Best Practices for Helping People Experiencing Homelessness

Best Practices for Helping People Experiencing Homelessness

Volunteers assist Birmingham’s Community Kitchens, which serves lunch at both their Southside (St. Andrews) and Woodlawn (Grace Episcopal) locations. Photo taken from Community Kitchen Facebook photos*

At One Roof, we are dedicated to our mission of equipping and empowering our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and the coordination of services. To further our mission, we research and advocate for the most effective ways to empower people experiencing homelessness (PEH) in our community to leave homelessness forever. We particularly appreciate what Liz Hixson, Volunteer Coordinator and Development Associate at Pathways (a local agency serving homeless women and children), has to say about this very important issue:

Dr. Ruby Payne, a leading expert on the mindsets of different economic classes and overcoming poverty, explains that poverty occurs due to a lack of resources: financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationship, and knowledge of hidden rules. All of these areas contribute to poverty, not just a lack of food or money. When people address only these two surface issues, is it possible that we are actually hurting the very people we so desperately desire to help? (Read more here: Enabling or Empowering?: Considering How We Help the Homeless)

We love how Hixson asks our community to consider the difference between what enables a person experiencing homelessness and what empowers them. Here are our suggestions to help empower people experiencing homelessness in our community:

If someone approaches you asking for help (including money), offer information. In our continuum, this means you can give them One Roof’s phone number (254-8833) and we can make an appropriate referral. You can also learn the appropriate resources for immediate assistance:  

  • First Light Shelter — First Light provides shelter, food, case management, and other resources to women and women with children experiencing homelessness. They are located at the intersection of 23rd Street and 4th Avenue North.

  • Pathways —  Pathways has a day center open to women and children in need of clothing, food, laundry, and showering facilities, as well as contact with case managers. They are located on Richard Arrington Blvd. between 4th and 5th Avenue North.

  • Firehouse Shelter — Firehouse offers a day shelter, meals, emergency shelter, access to case management, and many other services to men experiencing homelessness, including opportunities for transitional and permanent supportive housing. They are located at 3rd Avenue and 15th Street North.

  • Salvation Army — Salvation Army offers emergency shelter, transitional housing, substance abuse treatment, access to case management, and many other services to men, women, and families experiencing homelessness. They are located at 2130 11th Avenue North.

  • Church of the Reconciler — Church of the Reconciler serves many people who are literally homeless in Birmingham.  They offer support groups, several public meals, and assistance with applications for important needs like housing and healthcare.  Reconciler also has a regular medical clinic through UAB Equal Access.  They are located at 2nd Avenue and 14th Street North.

Suggestion: Learn about agencies serving your community and what they need.  One Roof member agencies work tirelessly to serve people in housing crisis, and supporting these organizations means they can take better care and offer better support to those members of our community.

Think twice before providing food to people experiencing homelessness in public outdoor spaces such as parks and under bridges. Without access to bathrooms and proper sanitation, public feeding becomes a health issue for PEH.  By partnering with an agency or Magic City Harvest, you can cut down on waste, prevent people from getting sick due to food contamination, and take a step toward empowering someone to leave homelessness.  Feeding in parks and under bridges does not offer that person who is homeless the dignity that they deserve, and it enables someone who needs help to stay on the street.  For more information on this issue, take a look at this blog post written by One Roof’s Executive Director, Michelle Farley.

Suggestion:If you want to prevent and end homelessness in Birmingham by offering a meal, join the coordinated efforts that already exist to offer sustenance to people experiencing homelessness.  Shelters often want that help with serving a meal!

Think twice before giving money to someone who is panhandling. Panhandling is a tool for survival,  but it’s also a method that enables someone to stay homeless.  There is no shortage of agencies serving public meals. Quite often, mental illness is a contributing factor to the vulnerability of people experiencing homelessness.  Unfortunately, this means that money (understandably) will sometimes go toward methods for coping, including substances that are abused.  We ask that community members think about truly sustainable ways to give money, such as supporting agencies who provide direct services that empower PEH to gain stability. By giving $10 to a PEH, are you truly helping that person into a home with the stability, care, and decent housing that every person deserves?  Probably not.

Suggestion:Supporting emergency shelters like First Light, Salvation Army, and Firehouse means that those agencies have the tools and community support that they need to empower PEH in Birmingham to leave  homelessness forever.

Stay informed about issues related to homelessness and housing.  By educating yourself on the need and the services that already exist in the community, and using your voice to advocate for better access to housing in Alabama, you can make a difference.  For example, you can use your voice to advocate for a secured, dedicated revenue source to go to the Alabama Housing Trust Fund or volunteer to conduct interviews with One Roof during Point-in-Time 2015.

One Roof is dedicated to equipping and empowering our community to prevent and end homelessness in central Alabama through advocacy, education, and coordination of services. Ending homelessness in central Alabama requires a coordinated community effort and we cannot do this without you. For more suggestions on how you can prevent and end homelessness in Alabama, feel free to contact us by phone (205-254-8833) or e-mail (info@oneroofonline.org). Be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram to stay informed.

Serve as an AmeriCorps Member with One Roof: Help End Homelessness


americorps banner

Each year, One Roof partners with the YWCA of Central Alabama’s “Building Communities, Bettering Lives” AmeriCorps program to host two AmeriCorps members. AmeriCorps members offer fantastic assistance to One Roof and become part of the One Roof team, helping our agency to fulfill our mission:  to equip and empower our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and coordination of services. AmeriCorps members have played an important role in One Roof’s growth over the past few years.

