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October 17, 2000

Newsmaker Interview with Dan Williams

The following interview with Dan Williams, executive director of the Homeless Coalition of Mobile, took place last week via e-mail.

Harbinger: What is the population of homeless in Mobile, including those sleeping in shelters and those on the street?

Williams: In Mobile County, there are approximately 300 individuals, including families with children, in an emergency or temporary shelter, including those operated by The Salvation Army, the Waterfront Rescue Mission, and Penelope House. There are, as verified by a recent overnight count on September 28, another 300 to 400 who are not sheltered and are sleeping under bridges, in vacant buildings, in automobiles, etc. Baldwin County has an estimated homeless population of 150 to 200, based on contacts with agencies that provide assistance.

Harbinger: Are there sufficient beds for the homeless in Mobile?

Williams: This is not a question easily answered. There are nights when beds remain available and nights when the shelters are full. Some of the homeless do not want to be admitted to a shelter in response to the rules. Some do not have the nightly fee required after a period of free nights. The Homeless Coalition has commissioned a study by the Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Alabama on the homeless and those at risk of being homeless. We anticipate having information by December that will help us better understand what the need is for emergency shelter beds.

Harbinger: Former President Ronald Reagan was once quoted as saying that there are homeless people who want to stay on the street instead of staying in a shelter. Is that an accurate description of the homeless in Mobile?

Williams: If they do not like the choices for shelter, that may be true. We have not found that anyone wants to be homeless. That belief appears to be one that some people have latched onto as a rationale for not being supportive of efforts to help the homeless. Those of us who encounter the homeless daily and become aware of their situations know that no one chooses to be homeless. There are some who have been homeless over a period of years and have an extreme fear of becoming reconnected to normal society

Harbinger: Several years ago under federal court ruling, many patients of state mental institutions were released with the provision that they were to receive community care and support. However, the care did not materialize, and many of these former patients became homeless. Is that still an issue regarding the current homeless population?

Williams: Yes, homelessness does result from policies and practices not only by the mental health institutions but also by the justice and welfare systems. There is no deliberate intent to cause people to be homeless. In fact, the intentions are to help people become independent and self-sufficient. In reality, there are citizens who need more help beyond being discharged back to the community or set loose by a change in rules that makes them ineligible for assistance. It's a disgrace that we have mentally ill citizens on the street. It is also a disgrace that we now have more homeless families as a result of changes in the welfare system.

Harbinger: A homeless shelter that has been proposed in downtown Mobile has drawn much controversy. What is the goal of the proposed homeless shelter? What kinds of services will the proposed shelter provide to the homeless?

Williams: The downtown facility is a reality, not a proposal. Also, it is a daytime multi-service center for the homeless, not a shelter, which usually refers to an overnight facility. The controversy is related to generalized perceptions about the homeless as criminals and bums, which is a very limited understanding of the phenomenon and unfair to the vast majority. The daytime Center, now referred to as 15 Place, opened on July 1 at 15 N. Joachim Street in the education building of the former St. Francis Street United Methodist Church. It operates like a business and is open 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, and for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays. Loaves and Fish, a collaboration of area churches, provides lunch during the week, and have been doing so at this location for the past five years. We hope to expand the hours as funds become available. The Center is a one-stop service operation for helping the homeless find housing, access benefits, receive job training and become employed. We already have case management services available for those ready to make the transition. In addition, we have mental health services, veteran services, and child day-care while parents look for work. We are currently remodeling the facility to install showers and a laundry. The homeless can use the Center for messages and as an address when applying for a job. Although not fully operational, we have already made a difference in how the community is responding to the homeless. Approximately 100 individuals are coming to the Center every day for a meal, and as they come we are offering the array of services that can help them escape homelessness.

Harbinger: Can a center that provides an address for the homeless and a place where they can freshen up for job interviews actually move people from being homeless to being gainfully employed?

Williams: To find temporary work, absolutely. We see it happen every day. Many of these citizens just need a little encouragement and advocacy to help them become employed. Helping them stay employed is more difficult. Many of the jobs available are for day labor. The wages are very low and usually insufficient for providing permanent housing. Our objective is to combine day-labor employment with a job-training program that can accomplish the greater goals of permanent work and housing.

Harbinger: Could you tell our readers a little bit about the history of the Homeless Coalition of Mobile, such as how it came about?

Williams: The Homeless Coalition of Mobile grew out of a 1994 study on homelessness by the same research group mentioned above. The movement was started by downtown businesses and churches that wanted to do something about the problem in that area of town. The City of Mobile, the Mobile Housing Board, and the United Way of Southwest Alabama provided funding and assistance to keep the study and the movement underway. We have an eighteen-member Board of Directors, and there are fifty-three member organizations and churches. Since 1996, the Coalition has generated over five million dollars in grants for seven organizations that serve the homeless in the Mobile area. The daytime Center is a strategy to better coordinate the efforts of our service provider agencies.

Harbinger: Could you tell our readers about the upcoming conference for the homeless? Who should attend?

Williams: On October 20, we are having a conference on homelessness with the theme "Reaching Out to the Homeless, Our Neighbors." It will be held at the Clarion Hotel from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. It is open to the general public for a charge of $15 to cover the luncheon. There will be sessions on the homeless continuum of care, the Multi-Service Center project, and strategic planning that can end homelessness. Interested persons can contact our office at 434-6426 for advance reservations, which must be made by Wednesday, October 18. Those registered to date include representatives from churches, agencies and the helping professions, such as social workers. Some of the attendees will be private citizens who are interested in helping us find solutions that will reduce or eliminate homelessness as a by-product of a free, democratic and affluent society. It's a tough challenge, but we are determined. We encourage citizens with concerns about homelessness to attend the conference and join this movement.


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