The operators of one of Birmingham’s oldest standing homeless shelters want to move and rebuild, creating a larger, more welcoming building in a more suitable location.
If they succeed, the new Firehouse Shelter will add to and improve upon the services it currently provides.
“This building was never meant to service the amount of people that we service,” said Anne Wright, executive director of the Firehouse Shelter, currently located at 1501 Third Ave. N. “It’s basically collapsing around itself, and it has been for many, many years. “
As befits its name, the nonprofit Firehouse Shelter started as a fire station in 1906. Its old designation, no. 6 is visible over the entrance in bright white letters. Like the outline of an old ruin, one of the two bays where fire trucks formerly went in and out is bricked up, but the other still opens for delivery trucks to unload items for the shelter’s kitchen.
In 1983 the Downtown Cooperative Ministries converted the red-brick, city-owned building into a homeless shelter. With an annual budget that averages about $1.7 million, much of it funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the building is now one of three emergency shelters in the city. Its clients are chiefly chronically homeless men, defined by HUD as having a disability, being homeless for a year or having had four periods of homelessness in three years.
For years those who work at the Firehouse, as well as area advocates for the homeless, have been saying the old building has long outlived its usefulness.
“There is a move toward the ‘Housing First’ approach that promotes getting folks into permanent housing as soon as possible, and that works well with some people,” says Chris Retan, director of Aletheia House, a facility which provides job training, affordable housing placement, drug treatment and other services to youths and adults. “But my concern is that we continue to need shelters like the Firehouse Shelter now… The building is falling apart. Funding is inadequate. Sleeping areas and bathrooms are rough.”
A new, two-story building would accommodate more beds as well as some of the programs that, for lack of space, the current Firehouse Shelter has had to establish elsewhere under less than ideal conditions. Unlike the current building, the new concrete, glass and steel one also would be more durable and fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The campaign to raise funds for a new building will formally start on April 7 with a luncheon at The Club featuring University of Alabama Athletics Director Bill Battle. The campaign’s goal is to raise about $8 million to build the new and improved building on a city-block-sized site about a mile west of the current site, at 626 Second Ave. N. Wright hopes the campaign will reach its goal in about two years, but she said that doing so will be a challenge, largely because of the constituency the Firehouse serves.
“Capturing donors… for chronically homeless men is so difficult,” said Wright, a Birmingham area native who has been the Firehouse’s executive director for two and a half years. “It’s easier to raise a dollar for a homeless puppy than it is [for] a homeless man.”
Earlier this year, Wright, along with Don Lupo, director of the Mayor’s Office of Citizens Assistance and a Firehouse Shelter board member, met with Mayor William Bell to seek his support for the fund drive. When the mayor stated his support for the Firehouse expansion in his State of the City address, where his audience included members of the city’s corporate community, Wright was pleased and surprised. But she hopes the mayor’s supportive words will lead to “something more tangible.”
“I think Mayor Bell is absolutely sympathetic to our cause. I think the city understands that homelessness is a huge issue, if for no other reason than in their front lawn at the City Hall [Linn Park], they have a huge homeless population,” Wright said. “So we have to work together cooperatively to translate that knowledge, that awareness, into support.”
What the shelter provides
The Firehouse operation involves more than the services it provides at the Third Avenue building, but activities there make it one of the city’s main homeless hubs. Among other things, the old building serves as an emergency shelter for 50 men and can accommodate 20 more in severe weather. Elsewhere in the city, it provides overnight bed space to about 150 men in other locations. In 2015 it served about 113,670 meals (breakfasts, lunches, dinners and afternoon snacks except for Tuesdays and Fridays) and provided a variety of services to more than 4,000 adults and 126 children (those 18 and under).
The old building has a clothes closet, serves as a mail pickup point for homeless clients, has a street outreach team and maintains a laundry where clients can leave clothes for cleaning. In its close quarters, homeless men and women meet with volunteer nurses, caseworkers and lawyers and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Bible study sessions and adult education classes.
Managing the space to accommodate these scheduled and unscheduled activities is a constant challenge, and the building’s deterioration has compounded the problem. Its solemn exterior, uninviting even on sunny days, is another liability.
“Firehouse does some phenomenal work,” says Michelle Farley, executive director of One Roof, the coordinating agency for homeless service providers in Birmingham and Jefferson, Shelby and St. Clair counties. “They keep that building as clean as possible, but there is a great segment of our society that would never walk [through] the doors of the Firehouse Shelter because of the way it looks. I think the physical structure of the Firehouse is keeping us from expanding their volunteer base, their base of people who want to be involved in ending homelessness. That’s a scary building.”
Structural and aesthetic issues, challenges for neighbors
One of the biggest problems was the building’s roof. It had needed a new one for years, and “when it rained, it was literally raining in the back of the building,” Wright said. Water damage was a constant headache, and the moisture enabled mushrooms to grow in the clothes closet. The city finally fixed the roof late last year and installed sprinklers, and a $50,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham helped repair the interior damage caused by the old roof’s leaks.
