Will Ferrill slides into a white plastic patio chair and turns a knob on the battery-operated, circa-1990s boombox beside him as talk radio discussions give way to the hum of the busy industrial road nearby. His sunglasses are pulled over his timeworn face; a crimson University of Alabama hat is perched on his head.
A seemingly simple patchwork of tarps and blankets hang overhead and large barrels are in place to catch rainwater for showering, or laundry. A small cooler is filled with dirt and seedlings as a makeshift garden. Floor mats are used as a sort of carpeting.
This is home to the soon-to-be 70-year-old man whose face is not only wrinkled by time and war, but also by hardship and years of living off the grid.
It won’t be his home much longer.
The Vietnam veteran is one of about two dozen homeless individuals being forced to pick up and move from a wooded area north of downtown due to new guidelines imposed by Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration and the Mobile Police Department. Ferrill and other campers say they’ll be cited, or in some cases arrested, for trespassing on Friday, May 6, if they don’t leave beforehand.
“I don’t want to leave,” Ferrill said. “I got everything here already. We got tons of stuff to move. It’s going to be a big problem for us to move.”
He needs an extra tent on his campsite to hold the possessions he’s accumulated after more than 30 years living in campsites all over the South. For Ferrill, few things have changed in the time he has survived outdoors, except he cooks with propane now instead of scavenged wood.
Financially, his lifestyle is supplemented by food stamps and a monthly Social Security check. His living expenses are minimal, but include payment every six months for a post office box. Ferrill buys jugs of water for drinking from a nearby Exxon station and collects rainwater for other needs.
“I used to sleep downtown years ago — here, there and everywhere,” he said. “A different campsite every night. This is a lot better because it’s my place.”
Ferrill said he and other campers who keep to themselves and don’t bother anybody are being forced out due to complaints about a trash-strewn and lawless “tent village” on the other side of Conception Street Road, a short distance from his own camp.
“I don’t know why they’re bothering us here,” he said. “They’re giving us a raw deal, man. They ought to leave us alone and run them out, if they’re going to do anything.”
City spokesman George Talbot said the administration would work to help the campers on both sides of the road, after a complaint from at least one private landowner alerted officials to several issues inside the decades-old homeless community colloquially known as “tent city.”
After the complaint, MPD officers contacted owners of the properties where the 25 individual camps currently sit to get permission to clear them out, Talbot said. Among the issues, he said, is public safety, health and environmental concerns as human waste and trash is being dumped in Three Mile Creek, Talbot said. MPD spokesman Terrence Perkins did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, but according to campers, police handed out eviction notices earlier in April, and continue to visit the sites and remind them of the deadline regularly.
Talbot said the city has since teamed up with civic organizations to help the affected campers possibly find a solution.
Issues with help
The various organizations tasked with helping the homeless each have their own set of guidelines, which could make it hard to serve everyone affected by the evictions. For example, several of the individuals could run into trouble trying to receive help from Housing First, Executive Director Eric Jefferson said.
Setting aside criminal histories burdening some — often landlords won’t accept residents with a felony conviction — Jefferson said the city and Housing First simply don’t have enough affordable housing available.
“We have to put some on a waiting list,” he said.
In fact, Jefferson said, there are currently 422 individuals awaiting housing.
Housing First does offer “permanent supportive housing,” but only to those who qualify. Primarily, an individual must have a disability to qualify for this type of housing. They must also be chronically homeless — homeless for a year or more, or four episodes of homelessness in three years. Housing First has 113 of these units, Jefferson said.
“Needless to say, we’re full,” he said.
Michael Babb, who resides in his own tent near but separate from the main camp in question, said he’s been on a housing waiting list more than two years.
There is also the “rapid rehousing” program, but to be eligible an individual must have income. Unlike supportive housing, a rapid rehousing lease is signed by the individual living there, not by the organization. There are 55 of these units and the average stay is anywhere from six months to two years, Jefferson said.
There is also a program for military veterans, he said, but an individual must meet the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs definition of “veteran,” having completed basic training and served in a conflict.
Problems with the system start to become apparent. For instance, while Ferrill, a U.S. Army veteran, would qualify for housing within seven to 14 days, Jefferson said, his friend Tim, who was also in the Army, wouldn’t because he didn’t serve in a conflict.
