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Hungry People

Have you ever started a conversation with someone when you KNEW that what you had to say might not be very palatable? Forget “not very palatable…;” what you have to say might just annoy people…  This is one of those times. Because I know that what I am about to say might be controversial, I ask you now to just stay with me until the end…hear me out please.

Back to the hungry people.  There was an item in the national news last August regarding “feeding the homeless.” The short story is that a church group in Raleigh had been going to a City park on weekends for six years to hand out food to “the homeless.” In August they were stopped by the police and told that they could no longer distribute food because of a city ordinance. The church was upset, the police were upset, the Mayor and City council were upset, and the people not being fed were upset. The comments were free-flowing, the rhetoric spewed forth from both sides, and very few of those making comments really stopped to listen to the others.

The story reminded me a great deal of our situation here in Birmingham.

  1. We are blessed with a large number of generous, mission-minded church and civic groups that see need in our community and/or hear the voice of God and are moved to “feed the homeless,” and usually share the gospel as well. Many church and civic groups take food to Birmingham parks and other public places and distribute that food plus clothing or other items to the people assumed to be homeless who congregate there.
  2. We have 1469 men, women and children who experience homelessness on any given night. This number includes those in emergency shelter, homeless programs, and those who sleep on the streets, in abandoned buildings and other places that no one should have to sleep. There are many thousands more who are impoverished or at-risk of homelessness.
  3. We have an appalling shortage of affordable housing. Based on estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Alabama lacks over 90,000 affordable and available homes for individuals and families living with extremely low incomes. The Fair Market Rent (the average price so to speak) for a two-bedroom apartment is $664.00 a month.  It is recommended that a household not pay more than 30% of income on housing, which means that a household must earn $2213 monthly, or $26,554 a year to afford an apartment. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, if an individual earns the Alabama minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, s/he must work 70 hours a week, 52 weeks a year to afford that two-bedroom apartment. Please see LIHCA Fact Sheet for further statistics.
  4. We have hungry people in our area. I don’t think any of you doubt me when I say that, but just in case, let me share information from Magic City Harvest:  100,000 men, women and children in our area are food insecure. That means that they struggle throughout the year (not just at holiday time) to put food on the table, with children and seniors being our most vulnerable. While it may not be a shock to you to know that we have hungry people, it may shock you to know that 40% of all food in the United States is wasted.  By the way, Magic City Harvest is the only program in our area dedicated to recovering prepared and perishable food. Note that there are 100,000 men, women and children in our area who are food insecure. There are 1469 men women and children who are homeless on any given night….many more people hungry than have lost their homes.
  5. We have a multitude of really good social service agencies that work daily to prevent and end homelessness, and we have a number of really good people in mainstream agencies that work hard to get state and federal benefits into the hands of people most in need. Unfortunately, both the social service agencies and the mainstream benefits agencies see that the need is much greater than the resources available.

Back to the beginning of this blog…why should what I’m saying offend anyone?

Because I am going to suggest that while feeding someone in a park or other public property is, on the surface, a nice, thoughtful, caring gesture, we as a community are able to do better than this.

To find a solution to a problem or concern, you must first understand the problem. Let’s see if we can do that in a pared-down, few-bullet-points type manner.

