“Hello, we are with Housing First”
From the woods a woman yells back, “ Where are you at? You ain’t with FEMA are you? You got a cigarette?”
Each January, Housing First staff and volunteers search Mobile for the Point-in-Time Count of the homeless, but finding them isn’t easy. They live in camps across Mobile from the woods behind restaurants and shopping centers to the spaces beneath overpasses and bridges. Trees and undergrowth hide shelters made of tents and tarp, or a comforter hung across rope. Many people pass the camps every day and never know they are there. It is easy to miss the signs of hidden lives: shopping carts, worn-down paths, empty cans and bottles, and cats.
In January, it is easier to walk through the underbrush and it is too cold for bugs and snakes. Some camps are organized and clean with a clothesline for drying clothes, a mat for drying feet and outdoor shelves built like a boardwalk between trees. Mardi Gras beads hang from branches and a small cherub, bricks and a blue bottle are decorations outside of a tent. Close by, a grave is marked with plastic flowers and a small white cross with hand-painted letters that read: “Daniel E. Knowles JR 11/28/1970 03/27/2014.”
In other camps, bottles, cans and cardboard are scattered on the ground. Clothes hang from trees and TVs and a broken grill are left in a field. Under the U.S. 90 bridge, a Walmart bag filled with food hangs from a bungee cord tied to concrete columns close to a bicycle, a sleeping bag, and an overturned box of clothes, trash, and oranges.
Temporary shelter becomes permanent housing and some survive for years with no electricity or running water. Some people don’t want to be found. “It is good that you came in a group. You never know what could happen out here,” says a man they call Kentucky. “I don’t want my picture taken because I don’t want anyone coming out here to disturb us. I am 70 years old and don’t want to have to hurt someone. Honk the next time you come.”
The camps are filled with stories of being homeless for 25 years, riding a bike from California to Alabama, a marriage in December that made them both cry with happiness, and a hand injured while starting a fire. The burned skin needs more than neosporin ointment.
Housing First volunteers give out blankets and toiletries and tell about Project Homeless Connect, a services fair for the homeless that provides everything from medical and housing help to identification and legal services. The count also determines government funding for Housing First. For the staff and volunteers, it is more than the count, it is a chance to care for other people. They listen to needs and return with starter logs, wet wipes, and clothes in the correct sizes.
“We can put you in a house. Let’s get it done,” Tracy of Housing First tells a man in the camp.
“We don’t need much. Just put me by a store and make it a safe place for my new wife.”