When the World Games come to Birmingham, where will the city’s homeless residents go?
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In the lead-up to the 1996 Olympics, Birmingham had some phone calls to make.
The Olympics, which were being held in Atlanta, were raising questions 100 miles west in the Magic City. People facing homelessness were arriving in Birmingham, having been given one-way bus tickets out of Atlanta.
More than a quarter-century later, Birmingham City Councilor Crystal Smitherman said she wants to help the Magic City avoid the mistakes some local governments have made in addressing homelessness ahead of international sporting events. Smitherman, in collaboration with the World Games 2022, is promoting what she calls “Project Compassion,” a still-evolving plan to construct dozens of small wooden “micro-shelters” to temporarily house some facing homelessness that officials have said will be displaced by the security perimeter of the games.
Some nationally-renowned experts, local nonprofit leaders and those who have experienced street homelessness here in Birmingham are skeptical of the plan, criticizing its temporary impact and questioning its intent. The solution to homelessness, they say, isn’t providing “substandard” shelters for the length of the World Games; the solution is funding adequate, affordable and permanent housing for folks living on the city’s streets.
The road from Atlanta
The calls came from across the South – from Augusta, from Jacksonville, from Birmingham. People wanted to know why homeless individuals were showing up in their cities, saying they’d been told to leave Atlanta and not come back.
Anita Beaty answered those phone calls. Beaty was a co-director of the Atlanta Task Force on the Homeless and said she was only then beginning to understand the detrimental impacts the Olympics would have on the city she called home.
“As they started busing people out, they made them sign things that said they wouldn’t come back and still be homeless,” Beaty recalled. “And they would be arrested if they came back.”
Beaty, who will turn 80 this month, advocated for people facing homelessness in Atlanta for decades. For 20 years, she ran the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, which housed hundreds of individuals every night. Year in and year out, she battled Atlanta’s political, social and business elite to promote policies that would benefit the city’s most vulnerable.
After the Atlanta Olympics had concluded, Beaty prepared a comprehensive report on the Olympics’ impact related to housing and homelessness for the Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization.
The report was damning, concluding that around 30,000 Atlantans were evicted or displaced in the six years leading up to the Olympics. Another 9,000 facing homelessness were arrested in 1995 and 1996 alone, according to the report.
“Police in Atlanta were found to be mass-producing arrest citations, with the following information pre-printed: African American, Male, Homeless,” the report said. “The citations were left blank for the charge and the date and the arresting officer’s name.”
In the end, COHRE’s report on Atlanta’s Olympic legacy made six recommendations, each outlining a way host cities could mitigate the harm done to those facing homelessness.
“We may have no reason to believe that the Olympic Movement will respond to our recommendations,” the report concluded. “But we must hope.”
The World Games and ‘Project Compassion’
Councilor Smitherman said she wants to learn from the lessons of Atlanta.
On a warm April day in Birmingham, Smitherman sat behind a desk at her law firm, a map of Birmingham behind her on the wall. When asked how “Project Compassion” began, she said it stemmed from a question she asked Mayor Randall Woodfin: “What are you doing for the homeless during the World Games?” She said Woodfin’s office told her to get in touch with Kathy Boswell, vice president of community engagement for the World Games. She did so, and the two contacted the Auburn School of Architecture. The collaboration became “Project Compassion.”
Smitherman has acknowledged that in the past, when cities have hosted events like the World Games or the Olympics, officials have used public policy to force homeless individuals out of the city. She brought up Atlanta in a city council meeting earlier this year, citing their Olympic example as one to avoid. She said that when cities displace homeless populations, they do so for a reason.
“I just think they just aren’t trying to tackle the root of homelessness. They think this is a temporary solution – to displace them,” Smitherman said.
She said she can’t foresee a situation where Birmingham would bus those facing homelessness out of the city. “We’re not going to do that,” she said.
What the city will do, however, through “Project Compassion,” is temporarily relocate people facing homelessness from areas within the World Games’ security perimeter. Officials have not provided an estimate of the number of people who will be displaced. Some of those individuals, around 40 to 48, will be offered placement in what Smitherman referred to as “tiny homes.”
Days before CBS 42 sat down with Crystal Smitherman, she’d been in Woodlawn, watching on as a prototype of the structure was completed.
The small, triangular wooden structure offers some ventilation, officials have said, and can be equipped with a battery-powered fan to help battle the heat. The structure can be locked and is large enough to fit a provided cot, but it does not include plumbing or electricity.
“I think this is a great thing,” Smitherman said in a video posted on the city council’s Instagram, the prototype shelter visible in the background.
