Security cameras at the public library in downtown Mobile caught a terrifying midday scene on Oct. 25 — a mother dragging her toddler behind as she ran to escape an attacker unknown to her.
The footage shows a man chasing the family with a metal pole used to direct foot traffic inside the library. Just as the family makes it down the stairs of the main entrance and off-screen, the assailant can be seen hurling the pole into the air behind them.
According to the Mobile Police Department, that man was 28-year-old Mujahid Assad, who was arrested by MPD officers less than three minutes after the incident. He now faces charges for assault and criminal mischief, though police said neither victim was seriously injured.
“We believe the man arrested may be suffering from a mental illness,” MPD spokesperson Charlette Solis said. “We have asked that he be evaluated.”
The Assad incident happened less than five months after a young woman was brutally attacked and allegedly sexually assaulted less than a mile away. The suspect in that incident, 44-year-old Douglas Dunson, also suffers from a long, documented history of mental illness.
Both accused assailants had been recently homeless at the time of those attacks, which has raised questions about the homeless population in downtown — an area the city of Mobile has continued to bill as an entertainment destination for residents and tourists alike.
While the latest data shows slight decreases in the overall homeless population, the recent violence has made addressing the issue a greater priority for city officials. This week, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said he knows more needs to be done in this area.
“We can do better,” Stimpson said. “We realize we’ve got to do better.”
‘We don’t police homelessness’
The number of homeless in Mobile decreased from 2017 to 2018, according to the annual “point-in-time” count conducted by the nonprofit Housing First each January. The count helps evaluate gaps in services, guides efforts to end homelessness and provides essential data required when applying for grants.
In 2017 the number of homeless in the greater Mobile area totaled 606. Of those, 486 were in the city, 80 were in the county and 40 were in Baldwin County. In 2018, Housing First reported 551 homeless persons overall — 452 in the city, 78 in the county and 21 across the bay.
Homelessness is an issue in most areas of the city, though panhandling and loitering are more common downtown, which can make the area seem disproportionately impacted. That is especially true in certain public spaces, including the Ben May Main Branch of the Mobile Public Library.
Like libraries in most every city, the facility on Government Street is often a destination for some homeless individuals. A short walk to the Waterfront Rescue Mission and a Salvation Army Shelter, the library is, for many homeless visitors, the only place they can pass the time most days.
“As a public library, it is our mission to be open for all citizens. So, any individual who comes into the library is welcome, as long as they obey the library policies,” Director Scott Kinney said. “There are people who utilize the facility that are homeless, but the regulars, who we know are actually homeless, generally know the rules of the library and abide by them.”
Kinney noted homeless visitors frequent all nine Mobile Public Library branches throughout the county, but said it’s not uncommon for staff members at most public libraries in the U.S. to work with their local homeless populations. It’s a “perennial topic of concern at libraries” across the county, according to the American Library Association.
An average of 1.2 million people patronize Mobile’s library system each year; Kinney said only a small percentage are homeless or otherwise disenfranchised. And while “saddened” by the recent attack reported at the main branch, he said violence is very uncommon.
For the most part, it is also rare in the broader downtown community, but when an incident does occur in those heavily trafficked areas the perception can be as much of a concern for city leaders as the reality.
“As a department, we think about downtown a lot,” MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste said. “While we don’t police homelessness, we do police vagrancy. Those individuals that are panhandling or causing distress to people visiting the downtown area, if they’re committing violations to city ordinances or state statutes, we’re certainly going to take them into custody.”
Battise said MPD has made “a number of arrests” in the downtown area in 2018, and specifically noted the department made “26 arrests in June for individuals panhandling, being disorderly or committing assaults on other individuals” across the city.
However, it can be difficult to determine how many incidents are actually committed by homeless perpetrators. For one, the residency of many caught in the criminal justice system is often subject to change. Secondly, when it comes to crime statistics and data collection, MPD doesn’t specifically note the housing status of all of its detainees.
