The Street


Jessie

Jessie

Photographer Eric Dejuan asks some of Birmingham’s homeless if he can take their photos—and hear their stories. 

Written and photographed by Eric Dejuan

I was always told that if I went to school, I could be anything that I wanted. Back in the 80s, when I was a kid, riding around in the car was something you looked forward to doing, especially once you were tall enough to look out the window. Viewing anything outside of the front yard that I wasn’t allowed to leave was exciting. One thing I noticed, as many kids do, was the people sleeping on the sidewalks and in the streets. Curiosity set in, and I asked, “Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk? Why doesn’t he just go home?” Many times, parents and teachers tell kids that if you do drugs or drink alcohol, or if you don’t stay in school, you will end up homeless like the people I saw. They call those people bums.

Now that I’ve finished school, I’m out in the real world, working and paying bills. Most people experience tough situations such as unexpected job loss, and I am no different. For many people—me included—there is a support network to bail you out. But what if I didn’t have a supportive family? Where would I be? Is it possible that I would be homeless if I lost my job and didn’t have any family to help? My curiosity set me on a mission to interact with the homeless in Birmingham.

On my two-day journey, I talked with several homeless men and women and asked them to tell me their stories. Some were unwilling, but some agreed to answer my questions and to be photographed. I tried my best to ask questions without assumption; instead of assuming that they were lazy and had never worked, I asked them to name the best jobs they’d ever had. Instead of assuming they’d been disowned, I asked if they had any kids and had ever been married. I asked where they were originally from, and if they still kept in contact with their families.

Paul

Paul

I asked the right questions. Many of the people I talked to were not homeless because of substance abuse or a history of violence; rather, they were homeless because of unfortunate things that they could not control. And I understood that these things happen, because they’ve happened to me.

There was Paul. I found him sitting next to a building on the sidewalk. Paul says he’s been on the streets for less than a month, and he really doesn’t consider himself to be homeless, though he had nowhere to go. Paul went through a bad divorce and his ex-wife got the house and was getting a nice chunk of his paycheck. He suffered depression and had trouble concentrating at his job, which he ultimately lost.

There was Juan. I found Juan not far from Paul, sitting down, writing. Juan’s best job was at the Mercedes-Benz plant. Juan had just been hired at Mercedes-Benz and was on his way to work from Birmingham when he was in a car accident that totaled his car and injured him. He didn’t have anyone to take him back and forth to work every day and he wasn’t in the position to buy another vehicle; soon, he was unable to afford rent. There was no family for him to turn to. Juan receives disability checks to his P.O. Box, but it’s just not enough for him to afford a good place to live. So he manages his money well enough to eat every day and pay for his P.O. Box, and he just survives on the street. Sometimes, he is able to get a motel room for a night or two when it’s cold.

Juan

Juan

There was the trio walking together, wearing cool clothes. Melvin was from Washington, and Luke and Jessie were from Montana. They also had a well-trained dog, whose name was Bella. They traveled here by train cart. Melvin was a forklift driver, Luke was a chef, and Jessie was a carny. Jessie talks to her mother once or twice a month—she says it’s not that her mom doesn’t want to help her. She just can’t.

I talked to several more people during my two-day project, and my questions about the homeless were answered. It’s true that substance abuse contributes to some people ending up on the streets, but that’s not always the case. These people have all kinds of stories: divorce, injury, unexpected job loss, lack of family support. It’s all there. The people I spoke with were very intelligent, capable human beings. Most have adapted to the homeless lifestyle and are happy; many have found a community on the streets, like the painter who isn’t homeless anymore but still hangs out with his old friends, who are. During this project, I ran into groups that provided food, clothing, and even a live DJ for music for those without homes. I once thought downtown Birmingham was empty on Sundays, but I was wrong. It was something special to watch one lady dance to the music with a smile on her face, as she held a pair of jeans to her waist to see if they would fit.

The project changed me—I understand now that there’s so much to these people than the stereotypes that have been thrust upon them. They are real people with real stories, and this is what they look like.