  • Who may be hungry?
  1. Seniors living on low, fixed incomes.
  2. Children in families living on minimum wage.
  3. Individuals who are underemployed or unemployed.
  4. Families and individuals that have only Disability income to pay their bills.
  5. Families and individuals that pay so much for housing costs (rent, insurance and utilities) that they do not have enough money left over for food.
  6. Families and individuals who have experienced a personal crisis that was financially draining (job loss, car accident, hospitalization, chronic illness, divorce, etc.)
  7. Families and individuals who are living on the streets and in the sewer tunnels of our area.
  8. People who are housed in neighborhoods with little or no access to grocery stores, farmers markets, etc.
  • Why does hunger exist?
  1. Families and individuals do not have enough money to purchase all of the nutritious food that they need to NOT be hungry.
  2. Food Stamps are not sufficient to supply all of the healthy food that a person needs.
  3. We have neighborhoods that are food deserts meaning that there is no nearby grocery store to purchase fresh, healthy, market rate food, and there is insufficient public transportation to take neighborhood residents to grocery stores.
  4. It is difficult for people living on the streets to get three meals a day, every day.
  5. The cost of living has risen 67% since 1990 but the real value of the minimum wage has increased only 21%.
  • What makes people want to “feed the homeless?”
  1. It feels good to help someone else.
  2. Some people feel it is their mission/calling to feed people.
  3. The general public wants to “help others.”
  4. Some schools and civic organizations require volunteer or community service hours.
  5. Parents want children to understand that not everyone has material blessings.
  • When are people hungry?
  1. People experiencing homelessness can get at least one meal per day, every day of the week. Firehouse Shelter and Salvation Army serve a community lunch every day and anyone can receive that meal without explaining their need. There are several additional agencies that serve breakfast or brunch, or offer a sack lunch most days of the week.
  2. There is less food available from social service agencies on the weekends than during the week.
  3. People who are housed but who do not have sufficient income for food tend to be most in need the last two weeks of the month. By this time, food stamp allocations have been used up and income has been expended.
  4. People who live in neighborhoods that are food deserts are hungry any time transportation to a grocery store is insufficient or unavailable.
  • What are people hungry for?
  1. People who are housed but in need, and people experiencing homelessness generally have access to only the cheapest foods (potatoes, rice, bread, cheap fatty meat cuts) and have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and quality lean meats. The cheap foods also tend to be the most unhealthy, and the more expensive foods are the most healthy. This means that needy people often tend to be hungry for healthy foods.
  2. People who are housed but in need, are hungry for a way out of poverty, whether that means a job that pays a decent wage, or a home that is structurally sound so that utility bills are affordable, or access to technical training or higher education.
  3. People experiencing homelessness are hungry for the things they need to get out of homelessness permanently. For most these would include a decent, affordable place to live; a  job, or a better job than the one they have; possibly drug or alcohol treatment; mental health care; access to affordable medical care; and a support system of some sort.
  • What is the goal of providing food in public places?
  1. Provide food so that people are not hungry.
  2. Fulfill a personal or spiritual mission.
  3. Educate children and young people.
  4. Get a good feeling for having helped someone less fortunate than yourself.
  • What are alternatives to feeding needy people in public places?
  1. Work with neighborhood leaders to develop a food pantry in needy neighborhoods so that residents have access to quality food when it is needed. Your actions may very well help prevent homelessness.
  2. Donate funds or nonperishable foods to already existing food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and donate prepared/ excess food to the food reclamation agency, Magic City Harvest. Food gets to the people in need, and waste is reduced.
  3. Partner with existing social service agencies serving people who are homeless to serve food and to have social or spiritual time with the clients. Those social service agencies will have restrooms available so that people being fed can wash their hands and use the restroom after a meal. There will also be case managers available who are experienced in assisting people to overcome the barriers that keep them homeless.
  4. Work with your local school to see if children who receive reduced or free lunches are given some sort of take-home ready-to-eat meals for weekends. If not, can you provide help?
  5. Consider volunteering with or donating to a Meals on Wheels program for seniors in need.
  6. Talk with your house of worship or your civic organization to work on strategies that can prevent homelessness and get people out of homelessness. Call One Roof for more information.
  7. Advocate for area changes that increase the capacity of our public transportation system, that promote job growth and that revitalize neighborhoods.
  8. Support your local Farmer’s Market , your local Teaching Farm, and consider talking with your house of worship or civic group about using any vacant land to do an urban garden.
  9. Get to know your neighbors; you will be more likely to know if they are in need and you will be more likely to get them to collaborate with you in assisting others in need.

Should hungry people be fed? I think the only possible response is yes. Are there options other than public feedings in parks? There are definitely some options worth discussing….options that provide human dignity, build someone’s self-esteem and further someone’s journey towards self-reliance. Wouldn’t these options lead to a positive impact in our city that goes far beyond an afternoon lunch in the park?

 

Michelle Farley is the Executive Director of One Roof. 

Best Practices to Prevent and End Homelessness

In April 2013, John Andrew Young, a current Master of Public Health student at UAB, came to One Roof in search of a summer internship. John Andrew has a passion for policy and he wanted to help us achieve our mission by researching ways to effect positive and sustainable change for folks experiencing homelessness in our area. Under the direction of Michelle Farley, Executive Director of One Roof, and Valerie Bouriche, Administrative Coordinator of One Roof, John Andrew began a deeply involved project, researching and documenting nation- and world-wide best practices for preventing and ending homelessness.

At February’s monthly membership meeting, nearly a year after he began his project, John Andrew presented his research to our member agencies and we had a lively and thoughtful discussion about ways to maximize our resources to best serve folks experiencing homelessness in our area. We cannot thank John Andrew enough for his time, energy, and dedication to this project.

As you review these practices, we hope that you see how each is related to One Roof’s mission to prevent and end homelessness in our community. We understand that preventing and ending homelessness is different for each client–that each person experiencing homelessness in our area has an individual and complex set of circumstances that must be taken into account so that they receive the best and most appropriate care and services.

As recent Point in Time data indicates, the three largest subpopulations of folks experiencing homelessness in our area are folks who are chronically homeless, folks living with serious mental illnesses, and folks who chronically abuse substances. John Andrew’s presentation shows that many of the practices he researched are a proven method for preventing and ending homelessness for these particular groups in our country and other countries. We believe that these practices, while not appropriate for all clients or all service providers, can help eliminate barriers to housing for clients who are chronically homeless, severely mentally ill, or chronic substance abusers. Here are a few of these promising practices:

Housing First

Clients experiencing homelessness are quickly placed into a safe, decent, and affordable home, bypassing emergency shelters and transitional housing programs. This allows a client who was previously unstable to quickly gain stability. Clients are provided access to various services (mental health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, healthcare, etc), but these services are not required. The main goal is taking vulnerable persons off the street and placing them into a safe, stable home. We believe that stability is paramount to personal growth and self-care. Stability allows clients to focus on underlying issues at the root of their prolonged instability.

