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November 28, 2000

Town & Gown

Counting the Homeless:
A Night-Time Adventure through the Streets of Mobile

by Cecelia Formichella and Martha Daughdrill

On September 28, 2000, an over-night census of the homeless in Mobile County was conducted by the University of Alabama, Institute for Social Science Research. The enumeration was part of a larger study on homelessness being conducted by the Institute and sponsored by the Homeless Coalition of Mobile. Dr. John Bolland, a Research Scientist at the Institute, is in charge of the ongoing project and coordinated the count.

Estimating the actual number of homeless is at best a difficult task. The homeless are a population that is transient in their living arrangements. While many of Mobile's long-term homeless are lifetime residents of the city, they move throughout Mobile for periods of time to explore job leads, stay with friends or relatives and look for a safe, comfortable place to live. A few may even leave town in search of work or friends and relatives. In addition, there are individuals who experience a brief period of homelessness due to extenuating circumstances such as divorce, job loss or some other financial constraint. And, on occasion, an out-of-towner will pass through Mobile, maybe staying for a short time. Thus, on any given night the number of homeless will vary. Many of the homeless wish to remain anonymous and invisible, having been treated as the "untouchables" of American society.

While there are problems with any enumeration of the homeless, a count of this type is vital since it offers service providers, political officials and other interested parties a rough estimate of the extent of homelessness in an area. Therefore, assessments can be made on whether or not adequate services are being provided, if there is a need for any new services, and if there is opportunity to locate any individuals who may be in need of services.

In the weeks before the count, the research team spent considerable time exploring abandoned buildings, wooded areas and other locations where people were thought to be living. The areas where we found such evidence (i.e., mattresses, clothing, food remnants and personal belongings) were included for the enumeration.

The count itself was divided into two separate parts: a night-time census of homeless individuals actually staying on the street; and an enumeration of homeless individuals residing in temporary housing facilities such as overnight shelters, treatment facilities, inexpensive motels, and hospitals.

For the street enumeration, 28 volunteers met with the research team that Thursday evening around 10:00 p.m. at 15 Place, the multi-service day center for the homeless on St. Francis Street. An adventurous and diverse group, the volunteers consisted of individuals who are service providers for the homeless, college students who are members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, members of the Homeless Coalition, several homeless people and other interested individuals. The weather was clear that evening with a mid-night temperature of 59 degrees F. After a debriefing from Dr. Bolland (which included his "safety before science" discussion), the volunteers were divided into teams, given a flashlight and whistle (donated by Mobile Gas) and sent into the night. Previously, six sites throughout Mobile were identified based on information from the homeless and social service providers as well as observations made by the research team. The selected areas included several locations in the downtown area, two different areas out Highway 90, and a number of sites under bridges and overpasses, along creek banks and in wooded areas.

That night in many of the locations, we found evidence of people staying in some of these places, but often we did not find a person. For the count, we only included actual sightings of individuals. Several of the homeless who were on the census teams explained that many of the people would hide when they heard the team's approach to avoid being sighted. Beforehand, the research team put the word out on the streets that the census would occur on September 28 in the hopes of preventing anyone from being startled or frightened by the team’s arrival. We also hoped it would encourage individuals to be included in the count.

Teams returned to the Day Center by 4:00 a.m., greeted with homemade soup and sandwiches prepared by Michael Ivy, the chef at 15 Place. Volunteers had pushed their way through dark, wooded areas unaware of what was ahead, walked along creek banks pondering the existence of southern snakes and alligators, explored abandoned buildings and freight cars with stories of their own to tell, jumped fences and walked through parks under the stars that evening. One volunteer took a tumble into a six-foot hole on a creek bank. Fortunately, he wasn't injured, just slightly shaken as was the rest of his team.

The following day we made visits and telephone calls to the various shelters, motels and other temporary housing facilities to develop an estimate of the "sheltered" homeless on that particular evening. The total number of homeless counted on September 28 in Mobile was 723. This number is up approximately nine percent from 1994 when the estimate was 657. However, the good news is that in 1994 there were 99 street homeless and in 2000, this number had declined to 52, nearly a 50 percent decrease in the number of street homeless. It is reasonable to assume that the social service agencies are reducing the number of people who are literally living on the streets.

Being on the streets of Mobile after midnight gazing into her dark crevices in search of where people were living was, for most of us, both troubling and gratifying. The very idea that in an affluent society such as ours there would be a need for such a count seems contradictory. However, being with individuals (some of whom are homeless themselves) who would sacrifice a night of sleep to count those without a place to live is a powerful source of hope. As the volunteers left 15 Place the morning of the next day, there were feelings of excitement and anticipation tinged with a bit of sadness. Overriding any of these feelings, though, was a commitment to the homeless. Even after a night without sleep, many of the volunteers would work that day serving the homeless population.

In the past year, homelessness in Mobile has become a highly charged politicized issue centering primarily around the placement and opening of the multi-service day center. Considerable attention by various interest groups has generated much discussion about who the homeless are and what they may or may not need to improve their situation. The experience of counting and seeing the number of people who are surviving without a place to live on the streets of Mobile has left us considering that these individuals face daily struggles to "remain human in some of the most inhumane conditions." Few of us can appreciate what it takes to lay your head down at night on a cold park bench or the concrete under a bridge. Being homeless is not easy; though, what we have found, getting out of homelessness can be even harder.

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Cecelia Formichella is a Research Associate at the Institute of Social Science Research, University of Alabama and teaches at the University of South Alabama and Spring Hill College.

Martha Daughdrill is a former Mobilian who returned after nearly 30 years. Martha has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from American University, Washington, DC. She is currently a Researcher for the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Mississippi - Gulf Coast Campus.


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