By Lee Davis
For much of the past century, an old firehouse on Birmingham’s north side housed firemen who regularly saved lives.
The aging structure continues to save lives, but now in a different way. Since 1983, it has been the home of the Firehouse Shelter, a safe haven for homeless men. While the original purpose was to meet their immediate food, shelter and clothing needs, the shelter has expanded to include a series of programs to help its guests achieve housing stability and resume a place in society.
“Our main focus is helping the chronically homeless,” said Ann Darden Wright, a Mountain Brook native who is executive director of the shelter. “We help those that have multiple barriers such as substance abuse, health issues or systemic poverty.”
She said there still are misconceptions about chronically homeless people. “Some people believe that those caught in systemic poverty should lift themselves up by their bootstraps,” she said. “Most of our clients don’t have bootstraps.”
The shelter is literally a street outreach. Staff members search the streets of the downtown area to find homeless men who need a safe place to sleep.
“We go to abandoned cars, buildings and other dangerous places to find those in need,” Wright said.
The shelter houses up to 70 men per night. Its reach goes far beyond the building’s physical location, operating programs and offering affordable housing at 16 sites in the Birmingham metropolitan area.
Unlike many homeless havens, the shelter doesn’t have a specific limit on the length of a man’s stay.
“As a result our staff and volunteers are able to establish a deeper involvement with every man who comes through the doors,” Wright said. “This involvement leads to a level of trust that allows us to help discover the problems that are the cause of their homelessness and possible solutions.”
In exchange, the men are expected to meet regularly with their case manager, follow a life plan established with the case manager, cooperate with the staff in accessing community resources, follow the shelter’s rules and policies and report to the shelter each night on time for check-in.
While the shelter boards only men, it serves homeless families as well. Wright said more than 4,000 homeless men, women and children received services from the shelter in 2015. She estimated that the shelter served approximately 120,000 meals last year.
In addition to meals, the shelter offers access to such things as health care, legal assistance, transportation, spiritual growth and a GED program. There’s also a clothes closet, which distributes more than 13,000 items of clothing a year.
“The clothes closet provides business suits for the men to wear to job interviews,” Wright added.
The shelter has 20 full-time staffers and five part-time staffers. Wright said most of the staff members are case workers, and about half of the staff members once were served by the shelter.
“Having staffers who have been through similar experiences helps them be more sympathetic,” she explained.
Of course, the shelter could not do its work without corporate sponsors and hands-on volunteers. Wright praised area businesses and churches for their support.
“There is always a need for volunteers,” she said. “They are needed for everything from working in the kitchen, helping with our canned food drives or for use with particular skills such as painting. Almost any talent can be helpful, so we invite people who have an idea or a passion to be a part of what we do.”
Financial support is essential, too. In 2014, the shelter’s expenses were more than $1.6 million.
The Firehouse Shelter is conducting a capital campaign to build a more modern facility on property about two blocks away from the present shelter. The original shelter building is more than 100 years old and is owned by the city.
“We’re going to construct a new building in order to serve our clients in a more efficient and effective manner,”
Wright said. As part of the campaign, the shelter is sponsoring a luncheon event Thursday April 7 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., with proceeds going to the shelter’s programs. The featured speaker will be University of Alabama athletic director Bill Battle.
For more information, visit www.firehouseshelter.com.
“We’re very blessed to live in a giving community,” Wright said. “We’ve had great support and we know the people will support our efforts to give to those in need.”
For 33 years, The Firehouse Shelter has been giving the homeless a hand up out of a life of abuse and poverty. Its locale will change, but its purposes will not.