SOAR

SSI/SSDI Outreach Access and Recovery (SOAR) is a national best practice aimed to increase SSI/SSDI benefits for persons living with a disabling condition and experiencing homelessness. These benefits provide a stable income, reduce economic insecurity for those who have a disabling condition and are unable to work, and allow access to health insurance and certain types of permanent housing. This practice also provides an immediate source of income for clients living with a disabling condition and reentering society after incarceration. Utilization of this practice prevents and ends homelessness for clients living with disabling conditions and experiencing homelessness / at-risk for experiencing homelessness. We believe that persons living with disabilities deserve stability and One Roof currently has a SOAR Specialist, Keyana Lewis, who assists clients applying for SSI/SSDI benefits. To read more about our SOAR program, click here.

Harm Reduction

Simply put, this practice reduces harm for clients who abuse substances. When a service provider practices harm reduction, clients are accepted as they are when they show up for services and they don’t have to fear expulsion due to their substance abuse. If a client shows up to a shelter or housing provider and is denied entry because they are under the influence, they may be forced to stay on the street. Staying on the street is unsafe for a person under the influence because they are more vulnerable and less able to perceive extreme temperatures and weather conditions. With a safe and warm place to sleep, potential harm is significantly reduced. Clients can be connected with appropriate supportive services which allow them to gain stability, minimize unhealthy outcomes due to their substance abuse, and work on underlying issues which might be causing them to abuse substances.

To read more about these practices and others, be sure to check out John Andrew’s presentation. One Roof is deeply committed to preventing and ending homelessness in our area through advocacy, education, and the coordination of services. While these practices may not be the solution for all clients or all housing providers, John Andrew’s research shows that these practices can allows us to successfully and strategically prevent and end homelessness; increase opportunities for housing, economic, and employment stability for community members; plan for more efficient use of community resources; and build a stronger community. We believe that all community members deserve safety, stability, and a decent and affordable home. To support One Roof’s efforts, click here.

 

Josh Helms is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Capacity Building Assistant.

 

Why Point in Time is Important

I was recently hired as the Community Outreach Coordinator for One Roof, whose mission is to equip and empower our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and coordination of services.  This is a mission that is permanently imprinted on my heart and mind and that I learned through two years of serving as an AmeriCorps member at One Roof through the YW’s AmeriCorps program.

As an AmeriCorps member I was responsible for coordinating Point-in-Time, an annual mini-census of everyone in our area currently impacted by homelessness.  I first heard about Point-in-Time during my interview for my AmeriCorps position with One Roof two and a half years ago.  The description of the event was odd to me – why do we count people who are homeless?  At the time, I was unfamiliar with the complexities of homelessness.   But when I experienced Point-in-Time for the first time, it became clear to me why this event is so very, very important to our community.

Point-in-Time, or PIT, takes place nationally in most communities across the United States.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires every community that receives funding to conduct a count like this.  The data collected during PIT has very practical uses.  It can be used to leverage funding for homeless and homeless prevention services because it documents need.   PIT data can be used to understand trends in homelessness, especially homelessness in specific geographic locations. We know that we can’t prevent and end homelessness in our area if we don’t understand it first.  Simply put, PIT helps us understand who is homeless, why they’re homeless, what services are missing, and what solutions can be made for a future where homelessness is a rare occurrence.

PIT data helps us come up with innovative solutions that serve the most people the most effectively.   It’s a tool for making Birmingham and the rest of central Alabama a healthier place to live, where the most vulnerable community members have somewhere to turn and where agencies are taking educated, thoughtful steps to empower people to improve their lives.  PIT is an event that educates.  It’s an event that engages so many members of our community and is truly a collaborative effort to lift up and honor the experiences of people who are currently homeless.

In 2013, a little over 100 volunteers helped us to find and interview anyone sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation – a population made up of domestic violence survivors, veterans, youth, families, and other people in crisis.  PIT gives community members the opportunity to reach out to someone experiencing homelessness in a way that doesn’t shy away from the truth of their situation.

While the data itself is important, what has become even more important to me is the fact that PIT is essentially a collection of interviews.  Each survey gives visibility and acknowledgement to the struggle that someone is currently facing in our community; and perhaps, more importantly, it highlights what that person needs to gain safe, decent, accessible, and affordable housing.   Each piece of paper demonstrates the desire of a community to reach out and tell someone who is experiencing homelessness, “You matter.  You count.”

This year, more than 120 volunteers will assist us with conducting our Point-in-Time interviews from 6:00 PM on January 22 until 5:59 PM on January 23.  We are very thankful for all the community members who have reached out to conduct interviews this year, including AmeriCorps members serving in the YWCA’s Building Communities, Bettering Lives program.  Although we have closed registration for this year’s Point-in-Time count, you can visit our blog for a list of reasons why you might want to join us for Point-in-Time in the future.  For anyone who would like to be involved with One Roof, we invite you to participate and learn more about our upcoming events, Cardboard Connect and Project Homeless Connect, or like us on Facebook.

 

Stacy Oliver is the Community Outreach Coordinator for One Roof and a former AmeriCorps member with the YWCA of Central Alabama’s Building Communities, Bettering Lives program.  

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