The city, civic organizations and churches are still scrambling to help those in need following the shutdown of several of the services offered at a local homeless shelter.
Housing First announced earlier this month that it would be halting the ancillary services at 15 Place after Feb. 14. The shelter no longer serves lunch or offers showers, mail service or bag drop-off to members of the homeless community. The decision is still causing a ripple effect among local service organizations.
Despite several groups with the same focus, it appears it will be tough to fill the void left by 15 Place. Michon Trent, the city’s senior director of civic engagement, said groups such as Feeding the Gulf Coast and local churches have stepped up to provide meals. She suggested Ransom Ministries could begin offering shower and laundry services as well.
The mail service, however, is more complicated, she said. It was one of the more popular services provided by 15 Place and was extremely helpful in giving homeless men and women an address to put on employment applications and other documents. Other than regular meetings with homeless advocacy groups, Trent said the city has been reluctant to take on a role, for good reason.
“It’s too premature to say there is no plan,” she said. “The city hasn’t taken a role. We don’t want to arbitrarily tell providers what they need.
“They have to come to us,” she added. “They have to tell us what they need.”
Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents the downtown area, is in favor of the city doing more to help. In a letter to fellow councilors and Mayor Sandy Stimpson, Manzie asked for the city to fund an “emergency performance contract” to bring the services back.
Manzie asked for the mayor and his colleagues to consider giving Housing First $162,000, an amount equaling what Executive Director Eric Jefferson said the organization expected to lose on the services in 2017.
Manzie called the performance contract “the most immediate and most effective” way to help 15 Place.
“I think it’s the most humane thing we can do until other funding is available,” he said. “We have to make this a priority.”
Trent said Jefferson hadn’t asked the city for help and while the city had, at one time, given Housing FIrst a performance contract, it wasn’t near the level of funding Manzie seeks. In fact, the last performance contract for Housing First, in 2015, equaled $39,000.
“Giving an emergency contract for ancillary services, I think they’re going to have to talk about that,” Trent said. “I haven’t been in any conversation about that.”
At a pre-conference meeting after Manzie’s letter was released, councilors agreed that something needed to be done, but it appears some balked at the idea of a performance contract.
Councilman John Williams said the city will have to address the homeless situation, especially given a federal funding cut that is at the heart of Housing First’s issues.
“We need to have a public discussion about how we’ll address homelessness,” he said. “ … It’s a public safety issue, it’s a quality of life issue … and it’s the right thing to do.”
Councilman Joel Daves said he didn’t disagree, but added that if the council were to fund 15 Place the money would have to be cut from somewhere else in the budget, as revenues remain flat.
“There’s no free money,” he said. “If we’re going to do this, we need to find something to cut.”
If his fellow councilors want to look elsewhere for a solution to the issues at 15 Place, Manzie said, he is fine with that — although the answer cannot be to do nothing.
“In the interim, something needs to be done,” he said. “We are lacking vital services.”
As for the money issue, Manzie said the council finds money “for what we want to find it for” every week.
Even before 15 Place stopped serving lunch, local churches had pitched in with meals and a shelter for the homeless. Government Street Presbyterian Church is one.
The Rev. Dr. George Sinclair said a ministry called Coffee Club serves hot breakfasts to the homeless Monday through Friday at 7 a.m. The breakfasts are open to transients, the working poor and the homeless, he said. Sinclair also said the church is part of an interfaith ministry called Family Promise, which includes 16 churches and allows homeless families to stay on church grounds.
The Archdiocese of Mobile also offers services to the homeless through Catholic Social Services on Florida Street, executive director Marilyn King said. Catholic Social Services can provide clothing, bus tickets and other items to the homeless population.
The Salvation Army and the Mobile Rescue Mission each provide services to the homeless, but their shelters have various restrictions and are for men only.
The shutting down of 15 Place services also affect residents of the overnight women’s homeless shelter McKemie Place. McKemie Place doesn’t own its own building, so women can’t stay there during the day. The women’s shelter sent its residents to 15 Place during the day and the majority of its residents made up the center’s lunch service each day, with about 45 attending.
McKemie Place now drops off its residents at public facilities, like local recreation centers. Trent said the centers offer daytime services to the McKemie Place residents.
Bailey Norman, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, said the city’s eight Episcopal congregations are pulling together now to provide lunches for McKemie Place residents.
The shelter has been eyeing locations for a permanent shelter for some time. Last year, McKemie Place leadership was “interested” in property across from 15 Place on Washington Avenue downtown, McKemie Place board President Garrett Rice said. Rice and acting Chief of Staff Paul Wesch confirmed the city outbid the shelter for the property. The city bid $41,000 and now owns the property. Wesch, who was the bidder on the property, said the city wanted to maintain the ability to designate a use for the property.
Both Rice and Wesch expressed optimism that the shelter and city could reach a deal for use of the property. However, Wesch said they are not in discussion with McKemie Place right now.