Domestic Violence and Homelessness in Birmingham

Domestic Violence Services

Warning: The following post summarizes instances of domestic violence and includes links to graphic descriptions of violence. Domestic violence is a reality that affects many in our community.

Recently several women in our community have been murdered by their current or former partners. In March, Angelica Jones was shot to death by her estranged boyfriend. In June, Rashon Deidrenette Bester Epps was fatally shot by her husband. In July, Deborah Diane Prater died two days after her ex-boyfriend doused her in gasoline and set her on fire. These horrific and heartbreaking instances of domestic violence are not uncommon in Alabama. According to the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, there were 24 reported domestic violence homicides in Alabama in 2012. That same year, there were 2,722 reported domestic violence aggravated assaults and 32,995 reported domestic violence simple assaults. For these statistics and more, click here. For national statistics, click here.

A person who is experiencing domestic violence is often unable to leave because their abuser is not just physically abusive, but also emotionally manipulative and in control of many/all aspects of their life, including their finances. On average, it takes a domestic violence survivor seven times to successfully leave their abuser. When a domestic violence survivor is able to leave their abuser, they often lack the financial and emotional support to make it on their own. Unfortunately, this means that many people who leave a domestic violence situation then experience homelessness. According to this year’s Point-in-Time count, out of the 1,329 people experiencing homelessness in the Birmingham area on any given night, 209 are survivors of domestic violence. That means over 15% of people experiencing homelessness in our community are survivors of domestic violence. These community members and all who experience domestic violence deserve to feel safe and be in an environment where they can gain stability.

In central Alabama, we have shelters and transitional housing programs for women who’ve experienced / are experiencing domestic violence. In these programs, survivors of domestic violence can feel safe and gain stability. In our area, women who’ve experienced domestic violence can receive services at SafeHouse of Shelby County and the YWCA of Central Alabama. Please follow the links to learn more about these amazing agencies and the work they’re doing to keep survivors of domestic violence safe and end domestic violence in our community. People experiencing domestic violence can also contact the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s 24-hour crisis hotline for assistance: 1-800-650-6522. People experiencing domestic violence can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY for those who are hearing impaired: 1-800-787-3224.

At One Roof we believe that preventing and ending homelessness is a community effort. We also believe that ending domestic violence is a community effort. It is our responsibility as a community to educate ourselves about the services available to people experiencing domestic violence and to make those services known to anyone who might need them.

We will not forget the 209 survivors of domestic violence who experience homelessness on any given night in central Alabama. We will not forget Angelica, Rashon, and Deborah, and the other members of our community whose lives were taken by their abusers. No person deserves to be abused. No person deserves to die at the hands of their abuser. And no person should have to make the decision between staying with an abuser or becoming homeless.  There is help available if you are experiencing domestic violence and/or if you know someone who might be experiencing domestic violence. Please contact SafeHouse, the YWCA, and the ACADV if you or anyone you know is in need of help.

Josh Helms is an AmeriCorps alum who served at One Roof as the Capacity Building Assistant from 2013-2014. 

Mourning Robin Williams and the Impact of Mental Illness 

Robin Williams in the 1991 film, The Fisher King.

Robin Williams has died. He is presumed to have taken his own life.

The man who made us laugh until we hurt with his outrageous characters Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfireand Armand Goldman in Birdcage, also made us cry with his portrayal of therapist Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, and with his depiction of an inspiring English professor with a student who commits suicide in Dead Poet’s Society.

What does the death of Robin Williams have to do with preventing and ending homelessness?  More than you might think.

I have been a huge Robin Williams fan since “meeting” him as the space alien Mork in the sitcom Happy Days. I never missed one of his movies and seldom missed an opportunity to see him being interviewed on talk shows, though the interviewer was usually in control of the segment for only a few seconds until the genius of Robin Williams took over. It seemed this brilliant man never had middle ground; he was either the funniest person on the planet or the most heart wrenching character in a movie, but he was never just average. Robin Williams was never normal – whatever that is. Robin Williams had a diagnosis of  Bipolar Disorder, a mental illness that people used to call Manic Depressive. He had periods of the highest highs (the mania) and then he had periods of the lowest lows (the depression). He struggled with substance abuse, and from this layman’s viewpoint, that substance use was probably an attempt to self-medicate, an attempt to quiet the demons that mercilessly drove him.

Many of our citizens experiencing homelessness have a mental illness, but few of them grew up in wealth as Robin Williams did. Not many of them have the opportunity to channel their illness into creative greatness honed by several years of study at Julliard like Robin Williams. Few of them have the mandatory medical and psychological care available that will identify the appropriate combination of medicine and therapy to control the extremes of their disorder. Many have alienated (because of their illness) the systems of friends and family vital to their support when they are cycling through the outer limits of emotion. Our citizens can become homeless when they can no longer maintain a home and lack an adequate support system, often because of the ravages of mental illness. Robin Williams simply acted the part of Parry, a mentally ill homeless man in The Fisher King. However, Williams’ portrayal of homelessness must have been spot-on since the 1991 role earned him a Best Actor nomination.

Robin Williams plays Parry, a man experiencing homelessness and living with a severe mental illness, in The Fisher King.  In this scene, Parry tells the mythology of the Fisher King — a relevant story that can be applied to acknowledging the suffering experienced with mental illness and the healing that can happen with adequate support and care from others.

