Without a Place: Homeless in Alabama

"Catchout Corner"

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90.3 WBHM | Birmingham -- Spring is only a few days away, but on this chilly late winter morning, a barrel of fire is in full view of the cars and trucks that whiz along busy 14th Street, between 1st Avenues North and South. For about a dozen of the official 3,200 homeless people in the Birmingham area, loafing and waiting and warming are all in a days work.

Catchout CornerThis is a notorious spot among the homeless at the crossroads of Birmingham: to the north, gleaming skyscrapers, the picture of success. To the south, UAB and its world-renowned medical center, a place for research and recovery.

Welcome to Catchout Corner.

"...it's where guys – they live up under the bridge, and they wake up first thing in the morning, to catchout on jobs that comes (sic) through..."

This man, known as 'New York' on the streets, is also hoping to catchout on a job, so he can find better, less-dangerous accommodations.

"It's a little rough down here. People get shot sometimes. Cut sometimes. A lot of fights. A lot of alcoholism. I don't drink myself. But a lot of alcoholism."

And you can see the empty liquor bottles; it smells of booze and urine in this alcove -- what should be the continuation of sidewalk under the overpass. Above are railroad tracks. Below: cold concrete. There are flattened dirty mattresses here for sleeping. Bundles of clothes and other possessions abandoned by day and reclaimed at night.

"...they basically, live out here, wake up first thing in the morning to find jobs...(so this is the railroad track overpass that we're walking through right now – and you come out of here, and people basically just hang out in this area to get work?) yep. They stand on the corner of...they stand by the fires and get work. (And you do the same thing?) Yeah. Yeah. (Do you get work?) Yeah. Some days. Some days not."

'New York' is 39, left a wife and child behind in Rochester where he says he worked for Xerox making six figures. He suffers from depression – a quarter of the American homeless population has some sort of mental illness. He says he was hooked on drugs, but has been clean for two months. He moved in with his parents in Talladega, but says it didn't work out. He came to Birmingham to find opportunity... that was 5 years ago. He characterizes his descent into homelessness as 'Xerox to zero.'

'New York' is a member of a small club, the chronically homeless. These are people who've been on the streets longer than a year, are single and disabled or addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Michelle Farley, MBSH

"...this is actually only 10 percent of the total homeless population. But because they are so needy, they use between 45 and 60 percent of all the resources."

Michelle Farley is the acting Executive Director of Metropolitan Birmingham Services for the Homeless – or MBSH -- an umbrella organization that coordinates homeless providers throughout the area and applies for grants and foundation money to fill homeless needs.

"They suck up huge amounts of money from our hospital system, from our jail system, from the prison system, all mainstream resources. They take extreme amounts of time, of money of effort.

Because of that, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – or HUD -- has mandated the elimination of chronic homelessness by the year 2012.

First Light Building

Recently, HUD cited Birmingham, along with a handful of other cities – Columbus, Ohio, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, LA and San Diego - for its in efforts to end chronic homelessness.

Local HUD Operations Specialist Hollis Wormsby.

"It's something that every American citizen should be concerned with. That in a country with the wealth and with the wonders that are a part of this land that we call home, that there's no reason that people should be sleeping under the bridge. And I would encourage your listening audience to be responsive."

But despite the accolades for Birmingham, there are still people living under the bridges – nobody knows for sure just how many, and that's why MBSH and other providers conduct an annual survey of the homeless. It asks questions about education level, substance abuse and types of mental illness.

HUD's Hollis Wormsby

Everybody that's reachable gets a survey, whether they are on Catchout Corner or in shelters such as the Old Firehouse a few blocks away...

Steve Freeman is Executive Director.

"Why this document here is so important as far as the survey itself is because then we as service providers come together and analyze this and set down the priorities for the community...so that we can make sure that the money that's coming into this community from the federal government is being used for the greatest need."

MBSH gets its money from the federal government -- more than 5 and a half million dollars this year from HUD, but money also comes from foundations and churches.

Most of the money coming from the city of Birmingham comes in the form of community development block grants and emergency shelter grants, about $816,000 this year. Some money in an already strapped city budget has been earmarked for a temporary shelter. It will house as many homeless as possible on cold or stormy nights or when 'doorway dwellers' -- those who sleep in the covered entrances to office or loft buildings – are a problem.

"We in Birmingham seem to be the magnet."

Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid

Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid.

"...and while this isn't a position that we covet or we necessarily want it, we do have to take care of the least of these; they are here and somehow, part of the resources of the city has to be apportioned to that problem. We think we do a fairly good job; some say too good a job, because of the services we provide, it invites the homeless to come. But it's just one of those situations that we in urban areas have to deal with."

And dealing is expensive. It may take someone months – even years -- to find enough work or to pull enough resources together to get off the streets.

In 'New York's' case, he's got to stay clean and seek treatment for his depression. He says help is out there.

"...the homeless people have a lot of opportunities that they don't take. They could be better off in terms of what they are but they don't take the opportunities that's out there."

But the odds are stacked against him: there're drugs everywhere on the streets, booze to get hooked on. Honestly, 'New York' may not make it at all.

The opportunity for him is to take his own advice.

~Steve Chiotakis, March 18, 2004