It’s equal parts civic responsibility and sheer human compassion. It’s quite simply, as Turkessa Coleman puts it, “the right things to do.”
Managing and assisting the homeless population is a concern for the City of Huntsville, and as a new year arrives, the crisis comes to the forefront.
On the responsibility level, the end of January brings the annual count of the homeless population, as mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The “point of time” count in Huntsville will take place Jan. 30-31. The statistics gathered are necessary to receive federal HUD grants.
On the compassion level, as inclement weather rolls in, the challenge facing the homeless, and those who assist them, ratchets up.
Coleman, who works in the City of Huntsville’s Community Development office, helps manage the point of time count and serves as a bridge between the City and the North Alabama Coalition for the Homeless (NACH), which coordinates the efforts of the myriad organizations in our area that work to serve the homeless.
According to Coleman, the number of homeless people counted in Madison County in 2016 dropped by 22 percent. The 2015 count noted 380 homeless in the county, including 76 children. The 2016 count was 295 homeless, 65 of those children.
National figures are alarming, though the number of homeless declined by three percent. Some 549,928 were homeless in last January’s count, according to HUD figures. More than one-fifth of the homeless were children and nearly 40,000 were U.S. military veterans. Most of the homeless counted – 68 percent – were in emergency shelters, transitional housing or save havens.
The Madison County numbers on sheltered homeless are comparable to the national average.
The City of Huntsville helps multiple shelters and crisis centers but a major focus is pointed toward NACH, an umbrella group of 27 member and partner organizations who deal with the homeless population as a primary task or tangential to their work.
“The City has supported us well in the past in our effort to alleviate homelessness, but it can only contribute what is available financially,” says Lineise Arnold, executive director of NACH. “It’s helped identify gaps and helped establish new funding streams. It’s ‘How can we partner and bring our resources together?’”
However, assisting the homeless is a quintessential public-private partnership, and there are many individuals, civic organizations and church groups who have “their hearts in the right place,” as Coleman says, and are eager to serve the homeless.
“Our community is great about meeting the needs of our homeless,” Arnold says. “Anything we put out about specific needs, they always respond. The Warming Center (a shelter at the Grateful Life Community Church) needed cots, and people came up with 55 new cots.”
Coleman stresses people should first contact NACH for guidance to most effectively serve; a common mistake by some groups is to bring food to homeless camps, forgetting that there is no facility to store any surplus.
The City of Huntsville helps in other ways, especially when the weather turns cold. The transportation department works with homeless to provide transit to shelters and food kitchens. Huntsville Police has a task force that works with the various shelters, and officers on the street may transport homeless to shelters as necessary.
“The City has been a great partner in providing us transportation service as well as its financial support,” Arnold says. “The Warming Center itself wouldn’t be a success without the City’s transportation.”
Though some shelters prefer a homeless person to present an ID card before being admitted, it is not a prerequisite, especially in below-freezing temperatures. Many such shelters will indeed facilitate the process for a homeless person to obtain some sort of official identification; others will serve as the primarily mailing address for homeless, especially for veterans who may be receiving government assistance checks.
While her official position requires a compassion for homelessness, it’s also clearly a personal passion for Coleman.
“In my job as a Planner III for the City, you want your community as a whole to have the capacity for upward mobility,” she says. “But on a personal note, helping others is just the right thing to do. Anyone who has the ability to assist in some way, I just think you should do it. And I think that sums up the way our City leaders as a whole feel.”