BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – He left her Post-it notes so she could remember. The socks, one of his notes told her, go in the drawer.
He’d found a pair in the freezer.
He disconnected the microwave and child-proofed the gas stove, he explained. He wanted to protect her from anything he could, but Richard couldn’t protect her from everything.
Richard was married to Ann for a quarter of a century before she died, having suffered from a tumor and a rare, severe form of dementia. After her death, Richard said his life spiraled. The grief was crippling. He underwent heart surgery five months after her passing. Then he had a stroke.
On Monday night, as the October sun sank below the horizon, Richard sat on a bench across from Linn Park and Birmingham City Hall. Soon, the temperature would quickly drop, reaching 37 degrees before morning. The wind chill would dip just below freezing, according to the National Weather Service.
But Richard, like thousands of people facing unsheltered homelessness in Alabama and across the country, felt he had nowhere to go. The city had announced earlier on Monday that a warming station would be opened Tuesday and Wednesday nights in anticipation of a potential freeze. But on Monday, as day stubbornly turned to night, Richard pulled his jacket around him a little tighter. It was before the freeze, but the darkness – and the cold that accompanied it – would still come.
“Keep Boutwell open”
Just across the street in Linn Park, Larry Coleman sat on a bench, bundled in a green hoodie. A Birmingham native, Larry said he had recently been renting a room in a home near downtown, but the building needed serious repairs that the landlord wasn’t willing to make. He’d been forced to move out.
Still, Larry stressed that he felt his experience facing homelessness is temporary.
Soon, he said, he’ll find another room to rent, and he’ll be able to get on his feet. Until then, he’ll do his best to stay warm on the streets of the Magic City with the aid of a sleeping bag and a steadfast spirit.
Larry said that he doesn’t think warming centers should be limited to the city’s shelters.
Historically, warming shelters in Birmingham have been operated in venues like Boutwell Auditorium and the BJCC, but starting Tuesday, Birmingham will partner with the Jimmie Hale Mission to host a warming station at its location on 2nd Avenue North, according to the city.
Larry said that the more places are open for folks to keep warm, the better, but that he believes the Boutwell in particular should always be open for those living on the streets when temperatures drop.
“I think they ought to keep Boutwell open,” Larry said, the lights of city hall glowing a pinkish hue behind him. “Everybody’s here. It’s just close by.”
In its announcement, the city said it would be providing transportation to the mission from four locations – Brother Bryan Park, Kelly Ingram Park, the Faith Chapel Care Center, and Linn Park.
Larry and the others in Linn Park Monday night did not know about the city’s plan to offer transportation to the warming station in the coming evenings. And that plan was a plan for the next day. Larry needed a plan that night.
A blustery background
As 2022 began, snow had fallen in Birmingham, and with no warming station open, some of the city’s most vulnerable were left out in the cold. Boutwell Auditorium, the city later explained, had been “unavailable” as a warming station.
Local advocates for those facing homelessness criticized the lack of foresight on the part of city leaders. “They know winter is coming every year,” one activist said.
In the wake of the controversy, the city’s operations manager, Don Lupo, outlined the city’s policy for opening warming stations in an interview with CBS 42.
“When the temperatures fall below 32 (degrees) on consecutive nights and when the space is available, we attempt to do a warming station,” Don Lupo, the city’s operations manager, said in January.
Rethinking a threshold
Back in Linn Park, Derrick Boyd sat on the curb of a sidewalk, a suitcase by his side.
Derrick grew up in Birmingham, he said, and faced legal troubles that contributed to his difficulty maintaining stable housing.
He said that he understands that government officials have to put some limitations on when warming stations are open. But having a strict rule based on a temperature threshold, he argued, is unrealistic and unfair.
Whether it’s 30 degrees with no wind or 40 degrees with a wind chill below freezing makes no real difference to someone sleeping on the streets, Derrick said.
“It gets so cold out here you can’t sleep,” Boyd said. “I had tons of covers and blankets and it felt like I was walking out here with nothing on.”
Policies regarding when warming centers open vary from city to city across the U.S. Some cities open warming centers each day the temperature falls below freezing. Others use more complex formulas for when they should open, taking into account factors like rain and wind.
Marisa Zapata, an associate professor and director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, said policies about when warming stations will open should be clear, transparent, and explained carefully to the community, including those who will be impacted the most by the policy – those sleeping on the city’s streets.
Those policies, she said, should also take into consideration circumstances like wind chill and rain. If policies around warming stations are too rigid, she said, it may provide a city with an opportunity to think more closely about the policy, its purpose, and its implementation.
“A good public policy is one that’s being constantly re-evaluated and questioned,” she said.
In the shadow of city hall
Sitting across the street from Birmingham City Hall, Richard had done his share of re-evaluating and questioning.
Richard was born in Hoover when it was just a “one-light town,” he said. He met his wife young and fell in love. The two eventually moved to Montevallo, where he frequently did plumbing work for the university.
Ann’s health difficulties had started with minor short-term memory issues. That’s when the Post-it notes came into play. Soon, the family found out that Ann was suffering from a tumor. The surgeons were able to remove it, but Ann’s health continued to decline. She developed a rare form of dementia, and life quickly became a struggle, Richard said.
“Taking care of her turned out to be a full-time job,” he said.
His eyes teared up in the chilled October air as he remembered his wife.
“I took care of her from start to finish,” he said. “I seen the best of her, and I seen the worst of her.”
Ann had been his whole life.
“Ann was a hell of a woman. I’ll never find another one like her,” he said. “She believed in everybody. She trusted everybody. She seen the good in everything. She didn’t ever have a bad word to say for nobody. By her being the way that she was, she made me want to be a better person.”
He’s still trying to become that better person, he said. He just needs some help.
Richard said that when Ann died, he felt paralyzed.
“It got the best of me,” he said. “I kind of went off the deep end.”
His own health would soon take a downturn. He’d end up on the streets, where he’s been since 2018.
An open heart surgery and a stroke later, Richard said he feels folks like him facing homelessness in Birmingham are looked down on.
“They actually treat homeless people like third-world citizens,” he said. “It happens every day with folks – the way they look at you. Like they’re better than you and ‘What are you doing taking up my air?’”
You get used to it, Richard said, but it makes imagining more caring policies difficult for folks living on the street.
But Richard’s still got ideas.
Richard said that officials should consider the reality that despite warming stations only being open overnight, temperatures during the day often fall to an unsafe temperature.
“It’s still cold at 7 [in the morning],” he said. “You’re going to get cold during the day just like you are at night.”
Hypothermia and other weather-related injuries can occur in temperatures well above freezing, according to the CDC.
Richard also said that a cutoff at a particular temperature doesn’t make sense.
“It’s just as cold at 33 as it’s going to be at 31,” he said.
And, like many others facing homelessness, Richard said he is also hesitant to go to an institutional facility like the Jimmie Hale Mission to get out of the cold at all. Barriers to entry like paperwork, pets not being allowed, and other factors can discourage those living on the streets from accessing shelters, even in emergency situations where their lives could be at risk.
Larry Coleman, too, is skeptical of going inside.
“It’s a long story,” Larry explains, his voice trailing off.
Still, he said he wishes there were additional warming station locations with fewer barriers to entry. Until then – and on nights no warming station is open – Larry said he will continue to sleep in the shadow of city hall.
“I have my sleeping bag,” he said. “It’s bearable. I’ve been out here a while. So you get used to it.”