On the outside, 15 Place day shelter at 279 N. Washington Ave. looks much as it did six months ago, when Housing First Inc., a Mobile-based nonprofit, took over operations. On the inside, however, major changes have taken place, in both the shelter’s mission and its services.
On Aug. 18, Housing First representatives, along with Bill Bru of the Mobile Rescue Mission, Denise Reimer of Housing First’s Housing and Urban Development Committee and Nigel Roberts on behalf of the city of Mobile, held a “grand re-opening” to announce 15 Place’s new identity as a multi-service center. More than just a place for indigent residents of Mobile and Baldwin counties to grab a meal and collect mail, the “new” 15 Place’s primary focus is to locate permanent, affordable housing for the homeless individuals who walk through its doors.
Of the 4,500 homeless in Alabama, 480 are in the city of Mobile, based on the 2015 Point-in-Time count reported to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD). Housing First’s mission is to do all it can to bring that number to zero. 15 Place opened in 2000 to provide something of a haven for homeless individuals during the day, including providing them access to case management services like job and housing placement. But after the doors closed at 4:30 p.m. every day, they were back on the street.
According to Housing First CEO Eric Jefferson, the people who came to 15 Place “mostly [sat] around waiting for the day to end.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Housing First’s Chief Operating Officer, Michelle Dees, who referred to the old center as a “hangout” and “drop off” for homeless people. In its former iteration, 15 Place also risked losing large portions of its annual HUD funding.
“HUD was trying to get out of the business of funding what [it] was calling service-only projects, of which 15 Place was one,” Dees said. “[HUD] wanted to see its funding actually being used to house people.”
According to a 2014 HUD report, that would have amounted to a shortfall of $2,257,876 allocated to “permanent supportive housing,” out of $3,885,464 in total awards.
So the governing board of 15 Place elected to bring in Housing First to right the ship — or rather, to reclaim it. Housing First’s predecessor, the Housing Coalition of the Gulf Coast, initially opened the shelter 15 years ago. The takeover made sense, according to Dees, since Housing First operated the coordinated assessment system, which connects people experiencing homelessness to one of the myriad assistance services in the Mobile community with a single phone call.
The first thing Dees and Director of Coordinated Assessment Emily Minto Head did, after pitching their case for renewal to secure HUD funding, was to increase staff from eight to 18 — including four intake workers, two case managers, outreach workers and peer specialists. In subsequent months, bit by bit, 15 Place added programs and services, attracting more and more first-timers to the center.
Bru, the director of Mobile Rescue Mission, a partner with 15 Place, noticed a spike in overnighters at the Mission, calling the two institutions combined a veritable “campus for the homeless.” It is a campus that now includes new programs such as woodworking clinics, and a community garden, recognized by Bay Area Food Bank as a local community garden.
A student-run free clinic, operated by the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, employs students, under the supervision of an attending physician, to provide health and wellness checks, preventive health care, mental health services, health education, referral services and advocacy. The clinic, too, is planning to hold its own reopening Saturday, Oct. 10.
“Our current, most pressing aspiration is to eventually become a treatment clinic. We know we can better serve the homeless population by providing flu shots and both over-the-counter and prescription medications that are not accessible to the homeless population due to finances,” second-year College of Medicine student and clinic secretary and coordinator Ashton Todd said.
For those 15 Place serves, like Kimberly Richardson, 39, of Eight Mile, the newly bolstered services offer a newfound hope for the future. Richardson, her husband and five children, the youngest of whom is 5 years old, lost their home to foreclosure two years ago.
“[The people at 15 Place] are very instrumental at helping to find the right programs for you, and keeping you updated,” Richardson said. “[15 Place] has programs that help you get ready to get back out there on your own, like transitional living programs. [15 Place] also got me in touch with Catholic Relief Services, who have helped with my resume and job search … I’m excited about it.”
Richardson is on a waiting list for housing and expects to begin her transition to her new home within four to six weeks. When that happens, the city of Mobile can knock off seven from that tally of 480.
To advance its mission of eradicating homelessness in Mobile and Baldwin counties, Housing First encourages individuals in need to reach out to them at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 251-450-3345.