Melvin, Jessie, and Luke

Melvin, Jessie, and Luke

Come in from the Cold

The city’s number of people without homes is decreasing, but there are still too many going to bed on the streets at night.

Written by Tom Gordon

Photos by Eric Dejuan

By midmorning on Jan. 6, the sun was bright, but the wind chill was giving the temperature a sharp feel outside one of the city’s temporary stops for the homeless, the Firehouse Shelter on Third Avenue North. Anticipating the single-digit-low forecast for the coming night, a white sign on the heavy steel door stated that the warming station at Boutwell Auditorium, less than a mile to the northeast, was open. On the north side of the avenue, a woman, wearing a knapsack on her back, pulling a wheeled suitcase, and carrying a cigarette in one of her green-gloved hands, appeared to be heading in the Boutwell direction.

About two weeks before—Christmas Eve, to be exact—a man identified as Kerry Washington had died (according to a news report) of “accidental hypothermia after extended exposure to the elements.” Washington had died at a hospital after being found along the block of First Street South, about two miles southwest of the Firehouse, where his face was a familiar one to staffers.

As the Jan. 6 sun fought a losing battle with the cold morning outside the Firehouse, a team of volunteers was at work inside the shelter, preparing the day’s lunch. The dining room tables were already occupied, mostly by men who had been there most of the morning.

That night, many of those men slept in the 50 beds that the Firehouse had available. About 20 others slept in mats on the dining room floor.

On the surface, this Birmingham window looking in on the world of the homeless was not one you would describe as uplifting. But those who work with them say—with some caveats—that the situation is not as dire as it has been in the past. They point to a trend in numbers, citing the annual Point in Time homelessness survey required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and taken in late January. As compiled by One Roof, a coordinating agency for homeless service providers in Birmingham, the number of people in emergency or transitional housing, or classified as unsheltered, was 1,469 in 2013, nearly 40 percent lower than the total tallied in 2005. Nearly all of the significant subpopulations making up that total—the chronically homeless, the severely mentally ill, and chronic substance abusers, among others—all declined by percentages ranging from 11 to 67 percent. The only listed category showing an increase was unaccompanied youth, or children under 18, but the total of 10 was 60 percent below the figure for 2012.

Vick

Vick

The Birmingham area totals are part of a national Point in Time survey trend. According to HUD, the January 2013 survey tallied 610,042 homeless persons nationwide, a 4 percent drop from 2012 and a 9 percent decrease from the number recorded in 2007. Michelle Farley, executive director of One Roof, says that while she was “thrilled” to see the drop in the Point in Time homeless numbers, “we also know that this is not our total number of homeless during a year’s time.” Estimates for two-year periods, based in part on data from homeless service agencies, are larger and closer to the total, but Farley says those numbers are also down, from between 5,000 to 7,000 for 2005–2007 to between 4,000 and 6,000.

The chief reason for the decrease, according to Farley, lies in the same factor that, because it has been beyond the reach of many would-be occupants, has played a huge role in the nation’s homeless crisis: Permanent supported housing. That means housing for people who can manage their lives with the right mix of support services. “I can track almost one-to-one the development of permanent, supportive housing with the decrease in chronically homeless and overall homeless,” Farley says.

Chris Retan, executive director of Aletheia House, a multifaceted agency that has developed housing, job training, drug counseling, and other services for the homeless, says the “housing first” approach has gained traction in the mix of methods devised to deal with homelessness. In years past, Retan said, it seemed as if people had “to earn the right to permanent housing” by going through a series of steps, including staying for periods in different locations. “The traditional method of homelessness services is you go to an emergency shelter for months and then you go to transitional housing for months and even years and then you go to permanent housing,” Retan explains. “So the question becomes ‘Could we do something differently for people for whom this would be appropriate?’ which would be as quickly as possible to move them into permanent housing. And then, if they need support, provide them the support while they’re in their permanent housing and then, when they no longer need that support, we can pull back. It doesn’t work for everybody, but I think it’s particularly appropriate for people whose homelessness is the result of economic problems as opposed to mental health issues or substance abuse problems.”

