Taking the first steps in a community-focused plan to combat homelessness, the city of Birmingham has signed on to purchase 50 units of transitional housing for the unsheltered.
The purchase, totaling nearly $1 million, is the first step in a program that will require significant participation from third-party nonprofits and for which details remain fuzzy.
Where the new shelters will be placed, for example, is still up in the air. That will be dependent on the results of a request-for-proposal process, through which local nonprofits can pitch locations and operational plans, including wraparound services they would offer on-site. The window for submissions will extend through Jan. 31.
Birmingham has roughly 342 unsheltered residents, 267 of which are considered “chronically homeless,” Megan Venable-Thomas, the city’s director of community development, told councilors Tuesday. “If we’re not focusing on our homelessness and folks who are experiencing homelessness, then we’re missing a critical component of our community.”
The 64-square-foot, single-bedroom units are manufactured by the Washington-based company Pallet and will come equipped with air conditioning and a heater. The city will also purchase five two-stall, ADA-compliant bathrooms with showers and three community rooms in which wraparound services could be administered. The total cost of all 58 units will be $975,000, and if the program is successful, the city will be able to purchase 100 more units at that price.
Money for this purchase comes from the Community Development Block Grant fund, which is replenished annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
There likely will be additional operational costs for the city, though Mayor Randall Woodfin warned that any estimation of these costs would be “premature” until the RFP process is complete.
Some councilors expressed concern about the ambiguity surrounding such a large commitment; District 8 Councilor Carol Clarke said it gave her “a little cart-before-the-horse feeling.”
But Woodfin and Venable-Thomas assured councilors they already had been coordinating with many interested nonprofits, and the contract with Pallet includes options for cancellation if no suitable proposals are received.
“We are very confident that we will have applicants who are very excited in taking this up,” Venable-Thomas said. “We want to see multiple folks apply and multiple sites be awarded.”
Some councilors were more than happy to accept future uncertainty.
“What’s being presented is not a neatly packaged, wrapped-up, silver-bullet solution,” District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn said. “It is the beginning of a conversation, and one that every member of the community should feel responsible for having a part in. So, if you leave here today and you have a lot of unanswered questions, that’s OK. The important thing is that we’re embarking on the conversation in a very meaningful way, with the goal of actually creating a solution that’s going to have lasting and positive benefit on people’s lives.”
Concerns about costs, O’Quinn argued, were eclipsed by the issue’s “moral directive.”
“Personally, I think we need to be doing this because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “I don’t need any more reason than that. However, some people aren’t compelled by morality and are going to think about the costs. Please know that it’s cheaper to directly engage this … than it is to leave (people) to fend for themselves on the street.”
District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams expressed relief that the responsibility was being shared with nongovernmental entities. “It’s so important that we utilize the third-party nonprofits and not try to tackle this ourselves,” he said. “I think the city of Birmingham does very few things very well, and we need to stay in our lane.”
Currently, the city plans for RFP finalists to be notified in February, an “ultimate agreement” will be finalized in April, and the program will be launched in May.