For generations the image of homelessness in America remained unchanged. It was always the white man, down on his luck and likely suffering from the effects of alcoholism, whose face dotted promotional materials sent to potential donors as a representative of the population being served in our nation’s homeless shelters. And for generations, that was true of our homeless population in Madison County. But a lot has changed in recent years. The face of the homeless in our area is no longer just the white, male alcoholic.
Today, many homeless in the greater Huntsville, Alabama area battle drug addictions that have caused them to give up everything they have in order to secure that next fix. Others try but are usually unable to hide scars from the physical, sexual and emotional abuse that threw them into a life of abandonment and fear. Today’s homeless struggle to complete their education, to find jobs that provide healthcare, and it’s almost impossible for them to locate safe, inexpensive housing in our communities.
Almost 40% of those living homeless shelters today are women. And children.
Art Lanham, Senior Director of Development at the Downtown Rescue Mission (DRM) knows all too well that the old stereotype is alive and kicking. He explains, “So many people just don’t know all that we really do here. They don’t know we’re associated with six thrift stores, with a seventh opening in July or that we serve so many women and children. They don’t know our average age is just 32. That’s not what people first think of when they think Rescue Mission.”
For more than four decades, the Downtown Rescue has worked to serve those in desperate need throughout northern Alabama and southern Tennessee by providing Christ-filled, compassionate services and life-changing programs to the diverse population of men, women and children they serve. There is a 12-month alcohol and drug recovery program, computer access, work training, all geared toward transforming their residents into productive members of our community. The AGAPE shop at the mission holds hundreds of donated suits, dresses and accessories anyone down on their luck can access for job interviews. The shop is also stocked with many of the amenities a mother needs to help care for her children, things like diapers and formula.
Interestingly enough, the DRM isn’t even downtown. “The city took our old location 7 years ago, and God was so gracious to provide the Mission with a wonderful campus at 1400 Evangel Drive just off University Drive. Even though we’ve moved from downtown, in some ways we’re just mirroring the migration of the homeless, which now come from all over. Thankfully it has provided an atmosphere for recovery and escape from their old way, living in tents, woods and under bridges.”
Art got involved with the Downtown Rescue Mission because he learned that there were women and children living there. “Women and children who are homeless?” he explains. “That’s hard to imagine! When you think about the homeless, you think about the old fellow with the bottle. You don’t picture women, especially mothers and their children, staying out under the interstate bridges, or living in their cars.”
This is a place that looks to serve people who want to be helped, who want to be lifted out of their situation. While some do come for the food and a place to stay for a while, there are others who truly want to lift themselves out of their addictions, out of their illness, out of the bad hand life has dealt them. Art says those are the people they truly love to serve.
People like Christie Alexander.
Christie arrived in June 2012 to enter their recovery program. “I had a very abusive childhood, and I begged God so many times to make things that were happening to me to stop, and they never did. I eventually gave up on God. When I began attending the program’s classes and chapel services, I started…to understand the reasons behind my addictions and anger. As my knowledge of God has grown, I have learned how to forgive both others and myself. By God’s grace, my relationships with my family have been restored. I know that if I hadn’t come here to the DRM, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish these things. Through God and this program, my life has been saved. I know now that God is real and working in my life daily.”
She is now assistant manager of the Mission’s newest thrift store across from Madison Square Mall, Huntsville West, and has completed a dental assistant program through the Christian Women’s Job Corp. Christie has been clean for more than three years.
Like Christie, many who graduate from the program go to work in the thrift stores. Since graduating from the recovery program, Patrick has been employed at several of the Mission’s thrift stores. He reports, “ I worked my way up, and have been the manager of the Meridianville Thrift Store for the last year-and-a-half…I am not just an improved version of my old self, but have been made new in Christ by following His ways instead my own.”
The average capacity for the Mother’s and Children’s Program is 50, but Art reports they usually have to make room for more. On some winter nights the count has reached the high 60s, with three quarters of those being children. Art shares, “There is no limit on women and children. We try never to turn anyone away, particularly a mom and kids, so we make room where necessary on a temporarily basis. Unfortunately, we are reaching our capacity in the women’s program areas and the mothers-with-kids areas more and more often. We need more space, and we really need more separation for the women and the mothers with children from the men’s area. Having everyone under one roof is not ideal. We are praying and hoping that donors with a heart for the homeless will understand that need. If we can expand our program, we’ll be able to provide not only more space but better life support opportunities for all women and children who come to stay with us.”
Life in a shelter isn’t an ideal situation for any child, and the mission staff works hard to help all our residents move forward. In 2014, over 200 were placed in permanent housing.
The Downtown Rescue Mission is supported by donations from local businesses, corporations, individuals and foundations, and they receive no federal, state or city funding. The life of their organization depends on people like you. Art says that they have a great base of donors, but worries that there isn’t a way to properly thank them.
“Can we use this article to say thank you?” asks Art. “They’re helping us do so much, even the things they couldn’t know we’re doing. We appreciate all of the gifts we get here, but I want you to know that our volunteers are our greatest gift. We’re here because we want to provide a meal and a place to stay at night, maybe a little safe haven. But in the end we’re hoping we can touch people with the message of Christ. And we couldn’t do that without them.”
To get on their mailing list and receive the newsletter, write them at 1400 Evangel Drive, Huntsville, AL, 35816.