Melvin

Melvin

Aletheia House is using the housing-first approach with Hope for Heroes, a  program for which it received a grant of more than $1 million last year from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. United Way of Central Alabama, based in Birmingham, also received a grant, for $2 million, to combat homelessness among veterans throughout the state (except for Mobile and Baldwin counties). Overall, the VA sent about $6 million last year to Alabama-based organizations to reduce homelessness among vets throughout the state. Nationwide, the federal agency would like to end homelessness among veterans by 2015. The Hope for Heroes program’s objective is to provide housing for eligible veterans and their families in the Birmingham area. The program anticipates serving 260 homeless veterans and their families over the next year. It had 25 families in early January, Retan said, and was averaging one new family per day. “What we’re looking to do is have them avoid months and months in a shelter and getting caught in that system,” Retan says. Once veterans and their families are housed, Aletheia House could provide them with a variety of support, such as helping pay a month’s rent or utility bill, or helping them apply for benefits to which they may be entitled.

Sitting in her office just inside the doorway to the Firehouse Shelter, where a window allowed her to watch men check in at the security desk by showing their Homeless Management Information System ID cards, Nicole Arlain was asked what she would do about homelessness if she was an empress with unlimited power and resources. Her answer: Provide more housing. She talked about the positive fallout that would come from it. “There are more abandoned houses than there are homeless people,” says Arlain, who is the Firehouse’s street outreach coordinator. “And if we were able to fix those up and use them to house the homeless, you know, it helps build their self esteem, it gives them their own place. It gives them…something to be proud of.” It also would give service providers “a better chance” of treating some of the issues that caused the person to become homeless in the first place, she says.

Take someone with mental illness. “It’s all well and good to get them the pills that last for 30 days,” she says. “What happens at the end of that 30 days…especially if you have them living on the street with no food and no housing? Somebody’s going to take the pills before they even get to finish taking them or they’re going to lose them because of where they’re trying to keep them. Get them into housing. You know where they are. You’re going to be able to bring them their meds. You’re able to see on a daily basis their ups and downs. Get people into a house and then from there, you can work on anything, because they have a starting point. It really will make a huge difference for people.”

Firehouse executive director Anne Wright echoes that sentiment. “People need a home, a little place to call their own before they can start making any sustainable change,” she says. “It’s very difficult to have people change their behavior when they are in a dormitory setting.” It can also be expensive. Farley notes that if a chronically homeless person—defined by HUD as someone “with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more” or a disabled individual who has had “at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years”—is placed in appropriate housing, he will make fewer visits to emergency rooms and spend less time in psychiatric care or in the criminal justice system. The Birmingham area Point in Time survey indicates the area’s number of chronically homeless is in decline, having dropped from 648 in the 2005 survey to 411 in 2013. “As we get our chronically homeless people placed, we can move other homeless through the system more quickly because there are resources available for them,” Farley says.

Luke

Housing is problematic for more than just the homeless in Alabama. In the 2013 fact sheet prepared by the Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Alabama “lacks nearly 90,000 affordable and available homes for individuals and families living with extremely low incomes.” Wright says the Firehouse, with public and private dollars, has more than doubled its supply of permanent supportive housing in recent years. She also said that money and in-kind donations, such as a supply of winter jackets the shelter received in early January, are essential. But another essential would be a change in attitude on the part of members of the public and even some service providers toward homeless people. “In my experience, unless these guys can actually feel that people care about them, then all the money in the world that we dump into these social service organizations is moot,” Wright says. “People need to know they’re worth something and the easiest way to tell people they’re worth something is by smiling at them, by saying hello, and by going to where they’re at and being okay with walking into a tent city and giving credence to the fact that that’s their home. Why would people want to access all these resources—even if we had all the money in the world—if they felt that they were less than the people providing the services?”

Arlain, 40, knows what it is like to feel “less.” She was homeless and out on the street for about eight months. A former college basketball power forward, she did not come from a dysfunctional family and had no prior history of drug use, but in the summer of 2007, “everything kind of went to heck in a hand basket,” she says. A big factor was the loss of her two jobs and the lack of replacements. Before she hit the street, she already had starting smoking crack. “Most people can look at me and say, ‘You couldn’t have ever been homeless,’” Arlain says. Her answer, based on self knowledge and on what she has learned from those she has met through her street outreach work for the past three and a half years, is, “Why not?”

