Holidays for the homeless at the Jimmie Hale Mission are a time of both chaos and kindness.
What began out of a storefront chapel in 1944 now includes several residential centers for homeless and/or recovering addicts — the Jimmie Hale Mission, a Christian organization co-founded by a reformed “town drunk,” Jimmie Hale, and his new bride Jessie.
In November 1944, eight months after founding the mission, Hale died at age 39 from residual alcohol damage. He left behind his 27-year-old widow, pregnant and homeless.
Jessie Hale chose to continue the mission, and in 1954, after a rough 10 years, Leo Shepura joined her in the mission’s work. Their business partnership lasted 36 years before they both retired in 1990.
The Jimmie Hale Mission has multiple centers — the Shepura Men’s Center, Royal Pines Center, Jessie’s Place, Stewart Learning Centers and Mission Possible Bargain Centers — serving Birmingham’s homeless population.
The downtown Shepura Men’s Center, a homeless shelter and separate recovery program for men, and Jessie’s Place, an intermediate shelter for homeless women and children, bustle this time of year, serving as the home base for many during the holiday season.
“Fourth quarter — November, December — we go into turbo drive,” Director of Advancement Bonnie Hendrix says.
Tony Cooper, executive director, agrees. “Like everybody else, this time of the year is on the border of organized chaos,” he says, noting that donations increase seven- or eightfold, with the mission receiving 55 percent of its annual income in the last two months of the year.
Needs also increase during the cold weather. “[A homeless person] might’ve been getting by okay, had a little system worked out,” Hendrix explains. “When that cold weather hits, it just really changes things.”
For that reason, the 160-bed shelter maintains a “cold weather policy.”
Hendrix says, “When it’s cold like this, we can’t turn anyone away. We’ll pull out cots and blankets.”
The shelter also serves more meals over the holidays, with close to 1,000 Thanksgiving plates at the Shepura Center alone, Kitchen Supervisor Jimmy Poe says.
The center serves dinner Thanksgiving and Christmas Eves and lunch and dinner on the actual holidays. Poe supervises it all, happy to be there after getting his start in the drug recovery program in April 2011.
“When you think about a homeless man, you think of the guys you see under the bridges,” he says. “It is not always like that.”
Poe himself came from a “Leave It to Beaver family,” he says, and at one time had worked for Delta Airlines for a decade. But by the age of 52, after three marriages and countless jobs, he had nowhere to go.
“Every job I had and every relationship I had eventually fell apart because of my drug and alcohol abuse.”
Growing up, Poe knew of the Jimmie Hale Mission because his mother always donated old items and volunteered there. “I’m sure she never thought in her wildest dreams that her son would ever need that,” Poe says. “But I didn’t know where else to go.”
Poe’s stay lasted from April 2011 to January 2012. Now Poe is reconciled with his wife, runs the music ministry at New Faith Baptist Church, and supervises three meals a day, 365 days a year at the center.
“You meet him and you go, ‘Wow. You were homeless?’” Hendrix says.
While never technically homeless, Hendrix’s point about the people who stay at the shelter is clear. “They’re just regular people. There’s a lot of myths about the homeless being transients, moving from state to state. Years and years and years ago that was the case. But nowadays, homeless are really local people who’ve just fallen on hard times.”
According to the mission’s website, three out of four homeless people are Birmingham residents, three out of five are younger than 46, and 85 percent have been homeless for less than a year.
For those whom homelessness and/or drug addiction is a recurring problem, the men’s shelter has a separate drug recovery program, the one from which Poe graduated.
Cooper says, “It is worthy to give someone shelter overnight if they don’t have one. But I want to help them get to the point to where they don’t need a shelter.”
The program houses 120 men and consists of three different phases. An average day involves individual Bible study, one group Bible study, one substance abuse class and individual counseling with a chaplain.
Around the holidays, the center keeps the routine pretty much the same.
“There is a certain amount of depression and sadness. That’s just normal,” Poe says. “We as alcoholics and addicts have done a lot of damage to our families. Part of the reason that we drink and that we drug is so that we don’t have to feel any of that. This may be the first sober Christmas for a lot of the guys. And they’re feeling a lot of that.
“You can still see it on some of the faces sometimes. Some of the guys that are feeling the hurt, feeling the guilt from a lot of years of what they’ve done to their families in the past. That’s just part of it.”
Poe spent a Thanksgiving and Christmas in the center. “It was tough,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t.” He remembered his own family holidays, eating at the big table off the good china, and he felt a loss at not being there.
He remembers, though, small kindnesses at the center. “They took these plastic boxes, and from all of the donations of stuff put one beside every guy’s bed who was here, kind of like Santa Claus had come in the night.”
The small gifts — socks, candy canes — made him feel cared for. “I knew that this had become an extension of my family.”
Poe does not mind talking about his story — “His nickname from Mr. Cooper is Don Juan, because he likes to do interviews,” his colleague Billy McCollough says — but some do.
“They are ashamed of their story right now, and it’s painful for them,” Cooper says, requesting that Weld only use residents’ first names and last initials.
