodney Coles and Gary Thurmans of the world — people who have such a direct connection to the homeless community — as involved as we need them to be,” Farley says. “Their efforts have pointed up a large gap we have in this community. We have great case managers in the various agencies, but what we don’t have is case managers either for people who are about to become homeless, or who are on the street and not involved with an agency. That’s what they’re doing, and they’re going a great job of it. Plus, they are just so vocal and so passionate, and I’m grateful that they are out there as advocates.”
Helping to fill the gap Farley points out is the purpose of the website Thurman is developing. When fully functional, that site will interface with PromisAL, a data management system maintained by One Roof that facilitates care and referrals and also tracks demographic data on the homeless population. Thurman says he’s designing the site to work in conjunction with the database One Roof is compiling through its issuance of ID cards as part of the HUD-mandated Homeless Management Information System. The cards are used to access healthcare and other services.
“It’s a way to keep track of all those who need help,” Thurman says of the interface the CPH site will provide. “It can help track their progress through whatever organizations they were referred to, and ensure that all their needs were addressed.”
For the 54-year-old Thurman, the work he is doing is extremely personal. He came to Birmingham in 2010 as a homeless person.
A onetime computer technician, Thurman lost his job after being seriously injured in an accident in which the driver of the motorcycle on which he was a passenger was killed. He became an alcoholic while recovering from his injuries, and he also developed an addiction to the painkillers he was prescribed. Living with a friend in Fayetteville, Tennessee, he says he realized one day that he was “at a crossroads in life” and decided to move to Birmingham, picking the city almost at random as a place where he “thought I could find a way to be useful.”
“I’d pretty well screwed things up,” Thurman allows. “I didn’t really care about other people. I was 50 years old, not living on my own, addicted to alcohol and pills. I asked myself, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ My answer was that the problem was me. I decided to go on a mission to find truth and meaning in my life. I wanted to make myself a better person. I wanted to be inspired.”
Thurman found that inspiration at the Church of the Reconciler, the longtime homeless ministry at 14th Street and 2nd Avenue North. It was there that he met Cole, who was on the church’s staff at the time. The two have worked together since.
“Gary is living proof of what a person can do to take control of their life,” Cole declares. “Seeing what he is doing makes you question how and why it is that we throw so many people away.”
Cole calls homelessness “one of the ultimate human rights issues” — one he says should have special resonance in Birmingham, where so much of the Civil Rights battle was fought. Thurman views the effort to combat homelessness in Birmingham it in more immediate, concrete terms.
“I believe in this,” Thurman says. “I’ve been homeless, and I know it can happen to anybody who’s out there living paycheck to paycheck. It can happen before you know it.
“People become homeless for lots of reasons. I don’t care about anybody’s reasons; I just want to help give them a way out.”
*Correction: Although the Committee to Protect the Homeless has worked in tandem with Greater Birmingham Ministries, REV is their official partner, contrary to what was originally stated.