Leon Williams has resided in his family’s Prichard home for about three years. Though he has a roof over his head, Williams, 57, lives with no utilities — no running water or electricity — thus rendering his home simply “a place of inhabitation” and allowing him to be counted as one of the many homeless individuals living in Mobile County, according to Mobile’s Housing First, Inc.
Last week, Housing First conducted its annual point-in-time count to determine the number of men, women and children experiencing homelessness in the community.
“It’s a cycle,” Williams said. “You’re not aware of what’s going to happen until it hits. Then it’s just there … then you’re in the hole and can’t get back up. People look at you different and treat you different.”
The annual count, taking place during the last week of January, helps determine how much federal funding can be received to address the community’s housing needs. Volunteers participating in the point-in-time count also conduct detailed surveys to assess the service and housing needs for each individual.
The information collected during the count is later compiled into an annual application submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by the Mobile-Baldwin Continuum of Care for the homeless that responds to the needs of homeless citizens with a national goal of reducing and even eradicating homelessness.
According to Housing First Chief Executive Officer Eric Jefferson, Mobile and Baldwin counties will receive about $3.8 million in federal funding for all of their combined 20 service projects for fiscal year 2014.
“It’s still not enough,” he said.
Jefferson went on to say that 90 percent of people surveyed need affordable housing, which he estimated would cost about $5 million each year for those individuals. Currently, about $24,500 is spent for each homeless individual per year for hospital visits, legal services and shelters. Using that average, the 722 people counted last year represent services exceeding $17 million annually, Jefferson said.
“Somebody is paying that cost and it’s us as citizens,” he said. “It’s more cost effective to get people in affordable housing than continue to do what we’ve been doing that’s not working.”
Jefferson said his top priority is to ensure the community has some sort of affordable housing in the ground and started by the end of the year.
He added that homelessness is less of a social issue and more of an economic issue, telling volunteers gathered at downtown’s 15 Place that establishing and properly utilizing affordable housing could potentially save the community more than $12 million each year.
“We’ve got to try to change the way we do business in our community,” Jefferson said.
According to Housing First officials, about 148 people from around the community volunteered for this year’s point-in-time count. In Mobile alone, there were about 20 teams comprised of five to nine members each.
Trinitius Pickett, director of the Salvation Army’s shelter for women and children, has been involved with homeless outreach for about 15 years and served as a point-in-time count team leader this year.
Over the years, Pickett said she has met judges, lawyers, nurses and even celebrity chefs on the streets and noted a homeless person can come from all walks of life.
“Homeless does not have a face, a name, a gender or sex or anything like that,” she said. “Homeless could be anyone. Anyone in the community.”
Homelessness can occur due to economic struggles, domestic violence and job loss among other things, Pickett said, noting that she still sees individuals who were affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“They just come from everywhere,” she said, adding that as a personal goal, she hopes to eliminate homelessness all together.
“I hope to eradicate homelessness very, very soon,” she said. “I know that’s far reaching and far fetching, but I believe it can be done if we work together as a community (and) if we continue to raise awareness that there are homeless people in our community. These are people who are not always drug addicts or alcohol (abusers) or something like that, but they can just be people who have fell into hard times, people who cannot find their way. It’s not up to us to judge. It’s up to us to serve and help.”
While Pickett said her team may count an average of 25 to 30 homeless individuals during a four-hour window, she knows many homeless people go unaccounted for.
“I think there’s a larger number,” she said. “We do a great job of counting the people but I think there’s a much, much larger number of homeless people who just do not want to be identified, but they’re there.”
During the count, Pickett’s team interviewed a group of homeless individuals outside of the Two Eagles convenience store in Prichard, where Cleve Davis, 66, proudly told volunteers about a young Wave bus driver who gave him the pair of boots he was wearing and how Shiloh Baptist Church and a retired Ingalls employee gave him the clothes on his back — a nice pair of slacks, a striped shirt and a sweater vest.
“People think you got to look dirty and nasty to be homeless,” he said.
According to Pickett, Davis, a Vietnam veteran, lost his family home in a house fire about a year ago and has been homeless ever since.
“A lot of people, they get help, get back on their feet and don’t want to give back to the system,” he said. “That’s wrong. I’m not for that. When you get help, help somebody else. That’s what I’m about.”
Jennifer Knight, a teacher at Gulf Shores Elementary School, participated in her first point-in-time count this year as a member of Pickett’s team. She said it was a touching experience and one that she cannot wait to participate in again next year.
While many people she encountered admitted to not knowing how to utilize their resources or may have even been completely unsure about what resources were available to them, Knight said there really wasn’t really a common thread between those she surveyed.
“There was a such a variety of people,” she said. “There wasn’t something you could point to and say, ‘If we can cure that, we can fix this.’”
According to Housing First, a report will be compiled within one month to provide the total number of men, women, families and children who were experiencing homelessness on the night of Jan. 29. It will also include information regarding their reasons for homelessness and what is needed to end it.