Under highway bridges and in woods behind shopping centers and extended-stay hotels are the hidden camps of Mobile’s homeless.
Tents, mattresses, sleeping bags, wheelchairs and crutches are tucked into dark crevices of bridges. One “room” is decorated with tinsel and a Christmas village and a shelf holds Tupperware, ketchup, peanut butter and cans of baked beans and chili. A picture of a sympathetic Jesus and the word “Hope” are painted on a column by a creek.
Hope. Sometimes that is all that the homeless have to hold onto. Some have been injured or disabled by car wrecks and are in constant pain. Others suffer from paranoia and schizophrenia or gave up a home to escape an abusive marriage. Alcohol and drugs help numb the pain.
A woman became homeless last week when her power was shut off and there was no money left. Another lost her apartment after her husband died of cancer a month ago. Some are waiting on housing and others have been homeless for years because they don’t want the responsibility of having a home, even if they can afford it.
The mosquitos have already invaded and a small yellow dog named Johnny guards one of the camps.
On the day of survey, the homeless included a carpenter looking for work, a gangster granny with knives in her pockets who takes pride in smelling nice, and a man with scabs from a recent fight on hands tattooed with symbols for love, honor and peace.
One was in prison for 35 years for burglary. He was 17 when he went in and 52 when he was set free. He spent most of his life behind bars and hopes other people learn from his story and understand that a man can change.
“Prison changed me. Before I went in, I didn’t care about anything. Now I care about me,” he says. “I don’t drive a car and have been homeless for three years since I have been out. I am not complaining, I am free. There are no walls or bars and I can do what I want and don’t have to look over my shoulder, but I lost touch with my family because of who I am. They wanted my life to turn out a different way and they resent me for that. I live in the woods in a tent and I am content. I would like to have more time with my family, a good job and my own place, but at least I am free.
“I have ADHD and get distracted and it is hard for me to sit in one place. That is my most frustrating thing. But I have peace of mind and serenity. Before I walked out of prison, I left the man I was there. I am a different man and never going back.”
The signs of homeless camps are cats, grocery carts and paths worn into the woods. Some camps are neat and cared for and others are covered with trash and cans. Comforters and bags of food hang from clotheslines or in trees. Some camps have been decorated with Mardi Gras beads or a Red Lantern action figure tied to a tree. Others have been closed and cleared out, including a sandpit in Tillman’s Corner where people lived off the grid for years and had to find new places to go.
One day every January, Housing First conducts a Point in Time Count and volunteers find the sheltered and unsheltered homeless, asking questions about how long and why they are homeless, what they need and how agencies can help. This Point in Time Count brings in $8 million dollars in grants, according to Housing First director, Eric Jefferson. Agencies such as Penelope House use the data to apply for grants (Penelope House provides shelter and support for women and children who are victims of domestic violence). In 2016, the total number of homeless for the city of Mobile was 495, Mobile County was 96 and Baldwin County was 32.
During the Point In Time Count, the homeless also received information about Project Homeless Connect, a homeless services fair on Friday, January 27, at The Grounds in west Mobile. The event provides medical services, legal assistance, dental and vision screenings, and access to housing assistance and mainstream resources including food stamps, state IDs and Social Security cards. They can clear up legal issues with law enforcement including court time in front of a judge, apply for jobs through workforce development and learn about assistance provided by local agencies. Lunch is provided, transportation on the WAVE is free, and barbers, hairstylists and cosmetologists volunteer to give haircuts and manicures.
In a few short hours, and with many volunteers, Project Homeless Connect provides real services the homeless need. Last year they helped 365 people.
“They can clear my traffic violation? That will be the miracle I need right now.”
Through Project Homeless Connect, Housing First, Penelope House, 15 Place and other agencies in Mobile, people who are called to care for those who have nothing but a tent — or a sleeping bag or the clothes on their back — make a difference.
Lives may be hidden and they may be homeless but they can’t be ignored.