While serving with One Roof, AmeriCorps members learn a wealth of new professional skills, have front-line experience in a non-profit organization, and build close ties and get involved in the Birmingham community. During their year of service, AmeriCorps members also attend professional development trainings and get to know many local non-profits and what they’re doing to better Birmingham.  Members receive a modest living stipend as well as an Education Award, which can be used to assist with the cost of student loans or tuition.

The AmeriCorps program is ideal for individuals who are passionate about serving their communities, individuals interested in getting involved with non-profit work, and individuals who are building their professional experience and portfolio.

Here are some testimonials from current and former AmeriCorps members who served through the YWCA’s program at One Roof:

During my year of service at One Roof, I’ve further developed my skills as a team member and learned that ending homelessness, like many other issues related to social justice, must be a coordinated community effort. As a former teacher, I’ve appreciated the rewarding opportunity to educate community members, service providers, and high school, undergraduate, and graduate students about issues facing various subpopulations experiencing homelessness in our community. As a writer, I’ve enjoyed researching, writing, and editing posts about issues related to homelessness on One Roof’s blog. I’m particularly invested in advocating for community members who identify as LGBTQ+ and, because of my involvement with One Roof, I’ve been able to do this in a very real way by attending meetings of local interest groups and presenting at conferences. Being at One Roof has allowed me the space to deepen my commitment to social justice while learning valuable skills and building self-confidence.

–  Josh Helms,  2013-2014 Service Year


I served with One Roof for two years after I graduated college.  I firmly believe that this was the best decision that I’ve ever made for myself; serving at One Roof, I was able to engage the Birmingham community in a meaningful way and learn more about social justice issues (a true passion of mine).  The team I served with was empowering and encouraged me to take on my own projects with creativity and to lead new projects.  At One Roof, I gained a wealth of professional experience and personal growth I wouldn’t have had somewhere else.  I now have experience with grant writing, doing in-house graphic design work, designing educational materials to teach others about homelessness, volunteer and event coordination, and networking skills I never thought I would have.  My AmeriCorps service was a huge confidence builder, and it really helped me to cultivate my skills and talents to serve my community.  I’m now proud to say that because of AmeriCorps, I’ve been hired as an employee for One Roof.

–  Stacy Oliver, 2011-2013 Service Years 


One Roof is currently looking for a Capacity Building Assistant and a Community Outreach Assistant.   Applications are due by July 15, 2014, to the YWCA of Central Alabama.  To apply and for more information, visit http://www.ywcabham.org/americorps or contact Angela Moore, amoore@ywcabham.org

Positions will start in the first week of September, 2014. Position descriptions here:

AmeriCorps One Roof Position Description – Capacity Building revised May 2013

AmeriCorps One Roof Position Description – Communications and Community Outreach Revised May 2013

Accidents Will Happen: The Need for Respite Care in Central Alabama

Firehouse accident 5.28.14

                                                                                                                                                            (photo courtesy of al.com)

There was a car accident in front of the Firehouse Shelter this morning and four men were injured in that accident. Of course my first thought was hope that everyone involved will be ok…but when I learned that the four men had been taken to the hospital, I began to wonder about something else–something I might not have been concerned about had the four men not been standing in front of an emergency shelter for men.

If their injuries are severe, where can they go for rehabilitation?  You see, we really don’t have many choices for people who are homeless when they are not sick enough to keep in a hospital but yet they are too sick to release them to the streets.

I don’t know yet about the extent of injuries for these men, but I have been informed that 3 of the 4 will need surgery. I’ve had two fairly major surgeries in my life; one was outpatient and the other required several days of hospitalization. For the outpatient surgery, I couldn’t be released without someone to “take me home.” When I got home, I went to bed and for several days afterwards had someone help me with basic living skills like bathing and preparing meals. With the inpatient surgery, the release was much the same…hospital released me to go home and rest and I was only released because I had someone at home who could care for me. I was lucky enough to have plenty of medical insurance, but what if these men don’t?  Hospitals can not afford to keep uninsured people indefinitely.

What happens for these men who probably call the Firehouse Emergency Shelter home? None of our emergency shelters are set up to accommodate much in the way of specialized medical care…not really even extended “rest.” There are individual beds for clients, but they are not in individual rooms, and sleeping in a common area with 50 or so other people in crisis really doesn’t contribute to a great deal of rest. Our local shelters make certain clients are offered 2 – 3 meals per day, but there is no one to prepare special meals. In several of our emergency shelters, volunteers prepare a meal for 50+ people and bring it to the shelter, and while that is generally a tasty meal, clients are certainly not asked what their taste preference is for that meal, and few individual dietary restrictions are observed.

With each of my surgeries, I was instructed to keep the incision “clean and dry,” and doing that required assistance to keep the dressing dry when I bathed and required assistance to change the dressing when necessary. Again, our emergency shelters are simply not equipped with extra staff members to help with bathing or changing a dressing. It is not because shelter staff don’t want to help, but they are responsible for the care and safety of 50 or more people at any given time…

Our community needs emergency shelters…but we also need something called Respite Care, and we have none. Consider taking a look at Center for Respite Care or this medical journal article or this Respite Care in Philadelphia, or this piece from the University of California.

Until we get Respite Care here, my sincere hope is that you will think about a time you needed extra attention when you were sick, whether that was with an accident or a surgery or just a nasty cold. Now focus those thoughts and feelings on the situation of these four men at the Firehouse Shelter…

One last thing…think about what our community could look like if there was a home available for everyone who wanted one…


Michelle Farley

Executive Director, One Roof

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