Even with these improvements, however, the building is poorly insulated and lacks bed space to separate youngsters staying overnight for the first time from the street-hardened older clients. It also has no elevator, only a narrow stairway to the second-floor sleeping quarters that is difficult, if not impossible, for older and disabled clients to climb.
And as anyone who travels past the building at mealtimes knows, the Firehouse has no interior space to accommodate long lines of the hungry. Whatever the weather, those lines stretch along the sidewalk outside the building, and border the busy street.
“Those lines make our city look bad,” Farley says. “Those lines tick off nearby businesses and those lines don’t help the men at all. If you were experiencing the worst time in your life, would you want to be seen standing outside the Firehouse Shelter just to get a meal, just to get into that building to have a place to lay your head at night? Those men don’t want to be seen and frankly, our community does not want to see them. It’s a problem.”
On a recent mild, sunny afternoon about two hours after lunch had been served, 28-year-old Travis Austin was hanging out in front of the old building. He said he has worked construction here and there, and showed the wallet-sized certificate he recently received for completing a Firehouse-arranged introduction to welding class at Lawson State Community College.
Austin said he has been working with Firehouse folks to get a permanent place to live. Meanwhile, he said, he has been sleeping at the Firehouse for about a year. He wishes the meals had a little less pizza and that some other things in the shelter were different.
But overall Austin described the food and bedding as “fine.” Besides, he added, “I really ain’t got no choice because I really don’t have nowhere else to go.”
If in the future Firehouse clients like Austin go to a new shelter in a new location, businesses around the old building will welcome the change — but not because they are hostile to the homeless.
Next door to the current Firehouse, on its east side, is Rex’s Auto Service, a full service auto repair business that has been in its Third Avenue location nearly as long as the Firehouse has been operating as a shelter. Denise Bearden, Rex’s vice president, has struggled to balance her desire to run a successful business with what she views as her God-given obligation to care for the less fortunate, epitomized by the clumps of homeless men and women who stand outside the shelter every day.
“The only time I’ve seen Denise get frustrated is every year, they plant new bushes out front and every year, the guys pee on the bushes and kill the bushes,” Wright said.
“I’m called to love those people and I do love them,” Bearden said. “But it’s very difficult to run a business next to a homeless shelter.’’
“People that don’t understand homelessness view them as a threat,” Bearden added. “They’re afraid. They don’t want to park their car in a place where there are 15 men standing out there. They feel threatened. I have to constantly tell them they [the men] are homeless, they’re harmless, you know. They don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Over the years, Bearden and her husband Rex, the company president, have paid some of the homeless men to clean up debris along the sidewalk and trim some shrubs. But they say the need for a cleanup is constant, and they have become weary of it.
“If somebody would say, ‘What is the worst thing about being next to the Firehouse, I would say, ‘Sweeping up their cigarette butts because they watch me sweep ‘em up as they throw more on the ground,’” Denise Bearden said. “On Monday morning, it is terrible down here. I’ve wanted to take my dustpan over there and say, ‘Look at what you guys did.’”
The Beardens also said the presence of the Firehouse and its milling clients, along a street already pockmarked by dilapidated and vacant buildings, is not exactly a beckoning welcome mat for those coming into downtown Birmingham from the west.
“People tell us every day, ‘I come by here all the time and I never even saw you’ because they’re looking at that,” Denise Bearden said. “They’re looking at the people on the street. Their trash.”
A mile to the west, at the corner of Seventh Street and Second Avenue North, is the lot that Wright hopes will be the future home of a new and vastly improved Firehouse Shelter. A large sign at the lot’s southeast corner shows an artist’s renderings, in color, of the new facility. The lot, zoned to accommodate a homeless shelter, is generally quiet because this stretch of Second Avenue North is not the thoroughfare that Third Avenue North is, and Wright said it is not so far out that clients cannot get there, especially on foot.
“You can have the best facility in the world, but if you can’t access it by foot, people aren’t going to come,” Wright said. “Especially not our clients.”
Directly across Second Avenue from the site are two buildings with corrugated metal roofs with a faded sign bearing the name General Welding Co. On a recent afternoon, two trucks were parked outside, and a “For Sale” sign on the side of one of the buildings had a fresher look than the rest of the rusting complex. Diagonally across the street from there is Birmingham Woodworks, a high end furniture-making, home-improvement operation in which the smell of sawdust is omnipresent and visitors have to ring a doorbell to gain entry. If the new Firehouse Shelter is built, it will be next door to the woodworking business, a five-second walk across Seventh Street.