When asked about any data on the subject, Solis said the department was only able to provide information on offenses more commonly committed by persons living on the streets — including loitering, prowling, vagrancy, begging or panhandling and “wandering abroad.”
According to MPD’s data, those arrests (around 42 so far in 2018) are few and far between. They also exclude other crimes committed by those considered to be homeless, including violent offenses similar to those Dunson and Assad were accused of in June and October, respectively.
Still, it would be hard to argue that homelessness is a driving force behind crime locally. A Lagniappe review of jail records indicates several people arrested over the past month were listed as “homeless,” but they accounted for just 2.6 percent of the 1,972 people processed for crimes.
Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 5 of this year, Mobile Metro Jail Records indicate at least 53 homeless persons were arrested on charges ranging from public intoxication to murder, with the vast majority occurring in Mobile. Nearly half of those suspects are still in police custody, though others were arrested and released multiple times during that five-week window.
The majority of the arrests stemmed from reports of such lesser offenses as drinking in public, loitering and trespassing, though there was also a handful of violent offenses including assault, arson, sexual abuse, discharging a weapon in an occupied area, murder and attempted murder.
Myles Amari Caples, 18, is one of two suspects in the shooting that left city employee Justin Mooney dead on Raven Drive in October. Wesley Brooks was arrested for arson after police say he intentionally set a fire at an apartment on Dickens Ferry Road. Cecil Jackson Jr. faces charges for assault and sexual abuse after a woman police say he knew accused him of sexually assaulting her behind the First Baptist Church in Tillman’s Corner.
All three said they were homeless when being booked at Metro Jail. All three are still in custody there as well.
“If you see something, sign something.”
After Dunson’s arrest for the downtown assault in June, concern was raised about his frequent, albeit brief, prior trips to Metro Jail. He’d been arrested seven times since January and had been in police custody less than 48 hours prior to his alleged attack.
While there were a number of reasons for his discharges, Dunson appeared to have been released from jail after a series of indecent exposure charges leading up to the assault because timely warrants were not signed with Mobile’s magistrate judges — a system the city has since taken steps to improve.
Magistrates oversee the adjudication of smaller municipal offenses including misdemeanor crimes and traffic violations. Witnesses to those types of crimes, whether a police officer or a member of the public, must sign a warrant against the offender before a magistrate in order for charges to move forward.
If victims can’t or don’t, police will release the suspect in most cases. On the other hand, felony arrests only require probable cause for an officer to take someone into custody.
According to Battiste, though, not everyone who witnesses a relatively harmless minor offense like drinking in public or disorderly conduct wants to take the time, and in some cases travel, to sign a warrant.
“We’ve had some issues with the magistrate office, one of which is not having enough magistrate judges, but we’ve worked to improve that process so the public will not be so inconveineed,” Battiste said. “That’s the biggest hurdle to getting people to come sign warrants because they’ve got to alter their day, which can take an hour, or in some cases, maybe even three hours. Sometimes that experience can be such a negative one that they tend to turn a blind eye the next time.”
While police tell residents “if you see something say something,” Battiste said he’d encourage witnesses of crime to “sign something” as well.
However, after a magistrate office in Government Plaza closed earlier this year, it meant the only available offices were at two MPD precincts, on St. Stephen’s Road and Highway 90 in Tillman’s Corner. At times, only one of those may be open.
Public Safety Director James Barber has said it is sometimes a challenge for some officers to get warrants signed at certain points during the day and on holidays, even though they are are processed ahead of citizens at magistrate offices so they can return to duty more quickly.
To address these issues, the city added a third magistrate office last month at Metro Jail, which Barber said has allowed officers who witness an offense to sign a warrant against the suspect while they’re being booked and added a 24-hour magistrate location for residents closer to downtown.
He said retired Circuit Judge Charles Graddick, a judicial adviser to the city, had been working to address the problem for months before the new magistrate office opened Oct. 22, but noted some of the recent high-profile cases may have helped hasten those efforts.
