Thoughts on Homelessness in Birmingham

Image of shelter made of cardboard boxes.
David Hilgart. Home. Creative Commons for Flickr.

During the winter break, I spent a lot of time in Birmingham, staying with my sister and with friends, far away from my farm and home in Columbiana. Our farm is more like an animal rescue or sanctuary that does not generate much income but enough to accommodate. Besides hundreds of animals being surrendered or abandoned, we have even had strays walk up our driveway. Our goat, Fred, was the first I remember as we were in disbelief that a goat was just walking the streets and checking out the very sparse neighborhood, curiously coming up to us with some twine wrapped around his neck. For Fred and everyone to follow, my parents and family members have never refused taking in, rehabilitating, or rehoming an animal in need, so maybe that’s why it was so much more obvious of how much worse the picture I have seen in Birmingham is, or what this article is about. In Birmingham, it is people living in the streets witnessed by a city full of people. Walking through five points and down 20th, there is so much evidence and example of homelessness.  Passerby witness but rarely realize that they are seeing many at their most vulnerable or the harsh, daily routine.

Image of street and tunnel wall lined with bags and boxes and evidence of someone's home
Chris Yarzab. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Responsibility of the State

People experiencing homelessness face violations of many human rights, such as inaccessibility to safe and secure housing, an inadequate standard of living, education, liberty and security of the person, privacy, social security, freedom from discrimination, voting, and more which are interconnected.  These human rights are protected by several international human rights treaties. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which bind the state to legal and moral obligations in realizing and protecting the rights of all people. Also, the right to housing recognized by international human rights law doesn’t just mean a right to shelter. It must be adequate and accessible. Battling and overcoming homelessness is not a task of charity as much as an act of justice. Our Public policy and structures should facilitate or lead to a dignified life in the United States. As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we should figure out how to shelter or house those who are homeless.

No one is asking what happened to all the homeless. No one cares, because it’s easier to get on the subway and not be accosted.- Richard Linklater

More recently, I saw many cops parked in the middle of five points as they held up traffic to address some of the people I have seen more statically living there, which brought up the thought of criminalization of homelessness and left me wondering if those cops offer rides to shelters before the ride to a cell.

A look at more vulnerable populations

The most visible type of homelessness is what we see when we walk through Birmingham: people living on the streets or sleeping in the parks or street tunnels. However, more move between shelters and temporary homing maybe with their friends or relatives and more long-term shelter where their experience may not be included in the conversation of homeless persons.

Within 2018 records reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were almost 3,500 people homeless on a given night (280 were family households, 339 were Veterans, 158 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 540 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness). Over 900 of those were concentrated in the Birmingham area. Over the year, there were 14,112 students who faced homelessness in Alabama.

A large portion of the homeless population is affected by mental illness. People with mental illness or other disabilities may face social isolation and may face chronic homelessness. Such individuals may require special types of accommodation or support that may be an obstacle to rehabilitation.  Health issues may cause a person’s homelessness as well as they may be intensified by the experience where poverty and lack of access to care contribute to disparities in health. Another thing to think about is when someone handicapped by a disability loses their parents or caretaker, who will take care of them or will they find tools to live? They could become homeless.

Through the lingering effects of systematic denial of equal rights and opportunities, African American are particularly overrepresented in this system facing a higher risk of poverty, housing discrimination, and incarceration than White Americans

Indigenous people face greater social and economic disadvantage such as lower levels of education or higher levels of unemployment which contribute to higher levels of homelessness in their communities

Women may make up a big portion of those forced to leave their homes fleeing domestic violence or sexual assault. Homeless women may become more isolated for fear of violence, rape, or other abuse. Further, a woman may be separated from her children if she is unable to care for them which challenges her parental rights.

Children and young people are disproportionately affected by homelessness. I have known many classmates and friends who have been homeless as they pursue their education at UAB. Also, Covenant House proclaims that every year, more than 2 million kids in America will face a period of homelessness (The link provides more enlightening and harder-to-swallow statistics). Youth like those emancipated from the foster care system may not have another option. In addition to general human rights laws, children are protected under special rights, like those afforded in the Covenant on the Rights of a Child which describes a higher standard of living and right to protection against neglect, cruelty, exploitation, etc.

Untreated depression and mental illness, self-medication and addiction, childhood trauma and chronic PTSD, abuse and any circumstance that may lead one to homelessness may also create a loop to imprison them. For example, where abstinence is a prerequisite or requirement for homelessness assistance programs, one may not receive help unless they quit, but one cannot quit without relief.

Image of person sitting on roadside
Pedro Ribeiro Simões. Creative Commons for Flickr.

A veteran should not have to stand on the asphalt with a cardboard sign begging for a living in a nation they helped secure and people should not be in the position to be turned down asking for food that was about to be thrown out. In fact, everyone has made contributions and continues to contribute to their society. Homelessness includes people who have paid or pay taxes and those who are paid less than a living wage. It includes people of all labels fleeing abusive conditions or facing escalating housing and living costs. It includes parents and it includes their children who have not had a chance. It also includes all students who are trying to pursue an education to hopefully get a job that will afford them housing. Besides all these achievements, many, including those facing chronic homelessness have endured full lives and have witnessed different forms of trauma. Still, they have survived the circumstances of homelessness, maintaining their humanity and resilience and- intentionally or unintentionally- being that example for others.

Also, keep in mind that going from place to place and not knowing what to do or where you will end up could understandably create a lot of pain and anger. Desperation or frustration may be harder to deal with. Being homeless could even make you apprehensive of ownership or pursuing certain routes that could be encouraged. However, everyone should be afforded options and certain securities.

10 Strategies to End Chronic Homelessness posted by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness:

https://www.usich.gov/tools-for-action/10-strategies-to-end-chronic-homelessness

More immediate examples for anyone to help everyday

If it’s raining or about to, offer the warmth and privacy of an umbrella.

Offer to pay for an uber ride to a nearby shelter as some cannot walk to or have no means of transportation to one.

If you are not comfortable lending cash, you may offer supplies. You could keep these care bags of everyday products, essentials (maybe small shower things you could find in the travel section, gloves, hats, etc), or resources to offer or pass out at crowded shelters.

Invite others to the restaurant you are on your way to and share a meal if they are up for it. The conversation may also allow you to understand, accept, or appreciate their life and vice-versa. Once, a man I invited to eat with me on campus (in an environment where I felt safe enough to) proclaimed his version of Islamophobia (as that was the summation of a popular sentiment in America, especially during those Trump Campaign days) as he explicitly said he didn’t like Muslims when I revealed that of my identity. But it turns out, I was the first Muslim he had personally interacted with and realized he liked before the word “Muslim” exited my mouth. That could happen with anyone of course and homeless (or only hungry in this case) people are not to be “enlightened” and should not be expected to praise our deed, but the conversation and gesture can open this opportunity

Additional Resources:

Federal Links Relevant to homelessness:

https://www.hhs.gov/programs/social-services/homelessness/resources/federal-links/index.html