Alabama shelters continue serving the homeless, needy amid COVID-19 crisis

Alabama shelters continue serving the homeless, needy amid COVID-19 crisis
Salvation Army shelters are operating around the clock, continuing to provide the same services as prior to the quarantine. (Image courtesy of the Salvation Army)

Despite the statewide quarantine ordered three weeks ago, Alabama’s most vulnerable citizens haven’t been left in the cold, as many nonprofit organizations have rallied to continue providing shelter during the coronavirus storm.

Birmingham facilities such as Firehouse, First Light and the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope have pressed on in the face of the unprecedented quarantine. Others across the state are trying to maintain longtime services while adapting to stringent guidelines never previously required.

“We all talk multiple times a week to make sure needs are getting met,” said Anne Wright Rygiel, executive director of Firehouse Ministries founded in 1983.

Firehouse opened its new shelter several weeks before the pandemic hit. It remains open and provides a range of free services at the 150-bed facility. The clients attend classes, group sessions and have recreational opportunities such as yoga intermingled with meals and snack breaks. On Easter, plastic eggs with money or candy were hidden for the men to hunt inside the Firehouse.

“We are not accepting outside volunteers, so all the shelter work is done by paid staff and guests (residents) that wish to give back,” Rygiel said. “No outside people are allowed in the shelter – we have a very high-risk population – and our desire is to keep our guests and staff safe.”

Firehouse is accepting new clients who have been referred by a hospital and have tested negative for COVID-19. The shelter continues feeding homeless people outside the shelter at noon each day.

“We have not been forced to release any guest but some have chosen to leave for a variety of different reasons” Rygiel said.

Firehouse has a continuing need for donations of food, such as shelf-stable items, snacks, eggs, butter, meats and cheese, as well as cleaning supplies and laundry detergent.

“The staff of the Firehouse are heroes,” Rygiel said. “They have no medical training and no PPE, only faith and a love for the homeless. Some are single parents, and the majority of the staff are high-risk themselves, and yet they come in, 24 hours a day, to provide care and support, regardless of the risk and for very little personal gain.”

Brother Bryan Mission in Birmingham has maintained its in-house recovery programs for men by using social distancing and other steps recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). No one was forced out of the facility by the pandemic but top bunks are no longer used, and a seven-bed quarantine area was established for anyone showing symptoms of illness.

“We were feeding lunch to approximately 50 people on average each day Monday through Friday before, and we have eliminated that,” said Executive Director Jim Etheredge. “We tried giving out sack lunches but it created a situation where social distancing guidelines were not able to be followed, so we have discontinued that.”

Brother Bryan Mission was in the process of expanding through the purchase of an adjoining building but that effort has been put on hold. The new building would expand total beds to more than 100.

“We would like to proceed once this is over because the need is so great,” Etheredge said.

Founded in 1940 to continue the work of the Rev. James Alexander Bryan, the mission had four locations prior to its current Second Avenue North home. It is entirely funded by contributions, offering free programs to help clients find stable housing, employment and recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. In addition to monetary donations, the mission needs food, medical supplies, and paper and hygiene products.

The Center of Hope continues providing around-the-clock shelter, food and counseling to men, women, families and veterans, said PR Director Lori Cork. To protect the 120 clients who were sheltering at the outbreak of coronavirus, the center is not taking walk-in requests for shelter. However, homeless people who have tested negative for COVID-19 are being referred by UAB Hospital.

“We are serving meals to members of the community Monday through Friday from our mobile canteen on the Center of Hope campus,” Cork said. “We are serving about 50 meals a day to those in need of a hot meal. These meals are open to anyone in need.”

No residents of the Center of Hope have been forced out by the pandemic, but about 20 residents have found other housing or moved in with family, Cork said. The Salvation Army in Birmingham has assisted more than 8,000 people in the past seven weeks, as its food assistance efforts have increased by about 450%.

“Our need is greater than ever before as we work to provide assistance to those impacted by COVID-19,” Cork said of the organization that has been aiding people in Birmingham for 121 years. “There is short-term assistance needed, such as food for hungry families, but also long-term assistance is needed, such as utility and rent assistance that will be very important in the coming months.”

