Kenendra Venable didn’t put a sign in front of her Noble Street store announcing free food for the homeless Saturday morning, but hungry people found her anyway.
Half an hour after Venable opened the doors of Klassic Kharacters, six people showed up to go through a small buffet line. Over the next three hours, a few dozen more showed up.
“It’s melting my heart,” Venable said.
Venable typically spends her weekends hosting birthday parties and other events at Klassic Kharacters, an event space in a small storefront on the west side of Noble in the 900 block. Last Monday, almost on a whim, she announced that she’d open her business on Saturday to feed chili, cupcakes and soup to the needy, paid for out of her own pocket and with whatever friends could provide.
“I see homeless people downtown all the time,” she said. “I saw a man out there without shoes on. I said, ‘God, show me what to do.’”
Venable’s impromptu charity event is just the latest sign of growing public concern about homelessness in Anniston. Since the Salvation Army closed its Noble Street men’s shelter in February, city officials haveconvened brainstorming sessions on the homeless problem andcommenters at public meetings have increasingly referred to homelessness as a crisis for the city.
Longtime advocates for the homelessness, meanwhile, have said the problem is much bigger than the Salvation Army — which was housing only five men at the time it was shut down — and has been a crisis for some time.
“It was already an issue,” said Lori Floyd, director of the Right Place, an agency that works with homeless people. “We already had people sleeping in the streets.”
Local business owners besides Venable seemed to be well aware of the problem — so much so that within a few days of announcing her event, Venable had donations of food and a table full of clothes and bags of toiletries ready for anyone who might stop by. Advertising consisted of paper fliers, each about the size of a post-it note. Finding places to distribute them wasn’t a problem.
“I’m going over to the ‘happy tree’ on 15th and Cobb,” said volunteer Exielena Clark. “There’s always somebody sitting out there.”
Volunteers flagged down a passerby on Noble, who gave his name only as Larry. Over a plate of food, Larry said he wasn’t now homeless — he’s renting a single room as a boarder on Wilmer Avenue for about $300 per month — though finding a place he can afford on a disability check hasn’t been easy.
He said he’d stayed at the Salvation Army shelter when it was open.
“It was nice there,” he said. “I didn’t mind it at all. Homeless people don’t care about city codes or whatever.”
In closing the shelter, Salvation Army officials cited the poor condition of their building and a lack of money to fix it.
Pete Careme said he found out about Venable’s event Saturday morning at Zinn Park, where another organization was serving free breakfast. Careme said he was on disability and was sharing a one-room rental place with someone else.
“It’s hard to find a place,” he said. “But I think a lot of these folks, what’s really standing between them and a place to stay is that they need to get off drugs and alcohol.”
Venable had her own take on how to solve the problem.
“We need to do something with all these houses that are just sitting there,” she said. “We need to do something with them to get people off the streets.”
Census projections suggest the city’s population has shrunk by about 6 percent since 2010, and empty houses are a common sight in neighborhoods near down. Homeless advocates and city officials maintain that some of the city’s poorest residents are already using some of those buildings; last year saw at least two fires that investigators believed were caused by squatters.
Floyd, the Right Place director, said local agencies are looking for a way to create a shelter with “low barriers” — a reference not to physical barriers but requirements that screen some of the neediest people out of many shelters.
“Hopefully it will be a free shelter where people can come in regardless of mental illness,” Floyd said.
There’s no particular timetable for opening such a shelter, Floyd said. Advocates are still in the talking phase and still trying to identify federal grants that could be used to start a project.
“When you’re working with the government you’re working on the government’s timetable,” Floyd said.