“The clients I work with amaze me,” she says. “I couldn’t handle being on the street, being homeless. It absolutely beat me down to a place where I didn’t want to be anymore. I had family, I had friends, and I had loved ones who helped me get out of that hole. But some of the guys I deal with have years—you’re talking 20 and 30 years—on the street. How?”

Aren’t there people, she was asked, who choose that lifestyle? “When they have lost all hope that there is help for them,” she says. “When they feel that they are that far gone that they can’t be helped, sure, then they feel like that is their choice…. That is the only choice they have.”

9 Responses to “The Street”

  1. Laura says:

    This is an awesome project. Many times we judge without knowing the story.

  2. Hunnye says:

    Very nice article. I really enjoyed reading about there story. It’s so true that things can happen so quickly and cause you to lose everything. We must make better choices for our future. I’m very proud of the painter who made a way for himself and is no longer homeless, yet he still spends time with his friends. That is very grateful and humbling of him.
    Keep up the great work within the community Eric!

  3. Cole says:

    I’m exceptionally pleased to see the interest displayed through the reporting in concern of our homeless population/community here in Birmingham from such a personalized perspective. Although the efforts of many dedicated entities and individuals have advanced the perception and understanding of the condition and impact of homelessness itself, there remains many barriers to the evolution of how these issues are addressed. for the most part, we still as a society, cling to antiquated notions no longer realistically relevant, as to how we deal with them. Primarily without in – depth consideration as to the impact on our overall community. Subliminally, there is yet a severe push to force homeless presence out of the city without thought to either the individual, or the humanitarian implications of these actions…

  4. Jenny Hullett says:

    Beautifully done. The people of Bham need to do more for one another. Very selfless to give the shoes.

  5. Dani says:

    Thank you for pulling the rug back and no longer pretending that tis is a non existent counterfeit that everyone at homeless, shields, disenfranchised is where they strictly by personal choice.

    I am too often guilty of not do enough to help but thankful that I am not an ostrich. May all in need be guided.

  6. Wow, what a powerful testament to the author and the individuals who he was blessed to speak with and get to know. I have just been awarded the National Coalition Association’s Homeless Speaker’s Bureau for the state of Alabama, through my non-profit – The Lighthouse for Recovery Ministries here in Birmingham, AL – and this is a topic very dear to my heart. I live where I work – in the Woodlawn Community with the homeless, destitution, prostitution, and substance/alcohol abusers and I am blessed everyday to be able to meet and work with individuals who have had devastation and despair enter their lives and be able to assist in working together for a better way of life for each person. They call our home, “Motel 6” because the light is always on and coffee in the pot for them to visit and talk about their days or their troubles.
    I love it.

  7. Rob (Dokk Savage) says:

    My brother,

    As a fellow photographer, I’m moved by the story you portray in your images. As a man, I was intrigued by the men who fell on hard times due to circumstances beyond their control. As a Christian, I believe God lead me to this story as I am going through a situation, where I might lose everything. However, as a entreprenuer with photography and marketing, I have faith in my business. I have faith in myself by having faith in God. This story has inspired me to keep fighting and not give up on my dreams of being a lender so I can help the borrowers. I’ve been through so much in the past few years, especially the last eight months. However, I’m working on a few things in addition to my business that will assist me with staying out the gutter. I thought my problems were bad until I read this article. I felt worse knowing that some of these folks who are without still have hope in their spirits. My brother, you are a true angel of God for taking the time to com

  8. Rob (Dokk Savage) says:

    To compile images and dedicate yourself by giving them hope.

    God bless you. Keep inspiring!

  9. Libby Matthews says:

    Thank you so much for highlighting the homeless in B-Metro. They do all have stories but the majority are fighting mental illness and try to get $ from people to self medicate. They are running from something and can’t find help.

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