Alabama is a poor state. And being the most populated city in the state, Birmingham is currently designed to perpetuate its own homelessness problem, explained Rodney Cole, executive director of the Committee to Protect the Homeless.
At a workshop last week at the Birmingham Public Library, Cole said that Birmingham manufactures its own homeless population through backwards policies and a bureaucratic disconnect. Cole wants to make a change.
He believes that the real impact that change can have on the homeless population in Birmingham is not measured in spare nickels and dimes, but rather in the effectiveness with which resources are made available to the people living on the street — resources that may provide a way home.
The CPH held its first workshop on Feb. 13 at the downtown library, which allowed homeless advocacy groups and other like-minded organizations around Birmingham to come together and share their ideas.
“Individually, these organizations do what they can, oftentimes very effectively, but imagine how much stronger our impact could be if we were to pool our resources together,” Cole explained. “We want to develop fluidity between us so that we can take care of people in a better way with wraparound services and the connectivity that is required to keep these people from falling back off the grid once we have encapsulated them in our programs that are designed to bring them out of homelessness.”
According to data released from the U.S. Census Bureau, Alabama is the seventh-poorest state in the union, with 19 percent of the adult population living below the poverty line. The data also indicates that closer to home, in Birmingham, 28.9 percent of the population live under the poverty line.
By Cole’s count, the streets of Birmingham are home to about 484 chronically homeless individuals, some of whom have been on the streets for 20 years or more.
“What we’re trying to do is to show that homelessness is impactful in a way that impedes the capability to progress on an individual basis,” Cole said. “Some of these guys have been on the street for 25-30 years and have lost the skillset to actually be able to navigate through a lot of their issues.”
Cole argues that once a person is deemed homeless and forced to endure the stress and dangers of life on the streets, their skillset and overall ability to contribute to society begins to erode. Beyond that, by simply being homeless, their chances of being arrested increase substantially.
“Homeless are more susceptible to inconsistencies or pressures on their legal parameters simply because they are homeless. Oftentimes they are ticketed for things like urinating outside and indecent exposure,” Cole said.
“When they collect these various fines and they get these things being imposed on them, being homeless, they can’t afford to pay those fines. Oftentimes they will stand before a judge and the judge will say ‘I’ll give you 90 days to come back with $1,500.’ So yeah, the guy in trouble is going to say to the judge, ‘I’ll give you whatever you want,’ just so he can get out those doors and not be locked behind bars. But he already knows in his head he won’t ever come back because he won’t have the money and it becomes a game of catch me when you catch me,” Cole said.
Inevitably, Cole said, those who can’t afford to pay the fines are rounded up and charged with another court cost and more fines that they couldn’t pay in the first place.
This is why Cole believes that Birmingham manufactures its own homeless population.
“In the city of Birmingham, when you get incarcerated for back fines, you pay back the city at a rate of $15 a day. Imagine a man who has racked up $1,500-$3,000 in fees. Imagine how long it will take to pay back that money. The other side of that point, the federal government pays the city $300 or more a day for every inmate they keep. Do you see anything wrong with that picture?” Cole asked.
The workshop focused on bringing together different organizations in such a way that will facilitate cooperation between services for the indigent population in Birmingham. Representatives from organizations such as Disability Rights and Resources, the Public Health Network and the Neighborhood Housing Services of Birmingham were on hand to confer and share their directives.
Rev. Ronnie Williams, president and founder of the Public Health Network, sees the “abject failure” of Birmingham’s healthcare system for indigent patients as one of the most pressing issues faced by those living in poverty in Jefferson County.
“The first priority of this collaborative is the preservation of life, but also improving the quality of life,” Williams said.
In the wake of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital closing its inpatient clinic and drastically cutting back on health services available to the uninsured and indigent population in Jefferson County last year, the entire healthcare structure in Birmingham was affected, he noted.
Perhaps most importantly, the homeless population was left without viable health resources from the biggest single provider of indigent health services in the county.
“When I talk about indigent, I’m also talking about Medicaid patients,” Williams explained. “Chances are if those people go to UAB hospital or St. Vincent’s…they won’t be able to find a primary care physician based on the reimbursement structure to the Medicaid and Medicare.
“So when Cooper Green was taken away, it not only took away a large segment of people who were serving the community that were poor, homeless, but it also took away primary care for those who are on Medicaid,” Williams said.
“What is going to happen to people when these people can’t get medical attention?” Williams asked. “Are they just going to die? The conclusion was, when Cooper Green went under, that you can expect an increase in death.”
Aside from facilitating avenues for the homeless to access legal and health services, the CPH and their new collaboration with local organizations is looking to build trust within the homeless population that often remains wary of help being provided to them.
“Trust is a major thing for the homeless population,” Cole said. “If in fact you are going to be able to be effective, the people have to be able to trust what you do.”
Cole added that transportation for the homeless community is another underlying issue that needs to be addressed. For those living in poverty, he explained, it can take hours to get across town to one clinic, only to have them turn that patient away. So for Cole, establishing trust is absolutely vital.
“Right now, in Birmingham we’re using the stick, when I believe wholeheartedly that caring could do so much more,” Cole said. “That caring is our connectivity between one another, so that when a person that comes to me, I can say, ‘I know exactly who you need to talk to and exactly where you need to go to fix your situation.’”
Last week’s workshop, organizers hope, was the initial step towards impacting a change for Birmingham’s homeless population. With the new collaborative effort, Cole hopes that the CPH can be the path for people to get off the streets and into a home.
As Cole puts it, “Homelessness is not their problem, it’s our problem. It costs us all — in some fashion or another — it affects us all.”