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In the shadow of Brother Bryan
NOTE: This story was originally published in BirminghamWatch, an outlet of the Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism.
Sometimes the tears welled up in Brother Bryan’s eyes.
Rev. James Alexander Bryan, a Princeton-educated pastor, had become known in Birmingham as an advocate for those facing homelessness.
“They are all dying for a little bit of love, for a kind word, for a warm handshake,” Brother Bryan said of those he served. “Beneath that torn coat or ragged shawl, the life may be torn, but there is a soul for whom Jesus died…”
This week, Terrance Smith sat in a Birmingham park named after Brother Bryan. Smith is among hundreds facing unsheltered homelessness in and around Birmingham, many of whom frequent the city’s parks, including Brother Bryan in the Five Points neighborhood.
Earlier this month, Birmingham city councilors discussed individuals facing homelessness in Brother Bryan Park after a member of the public asked that city officials do more to address what he described as a “real problem.”
“It’s just horrifying what goes on over there,” Councilor Valerie Abbott said at the body’s meeting on August 8. “There are people living in the park, and no other people will go in there.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Smith reacted to the council’s comments, saying he felt some of the discussion was offensive. Councilors, Smith said, should “get to know their neighbors.”
“I think they’re wrong,” Smith said, an etching of Brother Bryan on a stone facade just a stone’s throw away. “They just push us aside like we’re not people, but they forget. God created me. God created them. So what’s the difference?”
A public appeal
Ricky Green said no one in their “right mind” would choose to live on the streets.
Green, a resident of Five Points South, spoke to the Birmingham City Council earlier this month, asking its members to address homelessness in the area.
“They hang out all in the park getting high and doing things of that nature, pulling out their private parts, using the restroom just right in the open,” he said.
Green suggested additional police patrols and a “special task force to go around and round these people up.”
“I don’t want to just attack them, because I know the situation that we’re in, but I think we should come up with something,” he said.
Multiple city councilors asked to speak about Green’s concerns.
Council President Wardine Alexander began by saying that addressing “the issue before us” would take a collaborative effort and pointed to the city’s proposed pilot program to fund temporary microshelters as one example.
“It’s just a great collaborative effort that takes place, but the issues you brought to our attention are definitely on our radar,” she told Green.
Councilor Darrell O'Quinn said a veterinary cardiologist whose practice is located across from the park has reached out to him on multiple occasions with concerns.
“It’s a pretty dire situation,” he said.
Councilor Valerie Abbott’s tone was even more stark.
“Brother Bryan Park is an embarrassment to the City of Birmingham,” Abbott said.
Abbott said that someone sent her an explicit video of individuals in the park.
“Mr. Green has children. He would like to take them to a park, but you sure as heck wouldn’t take him to that park,” she said. “I would be afraid to go there myself in the daytime.”
Like Green, Abbott also expressed concern that homelessness in the park would impact business in Five Points.
“Poor Brother Bryan Park has been forgotten by someone, because no one’s doing anything,” Abbott said.
Councilor Carol Clarke said that she believed businesses in the area are willing to be part of the solution.
“They are, you know, in regular touch with folks who frequent the park and not insensitive — as Mr. Green noted — to their issues, but they would also like to invest in making the park better, not just physically, but I would imagine also, in whatever kind of provision to help intervene on the circumstances there with individuals,” she said.
In response to the council’s concerns, Mayor Randall Woodfin’s Chief of Staff, Cedric Sparks, told councilors that the city staff have been out to the park multiple times.
The city’s plan involves engagement, recommendations for nonprofits that provide “feeding opportunities” in the park, and “increasing visibility” in the park through staffing and technology, according to Sparks.
“Oftentimes, when they go out, obviously that's behavior that they want to catch while it's happening,” Sparks said of alleged incidents in the park. “But they also want to maintain the dignity of the individuals who are there as well. So it's a delicate balance.”
In Brother Bryan’s shadow
Having heard the council’s discussion, Terrance Smith said he doesn’t believe public officials truly understand individuals like him. Brother Bryan Park hasn’t been forgotten, he said Tuesday. People like him have been forgotten.
Smith said he – like everyone – is aware of crimes in and around the park, but the perpetrators aren’t always individuals facing homelessness.
Data shows that individuals facing homelessness are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than they are to be perpetrators, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Smith said increasing police surveillance and presence in the park will, in the end, be counterproductive.
“What are they going to do?” Smith said. “Arrest us? Is that what they want?”
Having an arrest record only makes getting stable housing that much more difficult, Smith said.
Smith said he’s faced homelessness in Birmingham for about four years. When his mother died, Smith said, he found it difficult to continue living in her apartment, and he began a downward spiral.
Hundreds of individuals face homelessness in and around the Magic City on any given day. While overall homelessness has declined in recent years, the number of individuals sleeping on the city’s streets has nearly doubled, from an estimated 196 individuals in 2016 to 382 individuals in 2023, according to One Roof’s annual point-in-time count. Michelle Farley, the homelessness service provider’s executive director, has also said she believes the actual number of individuals facing homelessness could be four times higher than the data suggests.
Earlier this year, city officials announced Birmingham would spend $1 million on a pilot program they said would provide temporary housing for homeless residents.
At the time, city officials said plans for the program would be finalized in April and that the program would be launched in May.
Asked for an update on the program, Marie Sutton, Public Information Officer for the Mayor’s Office, did not provide a specific timeline for when the delayed project would actually begin.
“The Department of Community Development continues work to finalize the Home for All micro shelter pilot project and looks forward to providing a public update on the effort in the near future,” she wrote in an email.
The proposed program isn’t the first time microshelters have been proposed for those experiencing homelessness in the city. Last year, efforts to house individuals facing homelessness displaced by the security perimeter of the World Games were scrapped after widespread criticism by members of the public and homelessness experts.
At a press conference announcing that the “Compassion Project” would not move forward with its plans during the World Games, One Roof’s Michelle Farley said that she’s been opposed to the microshelter movement as it has gained popularity.
“There is no way that these tiny microshelters can provide dignity for people,” she said at the time. “They need permanent supportive housing. But the money has not been there for the type of safe, decent, and affordable housing that we need.”
Asked about city investments in those facing homelessness, Sutton pointed to construction funding for Firehouse Ministries, a religiously-affiliated shelter that serves only men, and AIDS Alabama’s Way Station, which serves only youth.
“The city's overall, comprehensive vision to create home options for all Birmingham residents includes the above efforts as well as several affordable home development projects in the works across the city, programs for down payment assistance, lead abatement and critical repairs,” she wrote.
“They should all get to know who they neighbor is.”
Terrance Smith said he doesn’t believe the city is doing enough to provide direct services to those who need them without unnecessary barriers.
A good start, Smith said, would be for public officials to change the way they speak about those facing homelessness. No councilor should be afraid to come to the park and speak to him, Smith said, Brother Bryan’s etching glowing behind him in the setting Alabama sun.
“They should all get to know who they neighbor is,” Smith said. “Come anytime. I’m right here.”
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