“We knew we had to do a better job getting magistrates available to the officers so they could fulfill their legal requirements,” he said. “I wouldn’t say Dunson caused that, but that incident definitely highlighted the fact that we’d better get it done.”
Serving the homeless
In recent years, the city has made efforts to create more affordable housing options, but Ron Andress, interim CEO of Housing First, said the shortage in Mobile has continued to exacerbate homelessness.
Andress also said there’s been a lack of local financial support for direct services to the homeless, noting that “most of the support that comes to house the homeless comes from federal money.”
Earlier this year, the Mobile City Council also approved a slew of grant funds for various homelessness prevention efforts.
The lion’s share of the $166,609 in funding went to help prop up the Salvation Army’s Safe Haven shelter for women and children, but recent efforts to set aside more money to address homeless directly have failed.
Councilman Levon Manzie, whose district includes the downtown area, said he regularly receives complaints about the homeless in the Down the Bay and Church Street East neighborhoods. He agrees more needs to be done locally to support nonprofits serving the homeless.
Manzie floated the idea of awarding a $100,000 performance contract to Housing First in 2017 but it failed to find adequate support on the council and was never officially introduced.
Even with some support from the city, the need for services for the homeless has increased in recent years.
While there are still a number of shelters and services for the homeless in Mobile, some of those were lost in 2017 after 15 Place, which is operated by Housing First, moved to limit or end some of its ancillary services.
The Waterfront Rescue Mission downtown has 110 beds for program clients and overnight guests, but only provides meals to guests in its overnight shelter or to men in one of its workforce training programs.
The Salvation Army shelter on Dauphin Street isn’t staffed to be a day shelter, and its 28 beds are only open after 3 p.m. Residents have to leave each morning. Others, including McKemie Place and the Safe Haven shelter, are only open to single women or women and their children.
Despite the challenges, a patchwork of organizations and agencies continue to look for ways to address the broader problem of homelessness in Mobile and serve those who find themselves without a place to stay because of mental illness, substance abuse or financial hardship. Oftentimes those factors overlap.
AltaPointe Health Systems Inc. works directly with homeless shelters and in local jails to identify and offer treatment to those in need of mental health or substance abuse services.
“We recognize the homeless population is part of our continuum of care, and because of that we’ve reached out over the years and now have access to many, many apartments and housing options for people who are truly homeless,” CEO Tuerk Schlesinger said. “We actually have offices in some shelters because it’s our job to make sure we can give people the resources they need to escape homelessness.”
According to Kinney, the public library also offers a number of services to its homeless visitors. In addition to providing assistance with digital literacy and online job applications, Mobile Public Library also provides connections to other services such as mental health treatment and temporary housing.
In fact, the main branch library hosted a homeless information fair earlier this week, bringing nearly a dozen service providers together in a central location. He said the staff is also trained to work with the homeless.
“We try to help people find housing or get back to work, and we do have some success stories,” Kinney said. “Obviously, they do all the work, but we’re a conduit to information for them. I wish we could help everyone, and that everyone wanted our help, but we do our best to help.”
Another local resource for the homeless is the Dumas Wesley Center, which helps families with transitional housing. Executive Director Kate Carver said the center is able to house families in apartments for extended periods of time through its transitional housing and sober living programs.
Those typically run for two years, which Carver said is a good amount of time for families facing homelessness to “get their footing.” She said acceptance into those programs can have life-altering effects on struggling families.
“For me, it’s why I do what I do,” Carver added.
Many of the families accepted into the program do eventually “find their footing,” according to Carver. In fact, the center has an 89 percent success rate, which is determined by the number of families who find permanent housing for at least six months or see an increase in income or employment.
Yet, the center — like other local agencies serving the homeless — still has a long way to go to end homelessness in the greater Mobile area. Carver said Dumas Wesley still fields an average of 200 local “crisis calls” each month from families who are either homeless or on the brink of homelessness.
“That’s pretty steep,” she said. “It tells me there’s still a great need.”
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.