“Some people just prefer living under a bridge. You just have a lot more freedom that way,” Jerome Dunson said. Dunson has been homeless on and off for the last 10 years.
Now with a job and an apartment, he is done living on the street. For him, the biggest obstacle to overcome was — besides living with a disability — navigating his way through a system of shelters that often won’t have the room or resources available for everyone.
That’s not to say the various shelters around Birmingham don’t help, he added, but sometimes they do not immediately address the underlying issues behind those living on the street.
“Housing, for me, is the biggest issue faced by homeless,” Dunson said. “If a person has a place to stay, the other issues can be sorted out.”
Over the past year, Weld has been focused on issues surrounding poverty in Birmingham. Education, race, healthcare, employment and housing were among the struggles covered in Weld’s “Poverty in Birmingham” Series.
As the year comes to an end, it seems fitting to take a look at two people who have beaten the odds to overcome addiction and chronic homelessness: Jerome Dunson, a middle-aged African-American Birmingham native, and Eric Phillips, a middle-aged white man also from Birmingham.
Jerome was dressed in a grey sweater with khaki slacks. Beside him, in the foyer of the Disability Rights and Resources Center, was a blonde woman who smiled softly as Jerome began to tell his story.
For Jerome, finding a safe place to lay his head at night, one that welcomes people with disabilities, is the biggest struggle he has had to face. He had begun living in a cheap apartment building.
“I was paying $400 a month and they wouldn’t fix nothing,” Dunson said. “So I moved out, thanks to the help of Dana,” he said, looking to the woman sitting next to him.
Dana Ulrich is the homeless outreach coordinator with the Disability Rights and Resources Center. “We have a bit of an open door policy with Jerome,” Ulrich said. “I saw the place he was living at before and it was just awful.”
Ulrich, along with Dunson’s sister, gathered up all of his belongings in trash bags and brought them to the DRR offices on Sixth Avenue North.
After making several phone calls, Ulrich arranged for Dunson to move into an apartment with the Salvation Army. “They made an exception to let Jerome stay there,” Ulrich said. “They have their emergency dorms there and they have other different programs, but because Jerome gets a disability check, he doesn’t qualify for their housing program, because you have to be workable — but that’s another story.”
Dunson was able to find work at the Salvation Army, doing their laundry. He has his own apartment, and his own bed. He has been there for a little more than two months. He was only allowed to bring in one box of his belongings, so a lot of what he had was given away or is being held by family members.
But Dunson doesn’t seem to mind the humble lodgings. Anything, he said, is better than having to fight for a bed at a shelter — even living outside.
“I lived under a bridge by the old army surplus store for a couple years. Even when it was snowing, we didn’t care. We had mattresses and everything under there,” Dunson said.
Despite the harsh reality of living outside, Dunson seems to revel in his time spent living under the bridge, and said he understands why people choose to live on the streets instead of jumping around to different shelters. He was quick to add that he is grateful for where he is now because he has his own space.
“I liked being outside because you don’t have to worry about people as much — what people are smelling like, or people stealing from you. There’s just a lot of different issues that come up when you’re staying in a shelter. Outside you are free,” Dunson said.
But he doesn’t plan on returning to that way of life any time soon. Dunson said that with shelters having such strict regulations, many people living outside tend to avoid them. Often, he said, shelters will have a 2 p.m. curfew, which can affect people trying to work. Some shelters even make you take a breathalyzer test before you can enter, although he wouldn’t specify which shelters did this.
Such restrictions, Dunson said, can alienate some homeless people who instead choose to take their chances on the street.
“I’d say about 40 percent of the people we work with stay outside, and are truly homeless,” Ulrich said.
What the DRR does is serve those who have disabilities. Ulrich jokingly refers to her department as “the one woman show.” She handles cases for people who are not able to work because of a disability and therefore have been caught in the unforgiving cycle of poverty.
Dunson, for example, visits the center weekly and Ulrich helps him to balance his finances and makes sure he is staying out of trouble. It’s clear that there is a mutual respect between the two of them.
Ulrich started working for DRR about three years ago. Since then, she said, the city has made small improvements toward caring for the homeless population.
“I think there is a lot of good changes happening, in terms of programs and the availability of housing. There is this big push on housing first, an idea where you house people where they are at. Whether they are actively using, you house people who have disabilities. You don’t make them get clean or have x number of sober days before you let them in,” Ulrich said. “Then you provide wraparound services and case management.
“The idea is that it’s easier to address these issues if they are in a stable environment. A lot of programs now operate under this model,” Ulrich said.
