A neighborhood group is taking aim at local leaders’ response to an increase in the homeless and vagrant population downtown.
Marine Dyson, president of the Church Street East Property Owners Association, said the increase has begun to spill over into the neighborhood, causing an uptick in break-ins, she said. Additionally, Dyson said the influx has affected neighbors’ trips to the library and increased police response in the area.
“It’s kind of affected everything,” Dyson said. “We’re trying to get to why we have so many more people.”
One issue is a ministry by Government Street Presbyterian Church called “the coffee club,” which serves breakfast to the homeless, Dyson said.
“Some people have asked them to stop,” Dyson said. “We’ve talked to them and they said they’d be mindful of the situation.”
Ken McElhaney, a State Farm insurance agent with an office downtown, said he doesn’t know if the coffee club ministry is part of the problem or not. He said the church has changed its approach somewhat.
Kathy Saxbury, a pastoral intern who heads up GSPC’s urban ministries, told Lagniappe the church has made changes to alleviate the concerns of the neighborhood. The coffee club will open its doors earlier to prevent long lines, she said. There are possibly more changes on the way, she said.
“We’re trying to make the best decision for the neighborhood and the people we serve,” she said.
Another issue might be the reduction in services at 15 Place, a local day shelter. Due to a reduction in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding, 15 Place had to stop many of its services, including a dinner program. A proposal from Councilman Levon Manzie to give 15 Place $100,000 in funding was not advanced through the council.
“It might be that,” Dyson said of the cuts to 15 Place. “That’s where they used to go.”
McElhaney admitted that the reduction in 15 Place services “has to hurt.”
Dyson said the group is working with the city in an effort to come up with solutions to the problem. She said the group is not anti-homeless, but can now spot the difference between individuals who are truly homeless and those who are panhandling but have a place to live.
“The police taught us a long time ago there’s a difference between actual homeless and vagrants who have nothing better to do but get into trouble,” she said.
McElhaney, who has had an office downtown since 1990, agreed, saying the issue is not with the homeless, but with vagrants and panhandlers.
“It’s always been there,” he said of the issue with vagrancy. “It’s kind of like the tide; it comes and goes.”
The problem is not just in Mobile, but nationwide, McElhaney said, citing St. Louis, Missouri; Portland, Oregon; and New Orleans as examples.
“Everywhere you go has this issue,” he said. “Every downtown area has a problem like this.”
The issue has led to some backlash on social media for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, which reprinted educational pamphlets that compared giving money to panhandlers to giving a loaded gun to a suicidal person.
Carol Hunter, Alliance spokeswoman, said the negative reaction occurs each time they reprint the pamphlet. She defended it.
“It’s important to understand not all panhandlers are homeless,” she said. “Some panhandlers suffer addiction issues.”
By giving someone with addiction issues money, Hunter said, two things can happen: the panhandler uses the money to buy alcohol or drugs and misses an opportunity to get help or shelter.
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