Anniston goes back to drawing board for homeless solutions

Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala.
·4 min read

Mar. 17—Sylvia Jo Scoggins has her own house in western Anniston now, but she was homeless for years — so long, in fact, that people who see her downtown still recognize her, and try to give her money.

It's meant to help, but Scoggins says it's not what homeless people really need.

"These $20 bills ain't helping us," Scoggins said. "Buy lumber, buy windows, buy flooring. Get all the stuff that people need to build for themselves."

Scoggins and other local residents may soon get the chance to have their say on possible solutions to homelessness in the city, because the Anniston City Council is going back to the drawing board in its plan to address the issue.

"First of all, we need to be transparent from the start," City Manager Steven Folks said Tuesday at a City Council work session on homelessness at the Anniston City Meeting Center.

Homelessness has been a front-burner issue for many of the city's nonprofit agencies since the 2019 closure of the downtown Salvation Army shelter for men.

City officials and local nonprofits in 2020 unveiled a plan to acquire the former Beckwood Manor nursing home on Leighton Avenue. Homeless people — male, female and families — would have been housed in their own rooms, with case managers to help them with the medical and economic problems that kept them on the street.

It never came to pass. Neighbors of the proposed shelter spoke out against it in early 2020, saying no one consulted with them before seeking and getting a grant to pay for the Beckwood plan. The council never acted on the Beckwood proposal, and Seven Springs Ministries, a nonprofit that operates several drug rehabilitation programs, acquired the former nursing home.

At Tuesday's work session, council members proposed setting up a Homelessness Task Force to start fresh in the search for solutions.

The question may not be what sort of services city and nonprofit leaders want to provide, but where. At Tuesday's meeting, United Way director Shannon Jenkins said nonprofits saw good results this year when they put homeless people in hotel rooms during cold spells, and also provided them with counseling and other services.

Local nonprofits came up with that approach — paid for with grant money that was originally meant for the Beckwood property — when cold weather hit over the winter and the city was unable to open its usual warming shelters due to the pandemic.

"What you spend on case management is actually a savings, based on how many times they're incarcerated and how many times they visit the ER," Jenkins said.

This time around, Jenkins said, the plan is to bring a wide group of community leaders into the shelter discussion early.

"We don't want to bring our past framework to the table, because we want this to be owned by the community," Jenkins said.

Council members said they hoped to steer the conversation away from creation of a homeless shelter and more toward talk of a "transition center" for homeless people.

"A shelter implies that it's a destination," said Councilwoman Millie Harris. She said constituents often ask her why empty buildings on McClellan, the former Army base, can't be used as a shelter. She said it's not that easy, for several reasons: empty buildings aren't that common on the base, abandoned buildings aren't safe, but also that solution doesn't address mental health and other issues.

Even so, council members said they're open to picking an unused city building as a site for a new homeless facility. Council members at a meeting earlier this month heard from finance officer Julie Borelli about a plan to sell or otherwise dispose of 300 surplus pieces of real estate owned by the city. Some are abandoned buildings the city took over. Others are development sites the city purchased but never developed.

"I was really thinking that we should assess some of those properties and see if there are not some opportunities there," said City Councilwoman Ciara Smith.

Smith said it's important to make the plan work this time.

"I want us to be super, super mindful that there are lives at stake," she said.

In 2020, volunteers in a local homeless count found the body of a local homeless man in an abandoned house near the County Administration Building.

Scoggins, the formerly homeless woman, said in an interview last week that she knew the man found in the house. He had helped her out years earlier when he had an apartment of his own, by giving her a place to stay.

"We depend on God and each other," she said of the city's homeless residents. What one don't have, another one's got."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.