Eric Phillips will tell you that he has seen his fair share of struggles. Before he admitted himself to the services at the Jimmie Hale Mission (JHM), Phillips had struggled with addiction for more than 20 years.
“It wasn’t just an alcohol addiction. It was an addiction to the party lifestyle. It was all-encompassing,” Phillips said. “This place saved me.”
Eric’s story parallels that of Jimmie Hale, who founded the organization in 1944. “Jimmie was the town drunkard, and he was good at what he did,” said Tony Cooper, executive director for the mission.
“He got so down and out that he climbed up to the top of one of the buildings here in town — I’m not sure which one, but it was one he thought would do the trick — and he was going to jump off,” Cooper said.
Before he jumped, Hale felt a hand on his chest holding him back, Cooper said. Hale wasn’t a religious man before this, but that was enough to convince him not to jump and go to a church service. This is where Hale found his mission.
Unlike some of the other shelters in town, the JHM is a faith-based organization that provides food and temporary housing for those in need. In addition, they offer extended stay programs: 16 weeks of counseling, job skills training and Bible classes. Cooper said that this year alone, they have served 208,000 meals.
When Phillips came to the JHM in 2010, he said he needed a drastic change in his life. The years of “living selfishly” had led him to a place where he was going to take his own life — not unlike Jimmie.
“Eventually everything caught up with me and it kind of compounded. My relationships, my work, my life in general was just in decline,” Phillips said.
That is when Phillips decided to come to the JHM, and take part in the 16-week program. Although he was raised in church, he said he was never very religious before coming to the JHM.
“Within five minutes of being here, I knew this is where I was supposed to be,” he said.
Since completing the 16-week program, Eric began working at the JHM, teaching at the learning center.
Cooper says that the extended program may not be for everyone, but success stories like Phillips’ are not uncommon. “We don’t apologize about being a faith-based organization, and that’s not for everyone. We let people stay here seven days a month, and I’ll tell you why. We don’t want to be enablers for them,” Cooper said.
The Jimmie Hale Mission does not use the “housing first” approach that Ulrich mentioned.
Cooper said that to JHM hopes to help those who walk in by attempting to address the underlying issues, and that by letting people stay for extended periods of time, the mission believes it can do more harm than good in many cases. When the weather is cold, though, they often make exceptions to this rule, he said.
“What we like to focus on is character building, because all lives are built on values, and that’s what we want to do. If we are just giving people a free ride, we’re not really addressing the real issue,” Cooper said. “All we ask of the people that come here is to be cooperative and to be manageable. If they aren’t ready for the extended program, what we tell them is to come back whenever they feel ready.”
‘Tis the season
Dunson, for one, said that the program at the JHM was not for him. As someone with a disability, having to cross town can be difficult, and only being able to stay for a seven days out of the month was not what he was looking for.
He says that shelters just aren’t the same as having a home. “If at the end of the day I want a beer after work, if I’m at a shelter, I can’t do that. Or if I have a lady over and she wants some Courvoisier that can’t happen,” he said with a chuckle. And that’s not just the JHM, that is every shelter — which, again, is why Dunson says people don’t make use of shelters all the time.
“People want their own place,” he said, which is why he chose the path he did.
Phillips, on the other hand, who struggled with addiction and had nowhere left to go, chose to buy into the program at the JHM.
However, neither Dunson nor Phillips would be where they are now without the help of donations made to the various shelters around Birmingham. Not surprisingly, during the holiday season, there is a spike in the number of donations made to homeless shelters.
“It’s actually beyond a spike — it’s how we keep our doors open,” Cooper said. “During the last two months of the year, we actually receive 60 percent of our donations for the year. And during that time, we spend about 75 percent of our advertising budget. So it’s not just a spike, it’s just the way it is.”
Cooper said he would love to see people give year-round the way they do during the last months of the year. There are donors that do this, but the lion’s share of the donations come at the end of the year. “These aren’t just seasonal issues,” he said, “People don’t stop having needs when the holidays are over.”
Phillips, who came to the JHM just before Thanksgiving 2010, said that for the homeless population, the holiday season can be hard, even for those who may be housed temporarily in a shelter.
“It’s just a very difficult time to be in a shelter,” Phillips said. “I actually taught a class here last week that was all about being at the Jimmie Hale Mission during the holidays, because it’s tough for everybody, it doesn’t matter who you are.”
“It also allows people to go back and really look at why they are here,” Cooper said. “For most of the people that come here, this isn’t a first stop. And the holidays are a time when people can reflect on what has led them here. Because for a lot of these people, the next two stops are either jail or death.”
For Dunson, this will be the first Christmas that he has spent in his own place in more than a decade.
And that alone is something he’s thankful for this holiday season.