Twenty Alabama cities have Salvation Army posts, eight of them with shelters for the homeless (Birmingham, Decatur, Dothan, Florence, Gadsden, Huntsville, Mobile with three and Montgomery). All of the shelters are operating around the clock, continuing to provide the same services as prior to the quarantine ordered by Alabama State Health Officer Scott Harris.

The Salvation Army of the Shoals has partnered with the city of Florence to accept more homeless people to provide temporary housing during the pandemic, said Karyn Lewis, media relations specialist at the regional headquarters for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in Jackson. People who are uncomfortable entering the facility with 28 residents may camp in the backyard and still take advantage of the amenities inside the shelter.

The Salvation Army of Coastal Alabama has 14 residents in its Red Shield Lodge, 33 in the Dauphin Way Lodge and 44 people in the Family Haven in Mobile. Although church gatherings have been postponed, other activities continue in socially distanced small groups or courtyards, Lewis said. Visitors are restricted from the shelter buildings but meals are still distributed outside. The mobile feeding canteen continues giving water and bag lunches at Bienville Square on Dauphin Street and Park Street from noon until 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

“There is, of course, a greater need for support for The Salvation Army to continue to serve during this pandemic,” Lewis said. “The shelters are in need of food and personal hygiene kits, but the most significant need is financial.”

Jimmie Hale Mission keeps doing most everything it has done for 76 years, with the primary exception of allowing overnight housing for walk-in clients. Substance abuse recovery programs continue at Royal Pines in Hayden and the downtown Birmingham men’s center, where none of the 85 clients have been dismissed due to the pandemic. The men’s facilities and Jessie’s Place for women and their children are moving ahead with skills training, computer literacy classes, GED courses, counseling and Christian mentoring.

“All of these services are provided across our facilities and have continued, thanks to the generosity of people in our community,” said Ryan Bartels, Public Relations coordinator. “Unfortunately, to ensure the safety of our residents, we are temporarily suspending new client intake until the current health crisis subsides.”

Bartels said there were about 120 adults being served by Jimmie Hale at the start of the statewide quarantine, but many have completed their programs and returned to family members or secured transitional housing. He said the need for donations is greater than ever.

“Absolutely. As financial concerns have increased throughout the country, many individuals have reduced, or eliminated, charitable giving,” Bartels said. “The reduction in giving has certainly created numerous challenges as we continue to care for clients across our three unique facilities. We encourage those who have the means to please consider the individuals we serve during this critical time. We’re working with men, women and children who are being equipped to overcome homelessness and addiction permanently.”

Waterfront Mission in Mobile was forced to close for the first time in its 71-year history. Prior to the quarantine orders, the facility housed about 50 people each night. Waterfront has temporarily closed its two thrift stores in Alabama, “which impacts revenue,” said Angie Ishee, noting that “monetary contributions, as well as food and toiletries” are needed.

A reopening date has not been set for Waterfront Mission but Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson is considering the facility for possible use as an interim COVID-related shelter.

“We are awaiting a response from the government as to how and when they might occupy our building,” Ishee said.

How you can help

Brother Bryan Mission accepts donations online at bbmission.com and by mail to P.O. Box 11254, Birmingham, AL 35202.

Donations can be made to the Firehouse Shelter at its website firehouseshelter.com or mailed to 626 2nd Ave. N., Birmingham, AL 35203.

Jimmie Hale Mission is accepting donations of nonperishable food items that can be left outside the doors of any of its facilities. Donations of money can be made online at jimmiehalemission.com or mailed to P.O. Box 10472, Birmingham, AL 35202.

To contribute to The Salvation Army’s response efforts online, visit salarmy.us/covid, by mail at P.O. Box 11005,  Birmingham, AL 35202, (please designate ‘COVID-19’ on all checks) or by phone at 205-328-2420. The regional site is SalvationArmyALM.org/give, and specific items can be donated at Walmart.com/RegistryForGood and search for The Salvation Army.

Contributions to the Waterfront Mission can be made online at donate.waterfrontmission.org or by mail to P.O. Box 1095, Mobile, AL 36633 or by volunteering.

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