Dan Brogan manages Birmingham Woodworks. Like Denise Bearden, he says homelessness is a community issue that cannot be ignored. But he wonders how the proposed new Firehouse Shelter might impact his business. About once a week, Brogan says someone rings the Birmingham Woodworks doorbell and asks for a handout or a job. He fears more doorbell-ringing and handout-seeking and a lot of noisy loitering if the new shelter is not built according to the proposed design.
“If it is designed right and it has its own courtyard, they can loiter there,” Brogan said. “But my concern would be if they don’t get enough money, they go ahead and do it, they downsize it, they eliminate a lot of the things that they don’t think are important like a courtyard and all this other stuff. Then they are going to have loitering in the street, and I’m going to have big issues with that, and I’ll call the damn police down here.”
Wright is sympathetic to concerns like those of Brogan, acknowledging that no one really wants a homeless shelter “in their backyard.” But, she added, the Firehouse planners have no “intention to impede growth and development or certainly an individual’s business.”
A bright new vision
“Homeless men can be a put off, but that’s why we’ve [planned] the entire building around an interior courtyard,” Wright said.
The courtyard will be a major feature of a new building that, if all goes according to plan, will have more to offer its clients, inside and out. Overall, the facility will look like a two-story campus classroom building, with faculty offices, lots of windows and thus lots of natural light, Wright says. The courtyard, reflecting the planners’ desire that the building convey an atmosphere of dignity and respect, will be a place where clients can line up for meals, eat those meals at picnic tables, take smoking breaks and exercise. For employees and volunteers the facility will have well-lit, off-street parking, low-cut shrubbery and 24-hour security. The facility also will be staffed 24/7, and that arrangement will enable clients whose work schedules end late at night to enter later than the 9 p.m. evening deadline now enforced at the current building.
Inside, the new building will have more space for seating, TV watching and waiting to see a case manager; a space for meditation, prayer or religious services; more and better equipped bathrooms; a large classroom that can seat up to 64 or be partitioned off for smaller group meetings; and a dining hall able to seat 126, compared with the 100 that squeeze into the current room. It also will have greater capacity to clean and store clothing — both donated and belonging to clients.
The building’s emergency shelter will be bigger as well, with capacity for 102 and with half-wall partitions providing some privacy between bunks, as well as lockers for personal belongings. Part of the new building will have a section for Safe Haven, a program that provides permanent supportive housing in the form of rooms to house up to 24 mentally ill men. Firehouse currently houses Safe Haven clients in a fraying apartment complex on a hillside in Fountain Heights.
“That is costing the Firehouse Shelter three times at least what it ought to cost because they’re making do with what they have,” Michelle Farley said.
“Fountain Heights has been a great program, very successful, with very, very few incidents,” Wright said. But she added that its residents, even those who have jobs, are “basically sitting sequestered in the neighborhood.”
“I want to give them more opportunity to [interact with] a larger community,” Wright said. “Exposure may prompt them to take steps to improve the quality of their lives.”
Another added feature in the new building will be a “wet room” where several homeless men with “alcohol issues” can stay away from the general population and sober up if they happen to be intoxicated. There also will be space targeted for about six youngsters between the ages 18 and 24 who are new to the streets and who would be better served with bed space separate from that in the emergency shelter.
Hope for better community connections
With the added space and new programs, it would seem that the new Firehouse will need more staff than the 20 full-timers and five part-timers who work in the old building.
Wright said that adding staff is a likelihood, but she is hoping the new facility will draw more volunteers.
“We don’t want a new building because we want to grow as an agency,” Wright said. “This is a community agency and we want the community to be more involved. Of course, you need paid staff, of course, you need trained staff… But a lot of those roles that especially take [place] during the day can be filled in with people in the community… That’s what we’re really hoping to do with this building, is have a safe environment for people to become more intimate with the homeless population. So instead of giving people a dollar, they can actually come and give of their talents and their time, of themselves.”
With the fundraising campaign about to begin, Wright is keenly aware that the Firehouse attempted a joint campaign with the downtown Jimmie Hale Mission some years back. While that effort did not work out for the Firehouse, Jimmie Hale is now in a new, enclosed location near Sloss Furnaces.
A devil’s advocate might ask, Why not let the existing Firehouse just fade away? Other facilities will take on their clients, right?
“That is the furthest from the truth,” said Michelle Farley. “The Firehouse Shelter takes those clients that everybody puts out… And frankly, if we don’t get them moved, get them some space… increase their capacity to serve, we will never be successful in ending homelessness in our community, and that’s about as strong but as truthful and completely frank as I can be, because they handle the people that nobody else will.”
Those interested in attending the Firehouse Shelter’s “Steps for Success” fundraising luncheon with Bill Battle on April 7 can call Catherine Bedingfield at 205-567-9002 or register through their website, www.firehouseshelter.com . Those wishing to donate to the campaign for the new shelter can also do so through the website. On the home page,hit the “Get Involved” button, then go to the “Donate” button in your list of options. The Donate section has a space for additional information where you can state the purpose of your contribution.