By Lucy Berry DeButy
A born wordsmith and storyteller, Lucy Berry DeButy joined the City of Huntsville as a Digital Media Specialist in January 2020. She previously worked as a journalist for AL.com and The Decatur Daily, as well as a content marketing writer and editor for Hexagon, formerly Intergraph.
As cooler temperatures spread across the Tennessee Valley, many well-meaning individuals and groups wonder how they can help our homeless community.
If bringing food to homeless camps is at the top of your priority list, think again.
“Delivering meals to Tent City is not a bad thing,” said Huntsville City Administrator John Hamilton. “We’ve got to deal with people’s hunger, but you aren’t changing the condition of being homeless because you’re providing meals to Tent City.”
Hamilton said the City routinely hauls away hundreds of pounds of wasted food and other “stuff that some wonderful, kindhearted person was convinced they needed,” but they were wrong.
By focusing on other critical needs – like transportation, emergency shelter, employment and job skills training – the community can address not just the effects of homelessness, but why people end up there in the first place.
“We’ve got to start being honest with ourselves,” Hamilton said. “Am I just addressing the symptoms or am I actually doing something that’s moving someone away from homelessness and into a home?”
Helping, not hurting
Hamilton and other leaders spoke candidly about homelessness during a recent forum at the Downtown Rescue Mission in Huntsville. Hosted by the ELM Foundation’s Community Connections Project, the “Helping Not Hurting” event brought local leaders, nonprofits and community members together to discuss how Huntsville can better serve its homeless population.
Event organizer Jennie Robinson, who also serves on the Huntsville City Council, said homelessness falls into two main categories: chronic and event-based.
The chronically homeless have been without a home continuously for at least one year or on four separate occasions in the last three years. They may be substance users and/or mentally ill.
Event-based homelessness covers individuals seeking shelter for short periods due to a catastrophic event, such as a medical emergency, job loss, domestic violence, etc. This includes most families with children and is the most common type of homelessness in Huntsville.
While many Huntsville agencies are delivering food boxes or serving meals to the homeless, Robinson said there are other opportunities that are less wasteful and more effective long term.
“Very few organizations are doing prescription drugs for mental health or providing substance abuse counseling or transportation or job counseling or housing – the things that really take people out of homelessness,” she said.
Jeremy Blair, CEO of WellStone Behavioral Health, discussed the role mental health and substance abuse play in the homeless community. When homeless individuals suffer from severe mental illness, Blair said it can be nearly impossible for them to get or remain on medication if they don’t have an income or safe housing.
“One of the barriers is cost of medication and then getting folks to stay on those medications,” he said. “If you’re dealing with what you have to deal with on the streets, carrying your medication with you is not a high priority.”
That’s why WellStone partners with the Downtown Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, First Stop, Huntsville Police Department, local judges and more to tackle needs in an actionable way. Municipal Court Judge Jeff Grimes, who works with WellStone and others to address homelessness, said the court system is also doing more to address the problem.
By offering tools to help individuals avoid court altogether, Grimes said the cost to the taxpayer goes down.
“I think we can all agree that just putting a person in jail again and again and again is not helpful – to the person, to the taxpayer, to anybody,” he said. “We now have more resources we can count on.”
Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray also shared how his department is better training officers, improving the way law enforcement and the community respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Blair said increasing collaboration between nonprofits, churches and other groups makes Huntsville’s efforts to tackle homelessness stand out.
“When I go to Montgomery and I talk to other folks, I’m always encouraged by the way we all in Huntsville collaborate between law enforcement, WellStone, Downtown Rescue Mission,” he said. “Whether you know it or not, we are collaborating with each other on a daily and weekly basis to address these needs.”
But there’s always room for improvement.
Looking ahead, Hamilton said the community must be willing to shift its perspective when it comes to service-related projects for the homeless.
“Until we all admit to ourselves as a community that we’re doing way too much of one thing and not nearly enough of the other, we’re going to continue to leave these sessions saying, ‘At least we’re talking about it,’” he said.