“There’s probably no way that you and I can comprehend the emotions and the challenges of what they are going through,” Cooper says. “You are [in a shelter] because your life has become unmanageable. You just aren’t able to keep it together. You wound up unemployed or addicted.”
Holidays, “a mixed bag” of emotions according to Cooper, may be even more difficult. “[Holidays] compound it,” he says. “Because what do you think about during Thanksgiving or Christmas? You think about family. What is a holiday without family?”
Not all of the residents seem ashamed, and several volunteer to talk, some confidently, others quietly.
Nicholas S. speaks quietly. In the program for the second time, he misses his family, his wife and three daughters, ages six, three and one.
“It’s hard,” he says. “It’s hard being here.
“In another perspective,” he says, “it’s kind of a great thing knowing that I’ll be a better person all around when I leave here.”
He plans to study at UAB to become an EMT and hopes to reconcile with his wife. “My wife will realize that I am here to get right for them, and I will be a better person when I leave here this time, and I mean it.”
DeMorris D. misses his family too. “It’s kind of bittersweet. You want to be with your family over the holidays. But…nobody made me come here. I placed myself here.”
Solomon F. is not here by choice. He came on a court order and graduated from the Learning Center Dec. 12. The 56-year-old says, “It was very hard, because it’s been 30 years since I was in school. I’m happy because I’ve learned a lot.”
Henry S., all smiles in a bright yellow shirt and tie, is also happy. He arrived at the center in October of 2013.
“I was getting ready to jump the train,” he says. “The spirit spoke to me and said go to the Jimmie Hale Mission.”
He will not see his Mobile-based family around the holidays, but does not seem to mind. He says, “I’m more or less the black sheep of the family.”
He chooses the adjectives peaceful, warm, loving and kind to describe the center around the holidays. “It makes you feel safe,” he says. “It makes you feel loved.”
For him, it’s not hard. “It’s as easy as you make it or as hard as you make it.”
For Tony H., it is a little bit of both. Tony returned to the center a month ago for his second attempt at the program, citing his 2-year-old daughter as the reason.
“Every time I think about Christmas, I think about her. I’m doing this for her,” he says. “I’m away from my family, but it’s just like family.”
One mile away, that sentiment echoes at Jessie’s Place, which houses up to 35 women and children for three to six months.
“It’s a great place to be,” Felecia S. says of the center. “It’s an extended family for me.”
Her Jessie’s Place family, which she has been a part of since arriving in June, is important to her because it is her first year away from her own family. The mother of two is accustomed to keeping her four grandchildren for Christmas. “I had their own tree for them,” she says.
While she was feeling sad about not being with them at first, it has gotten easier. “As it is getting closer and closer, I know they are loved, and they know that I love them.”
Vickie S. has a 37-year-old son she will not see. “This Christmas, I am alone again,” she says, “except for here.”
Jessie’s Place Executive Director Melissa Smitha says, “Ms.Vickie wandered the streets for 21 years, and in seven months, she has an apartment that is awesome.”
The shelter has given Vickie her life back.
Vickie, now in the aftercare program, says, “The shelter is all about you going in due to being homeless…and it helps you get on your feet. I have applied for a government phone, a blue card to go to the doctor, and I renewed my SSI card.”
As for her son? “He’s out there, and I’m sure he understands.”
While Vickie was homeless for 21 years, Suzanne B. was homeless for a day before coming to the center, where she has been for less than a week.
“Things fell apart,” she says. “This is my first Christmas without my very large family, and I don’t really feel any difference. I don’t know if it is my personality or just the love and kindness that comes through from Jessie’s Place. I’m a survivor, and I can do this.”
Patty P. has been at the center for nearly three weeks after getting out of the Fellowship House, an in-patient drug recovery program. “I had nowhere to go,” she says.
Regarding spending her holidays at the center, she says, “It’s hard. I have a sister in town, and I won’t be able to see her during the holidays.”
Rhonda J., a native New Yorker who has been residing at the center since February, would not characterize her holiday experience as harder: “This is a new time in my life where the Lord is showing me His way…and the life He wants for me. So for me this is actually a better experience in terms of being around family, community and relationships during Christmas, which is something I did not have a lot of before.”
Beverly W. is also grateful to be here with her 7-year-old twins, Annabelle and Mikey. Last Christmas, they were living with her niece. “It was a really depressing time,” she says. “We didn’t have much money, the house was cold.”
She and her children were homeless about three months before coming to Jessie’s Place. In their 6-month residence, Beverly has replaced her birth certificate and Social Security card and will soon pass her GED at age 47. “Somebody can just give you a structure to sleep in. But if you don’t figure out why or what put you there, you can’t go forward.”
Moving forward and staying positive are important to the residents, as long-term success rates are low. “The reality of rehabs everywhere is you have a lot more failures than you have successes,” Poe says.
He likes to focus on the successes, though. “You just have to hang onto the parable of the 99 sheep. We want to go out and find that one lost sheep and we’ll celebrate that one.”
Rhonda, too, remains unfazed by statistics: “I am seeing a lot of miracles happening here.”
For more information on the Jimmie Hale Mission, visit jimmiehalemission.com.