Neither Ferrill nor Tim, who asked that his last name not be released, want to live within four walls. Ferrill said living outside has increased his longevity.
“I’m not ready to go in yet,” Ferrill said. “It keeps me healthy … I’m 70 years old and I don’t take no kind of medication.”
Housing First reached a milestone last year with “functionally zero” homeless veterans in the city. The caveat to this is, of course, the veterans only counted if they wanted help, or qualified for help.
Even if an individual can qualify for housing, some don’t have the means to get the basic paperwork needed to participate in daily life.
A 34-year-old homeless woman named Corey said she and her boyfriend are trying to scrape together the money needed to get a copy of her birth certificate in order to get identification. They have lived for about 11 years in the woods close to the tent city in a small cabin he built from scrap lumber. While he is able to work occasionally mowing lawns and landscaping, she said she is hindered from most physical activity by a heart condition. She said she doesn’t know what they’ll do come May 6.
“If we don’t leave, they’re going to arrest us,” she said. “They might as well put me in jail.”
Other programs in the city have their own restrictions that could limit participation by a number of individuals impacted by the closure of tent city.
In addition to serving breakfast and dinner to the city’s homeless, the Salvation Army also offers first-come, first-served beds in its dormitory at 1009 Dauphin St., spokesman Kavontae Smalls said. The dormitory has 28 beds, open on a first-come, first served basis. However, the beds can only be used by a single individual 10 times every two months, Smalls wrote in an email.
“If we have extra beds available and someone has used up their limit, we’ll still allow them to sleep at the homeless overnight shelter,” Smalls wrote.
In March, the agency served an average of 28 homeless individuals breakfast every day and 61 homeless men dinner.
“We’ll probably see more faces coming in for free meals,” Smalls said of the closure of the tent city. “I don’t see any major impact other than that.”
The organization also offers substance abuse programs and some participants in those programs are homeless, Smalls said.
Jessica James, executive director of McKemie Place, an all-female homeless shelter, said the organization is preparing for an influx.
“We tried as best we could to get out in front of this,” she said.
While not many of her clients live in the tent city, James said, several have friends there. She said they tried to get the word out through those women.
Women who stay at McKemie Place must be out by 7 a.m. each morning. The organization provides daily transportation to the 15 Place day shelter, which provides meals and a place to shower.
James is working with the city through a task force to build a shelter downtown, which would allow women 24/7 access to the shelter. While women at McKemie Place can stay there for up to three months, James said, the goal of the organization is to find permanent housing.
“My only concern is on the last day many will not have another place to live,” she said. “Some don’t want housing.”
Jones said a possible solution has been embraced by cities such as Eugene, Oregon, which provides sanitary campsites for the homeless on unused city property.
Eugene’s “rest stop” program allows 15 people to sleep overnight in small tents at a given site, while the city also provides portable toilets. Eugene currently funds four sites with a possible fifth on the way, each managed by a community agency. Individuals who use the campsites can be transitioned into affordable housing. Eugene, with roughly 156,000 residents, is only slightly smaller than Mobile.
While the rest stop idea a “viable option” for Mobile, Jefferson said, he doesn’t think the current administration would embrace it. He said to his knowledge the city doesn’t want individuals “living outside of a dwelling.”
Talbot refuted that and said if a property owner was willing to allow it, they wouldn’t stop an individual from camping. He added portable toilets could possibly be added for such an arrangement.
“All ideas are on the table,” Talbot said. “All solutions are on the table.”
Several media reports detailed a plan by the mayor of Portland, Oregon, to allow campers to access undeveloped city property during certain hours of the evening.
Jefferson said Huntsville, Alabama, has also started a community of portable tiny homes for the homeless, wrapped around a community center that offers running water. He said Housing First would like to do something similar — lease portable tiny homes on abandoned property with their own plumbing — but it comes down to funding.
“We’ve talked to possible funders and hope to soon have an answer on a request we made,” he said.
Jennifer Greene, a co-director of Delta Dogs, who with Dr. Jennifer Eiland has helped treat a number of pets for the homeless in the area, said she hopes leaders could come together to help find solutions.
“I’d love to see some out-of-the-box thinking,” she said. “I feel there’s an opportunity for our city’s leaders … all of us to come together and find unique ways to solve a common problem.”