Huntsville’s homeless: how to help this holiday season

single-meta-cal November 2, 2020

On a single night in January 2019, 17 out of every 10,000 people living in the U.S. were homeless.

Those 567,715 people represent every region, family status, gender and racial/ethnic group across our country. As cooler temperatures spread throughout the community, you may be wondering how you can best help these individuals get back on their feet.

trash at homeless camp

The picture above shows trash at one of the homeless camps in Huntsville.

If bringing food, clothing and other supplies directly to Huntsville’s homeless camps is at the top of your list, think again.

Huntsville Police Sgt. Grady Thigpen, who works closely with Huntsville’s homeless population, said the City has a wealth of generous people and organizations who give directly to the camps throughout the year, especially the holidays. When they don’t talk with each other about their plans, those efforts often mean hundreds of pounds of food and other items are thrown away.

Sgt. Thigpen said City crews recently removed six dump truck loads of trash from a single camp.

“That’s huge,” he said. “We need to minimize the duplication of services, food, and trash that’s generated from those groups. It gets in our waterways and pollutes our streams and wooded areas.”

Ways You Can Help

Fortunately, there are lots of ways you can still make a big impact on the homeless community.

Nonprofit agencies, community organizations, corporations, and churches are best served by using online CharityTracker software administered by Expect Little Miracles (ELM) to identify what other local groups are doing to help the homeless.

“CharityTracker helps organizations coordinate their efforts and share resources,” said Huntsville City Council President Dr. Jennie Robinson. “They can find out who is doing what and when. If they can communicate with one another, that reduces duplication of services and fraud.”

Dr. Robinson, who serves as Board Secretary and Administrator for ELM, said churches use CharityTracker to work with agencies that serve the homeless rather than going directly to the camps.

“We’ve also had churches coordinate with one another so that they are not all taking meals on the same day,” she said. “This is a huge problem on Thanksgiving and Sundays when everyone decides to feed the homeless. All that food winds up as waste in the camps and creates a problem with rodents as well as creating a lot of work for City crews who have to clean it up.”

How to Use CharityTracker

ELM hosts socially-distanced meetings each month at the Huntsville Dream Center and shares the meeting via Zoom for those unable to attend. The next meeting is on November 12 at 9 a.m.

Robinson encourages anyone interested in attending the next meeting or gaining a CharityTracker license to contact Jennifer Kinard at

For a quick tutorial on how CharityTracker works, click here.

A $50,000 grant from the Community Foundation’s Women’s Philanthropy Society provided seed money for CharityTracker licenses and network startup costs in 2019. The Women’s Philanthropy Society awarded ELM an additional $25,000 grant to continue funding for the CharityTracker network through 2020.

Robinson said ELM has 211 local organizations on CharityTracker today.

“That number is growing daily and increased by 30% in April and May during the COVID shutdown,” she said.

Giving in Other Ways

If you’re an individual looking to give back, here are a few simple suggestions for how to help in more construction ways:

  1. Contact agencies like First Stop, the Salvation Army, Manna House or the Downtown Rescue Mission to donate food or supplies. They work closely with our homeless population and know exactly which areas need the most help.
  2. Before buying or preparing food for the homeless, consider that they might need other items, such as a warm coat, bottled water, or personal hygiene products. Each program has its own wants and needs, so contact any of the above listed organizations for ideas.
  3. If you have the means, you can also make a cash donation to a food bank or other organization that serves the needy. Any amount – no matter how small – helps.
  4. Want to make a large monetary donation? First Stop takes cash donations to purchase prescription drugs for clients, some of whom suffer from mental illness or other health issues and can’t afford medications on their own.
  5. If you’re not sure where to turn, the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville and United Way of Madison County are here to help. You can also contact the Huntsville Police Department’s Community Relations Unit at 256-722-7100 to discuss ways to give back.

Fighting the root cause

The City’s efforts to tackle homelessness have come a long way in recent years. Sgt. Thigpen said they recently started working with Huntsville-based Model Environment to help clean up the camps and offer employment to those who are chronically homeless.

By focusing on 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.

“Our general goal is to empower people and not enable them to just sustain,” Sgt. Thigpen said. “We want to push folks along to try to better themselves – whatever that may look like.”