Park family

Jazzmine Swain, Aaron Michael Thompson and mother Terry Thompson are a homeless family at Zinn Park in Anniston reflecting on their family's plight. Shown with them is their faithful dog, Ally.

On Monday morning, the Salvation Army on Noble Street will close the doors of its homeless shelter, sending away the last few men who still spend the night there. Later that day, city officials and leaders of local charities plan to meet to figure out what to do next.

Nobody’s talking about erecting a building.

“We’re looking for ways the community can come together with plans to address homelessness,” said Shannon Jenkins, president of the local United Way. “The focus can’t be just on providing an emergency shelter.”

The Salvation Army announced earlier this month that it would close its shelter for homeless men on Feb. 11, saying the group’s Noble Street building was too run-down to house people effectively. The money to fix the problem simply wasn’t there, Salvation Army officials said. The group had already stopped providing shelter for homeless women.

News of the pending closure sparked indignation among some local advocates for the homeless.

“They’re scared to death they’re going to wind up sleeping out on the street,” said Anniston resident Wanda Chandler Champion, who spent much of the day Thursday at the corner of Fifth and Noble streets, holding a sign that read: “Stop the closing of the men’s center.” Champion herself was a guest at the center, after a flood in Munford left her briefly homeless in 2003.

Attempts to reach Salvation Army officials for comment last week were unsuccessful, but officials at other local nonprofits seemed to feel both vindicated and annoyed by the outcry over the shelter’s closure.

“There was already a crisis,” said Lori Floyd, director of the Right Place, an Anniston nonprofit. “This has been a crisis. It’s been growing and growing.”

Floyd and Jenkins say there are likely dozens of homeless people in Anniston — people who live in cars, who spend the night in abandoned houses, who couch-surf with friends. The Salvation Army had pared back in recent months and is now housing only about five men, Floyd said. The need for shelter coverage is much greater than that, she said.

“We have a bunch of people who are living in abandoned houses and trying to work,” Floyd said. “People have skills and knowledge, but they don’t have the transportation to get where the jobs are.”

Floyd, Jenkins and other nonprofit workers, in separate interviews, independently told The Star of a local restaurant worker who makes minimum wage, has about $30 left per paycheck after child support, and lives in shelters or abandoned houses. Floyd said the area lacks rental houses in the range a low-income person can afford.

No place like home

A lack of affordable housing may sound like an unlikely problem for Anniston, a city that has shrunk by thousands of residents in the last decade.  Boarded-up houses are a common sight in the neighborhoods near downtown. Floyd said homeless people are indeed using those houses — sometimes by sneaking in, sometimes with under-the-table rental agreements.

“I know a woman who lived in a half-burned house for $350 a month,” she said. “Somebody owned it, somebody was willing to rent it to her, and she thinks it’s her only option.”

Terry Thompson, 60, has seen all those problems up close. She and her son Aaron Michael Thompson, 27, and daughter Jazzmine Swain, 25, spend their nights in an abandoned parking deck in Anniston. Thompson said the Salvation Army and other shelters have turned them away because they won’t stay without their dog Ally, who Thompson describes as an emotional support dog.

“They need to get Habitat or somebody in here and just build some houses people can afford,” Thompson said.  She said the city should get involved in rehabilitating old houses and renting them to local people.

“The city wants to be at the table, and the city wants to be part of the solution, but the city is not taking the lead,” City Manager Jay Johnson said. He said city officials will be part of the upcoming meetings about a homeless plan. He said the plan needs to be created by local community agencies because they have the expertise, and because the plan needs community buy-in.

Anniston’s problems may not be that unusual. Cities across the country have seen an increase in homelessness, despite declining unemployment, said Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Home prices have risen in many cities as the economy has grown, but wages for the lowest-paid workers haven’t kept pace, Hustings said. She said declining unemployment numbers may reflect a gig economy in which people aren’t fully employed, but aren’t able to collect unemployment benefits.

“Income inequality has continued to increase,” she said. “The cost of living continues to increase, but the minimum wage hasn’t been increased.”

A loose network

Hustings said homeless shelters like the Salvation Army — known as “emergency shelters” because they provide an immediate place to stay — have been struggling, in part because of a 2015 federal policy change that directed money to programs that place homeless people in more permanent situations.

That may not be the case for the Salvation Army, though. Federal funding typically comes to shelters through the “continuum of care” system, a network of local groups that count the homeless, report the numbers to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and apply for federal grants.

Many of those “continuum of care” organizations are free-standing nonprofits, but that’s not the case in the Anniston area. The Homeless Coalition of Northeast Alabama is a loosely organized group that is managed mostly by Gadsden city officials, according to Renee Baker, community development planner for Gadsden and HUD’s point of contact for the Homeless Coalition.

“We don’t currently have any federal grants,” Baker said. She said emergency shelters can sometimes go around the continuum-of-care process and apply for emergency grants, though she said she’s not aware of any such request by the Salvation Army.

HUD on Friday announced $2 billion in grants to homeless organizations nationwide, including $17 million for Alabama groups. None of those grants went to Calhoun or Etowah counties.

Baker said the coalition does yearly homeless counts in Calhoun, Etowah, Cherokee and DeKalb counties. Recent counts seem to show a decline in the local homeless population, but Baker warns that those numbers come with plenty of caveats.

The coalition found 163 homeless people in 2017 and 146 in 2018 — but the 2018 count was conducted only in shelters, Baker said.

That count generally doesn’t include kids, Baker noted. She said that 515 kids in the coalition’s coverage area meet the Department of Education’s standards for homelessness, though Gadsden and Anniston city school system have yet to report numbers for this year.

“I anticipate this number is much higher,” Baker wrote in an email.

Jenkins, the United Way director, said the goal of the Monday meeting is not to replace the Homeless Coalition, but to come up with broader plan to address homelessness.

“We don’t want to duplicate something that’s already being done,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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