Because of the death and apparent suicide of Robin Williams, the internet is full of “information” about Mr. Williams: his professed addiction, his acknowledged mental illness, and speculations about both his life and his death. For reliable information on mental illness, you can research The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and read their publications on Bipolar Disorder and on SuicideScholarly articles on the link between Mental Illness and Homelessness have been available for many years; we know that at least 30% of our people who live in bus stations, in sewer tunnels, in camps in the woods and in other places unfit for human habitation suffer from a severe mental illness.  If we know about this link, why aren’t we doing more about it?  The AL.com post from this morning is just one short thought on Mental Illness, Homelessness and State funding of Mental Health services.

Robin Williams is far from being the only celebrity with Bipolar Disorder; some of the more creative ones include Russell Brand, Kurt Cobain, Carrie Fisher, Larry Flynt, Jesse Jackson Jr., Jackson Pollock, Charley Pride, Robert Schumann, Frank Sinatra, Sidney Sheldon, Britnay Spears, Amy Winehouse and Virginia Woolf. I could also name many of the street homeless with Bipolar Disorder, and you would know their faces, but you would never know their names because, to most people, the street people don’t have names. Turns out that mental illness really doesn’t care if you have money and fame  and an Academy Award or if you have nothing, live under an overpass and your unkempt face is known only as “that lazy bum:”  suicide takes everyone.

For a person who struggles with mental illness, their condition deserves to be treated seriously and with respect and compassion — by their closest friends and family, their neighbors, their communities, and their health care professionals.  That support, from every side, is priceless and can mean the difference between a life of fulfilled potential and personal growth or a life of suffering, estrangement, fear, and, unfortunately, suicide.   Sometimes that support can mean the difference between a life in housing and a life in homelessness.  In our community, agencies like UAB REACT and JBS Mental Health, among many of our other agencies that provide emergency services to people in need, these service providers become the support system for seriously mentally ill individuals who have no one else.

I mourn the loss of Robin Williams and I mourn each of the 423 severely mentally ill people experiencing homelessness who also call our community home.

This blog post was written by Michelle Farley, Executive Director of One Roof. 

For support, please remember that anyone experiencing suicidal ideation or emotional distress can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or our local crisis line.

Education = Safer Spaces

Photo taken as part of LIHCA’s Home is… campaign.  Currently LIHCA is working to secure dedicated revenue for the Alabama Housing Trust Fund.  To learn more, click here.

Education = Safer Spaces

by Joshua Helms

Since September of 2013, I’ve served as an AmeriCorps member at One Roof through the YWCA of Central Alabama’sBuilding Communities, Bettering Lives program. I joined AmeriCorps because I want to make the world a better place for all people. Serving at One Roof has allowed me to do this and to make real and positive change. I’ve spent a lot of my time this year trying to make spaces safer for everyone in our community, especially those experiencing, or at-risk for experiencing, homelessness. I believe that safer spaces ensure that each person is treated with dignity and respect, and this is exceedingly important for community members in vulnerable situations. Many folks experiencing homelessness in our community lack safety, stability, and an adequate support system: in short, they lack a safe space to call home. These community members deserve to be treated with dignity and respect; they deserve a safe place to call home.

Since September I’ve attended monthly meetings of the Magic City Acceptance Project (MCAP), a coalition of community volunteers, social workers, service providers, and students working to better meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth in the Birmingham area. I’ve also attended monthly meetings of the Birmingham Home Host Program, a committee of MCAP working to secure safe housing options for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness. As a representative of One Roof, I’ve networked with advocates, strengthened efforts to provide safe and inclusive spaces for youth experiencing homelessness, and provided insight, research, and statistics used to educate others on the issue.

Before AmeriCorps, I completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama, where I taught composition, creative writing, and literature courses to undergraduate students. Serving at One Roof has allowed me to use my background as an educator to further One Roof’s mission. This year I educated community members about youth homelessness, especially issues related to LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, and empowered young people to make real differences in their communities. A few highlights:

These presentations focused on ways for advocates to help prevent and end youth homelessness. I encouraged participants to join local efforts and coalitions, reach out to schools, churches, governments, and use the information and statistics provided by One Roof to make lasting changes in their communities. You can check out the presentations here and here.

One Roof’s mission is to equip and empower our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and the coordination of services. We strongly believe that each of these components is vital, that preventing and ending homelessness must be a coordinated community effort. We take every opportunity to educate the community on issues related to homelessness because we believe that education equips and empowers folks to make positive changes in their community. We believe that education about homelessness allows our community to overcome stereotypes and barriers, recognize the institutions that enforce oppression, and make spaces safer for everyone.  Education can lead to a community where every person has a safe place to call home — whether through safer relationships, a community that is mindful about fair housing policies, or a community that simply stands behind and supports the agencies that can offer those safe spaces, those homes.

This year has changed my life for the better. The opportunity to educate community members, to see increased efforts to prevent and end homelessness, to use my skill set in a way that truly helps others and makes our community a better, safer place, has been invaluable to me.  I’ve felt seen and heard and, in return, have bettered efforts to make sure that community members experiencing homelessness feel seen, heard, and safe.

To learn more about serving as an AmeriCorps with One Roof, visit our website.  The YWCA of Central Alabama partners with different agencies across Birmingham (including One Roof) to offer more than 30 different service opportunities to individuals looking to make Birmingham a better place.  Click here for information on how to apply; the program starts the first week of September.  

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

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