As Smitherman sat behind her desk days later, she acknowledged there are no current plans to house those displaced by the games outside of the events’ duration.
“We’re going to just look at the success of it – see if it has an immediate short-term effect,” she said.
But Smitherman pushed back at the suggestion that temporarily moving those in the homeless community amounted to internal displacement – a more localized version of what Atlanta had done.
“Well, they need somewhere to go, regardless,” she said.
Kathy Boswell, who’s overseeing the project for the World Games, said that while she knows the project may not be perfect, she hopes that it can help make the city better in some small way.
“It’s good that the games may be able to leverage a possibility toward something that can reduce homelessness,” Boswell said. “But homelessness was here before the games, and it will be here after the games.”
The money for the project, Boswell said, comes from $3 million provided by the city of Birmingham to the World Games. She said as much as $200,000 will be spent on constructing around 48 units, which Boswell called “micro-shelters.”
The plans for the project, its scope, and even the terms used for the shelters themselves are evolving.
Initially, Smitherman said the project aimed to temporarily house 100-150 individuals. As of this month, Boswell said the project is hoping to complete 40.
The current plan is for the structures to be placed near Faith Chapel’s Care Center, located in Birmingham’s Smithfield neighborhood. The care center will provide laundry, food, and other services for those temporarily housed in the structures for the duration of the World Games.
Smitherman has said that no individual will be forced to move into a “micro-shelter,” but the process for displacing individuals from the World Games’ security perimeter is unclear. Debra Blaylock, a representative of Faith Chapel, has said that the church will leave it to local nonprofit workers to decide who will be offered placement in the micro-shelters.
“They have a better understanding of who’s been displaced by the perimeter,” Blaylock said. “It’s not going to be a whosoever-will-let-him-come.”
The view from the street
Sara Copeland, a Navy veteran, knows what it’s like to live on the streets of Birmingham. For two years, she lived in a tent under the 24th Street bridge, next to the city’s famous Rotary Trail.
Copeland said that she feels like the project is an effort to make poverty less visible during the duration of the World Games.
“They don’t want people all over the world to know what’s going on in Birmingham,” Copeland said. “It’s an embarrassment.”
“If the mayor and the city council want to keep saying ‘People First,’” she said, referring to the city’s slogan, “They need to actually put people first. Homeless people in Birmingham are still people.”
She said that she believes the real solution to homelessness in Birmingham isn’t temporary housing during the World Games. It isn’t temporary housing at all.
“Take some of those abandoned buildings downtown and do something with them,” Copeland said. “Turn it into low-income, affordable housing.”
Marisa Zapata agrees with Sara Copeland. Zapata, an associate professor and the director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, said that in its current form, the city’s plan is inhumane. She said temporarily moving individuals facing homelessness amounts to “human storage.”
“That’s not actually trying to treat people humanely and respecting their dignity and autonomy,” Zapata, who holds a Ph.D. in regional planning, said of Birmingham’s plan.
She said temporarily “storing” homeless neighbors in sleeping shelters is not an effective policy in addressing homelessness.
“It violates our best practices in terms of moving towards solving homelessness and also violates well-established practices when thinking about how to provide emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness,” she said.
Zapata said examples do exist of leveraging international events to benefit vulnerable populations but that effectively doing so must involve committing to building permanent, affordable housing, a goal outlined as critical in Beaty’s Atlanta report from 15 years ago.
COVID-19 has also provided examples of ways communities may be able to mitigate housing impacts in more humane ways, Zapata said.
“For example, communities have bought or leased hotels and used them as emergency shelters,” she said. “That’s another way to think about it.”
What doesn’t work, Zapata said, is displacement, although she said that term is too generous to describe what’s planned in Birmingham.
“It’s a step below displacement,” she said. “It is, in fact, a temporary storage place for human beings.”
For her part, Anita Beaty said that if Smitherman wants to learn the lessons of Atlanta, she should pay closer attention.
“The city just wants to hide folks facing homelessness,” Beaty said, her passion and Southern accent still thriving. “They’re like the city’s dirty tennis shoes. The city is scared that her hoop skirt’s going to pop up and show her tennis shoes one of these times. They don’t want to show the reality of poverty in their city. So what’s the solution? Simple. Actually do something about it.”
HUD, a federal agency, requires local organizations to count the number of homeless individuals each year. Below is data provided by One Roof on the number of homeless individuals in Jefferson, St. Clair, and Shelby Counties. Some experts, including Zapata and Beaty, believe the so-called point-in-time data represent an undercount, but the numbers provide some of the only data available on the topic.