Finding Solutions to Homelessness

Metropolitan Birmingham Services for the Homeless (MBSH) has provided a model for the state of Alabama to follow in putting continuum-of-care concepts in place. By pooling resources and taking advantage of the special capabilities of its member organizations, such as the research facilities of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, MBSH has not only fulfilled its role as a clearinghouse and center for coordination, but has attracted nearly $20 million for homeless services for the region.

In 1993, Metropolitan Birmingham Services for the Homeless (MBSH) became the lead agency to establish a comprehensive, coordinated service delivery system for the region's homeless. MBSH was formed in the 1980s to provide regional coordination of the wide range of services called for under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. Within five years, MBSH embraced the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's concept for Continuum of Care, which focuses on promoting a community-based process for identifying and fulfilling the needs of the homeless, and which draws on federal funds to support programs that help homeless individuals and families become self-sufficient, including prevention and outreach; emergency, transitional, and permanent housing; and social services such as job training, health care, and child care.

Because both Birmingham and Jefferson County are entitlement areas under the McKinney Act, a working partnership was crucial to avoid duplication of efforts in the region. The MBSH has worked with its members to develop seven partnership goals and numerous objectives to guide regional service delivery efforts (see box). Key players in MBSH represent the nonprofit sector, the city, the county, two public housing authorities, foundations, churches, the city police department, hospitals, the Veterans Administration, the county health department, contractors, the local community action agency, the real estate development community, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, local businesses, lending institutions, the United Way, and formerly homeless individuals. All are members of MBSH, serving on at least one committee, with several of these stakeholders providing technical assistance such as grant writing and resource development, identification of service providers' needs, assessment of client needs and relationships, and liaisons with the city and county.

Collecting and Sharing Information

One of the city/county partnership's first acts was to pool funds to engage the University of Alabama at Birmingham to perform a comprehensive census and a needs assessment of the area's homeless population in 1995. This research project provided all partners with statistically reliable information that was then used to design homeless programs and improve the present continuum of care to meet the changing needs of the expanding homeless population in the Birmingham metropolitan area.

The assessment included focus groups consisting of service and housing providers, homeless people, interested professionals, community leaders, foundations, contractors, and representatives of city and county governments. These focus groups have assisted in the planning process by providing an "on the street" perspective from providers and users of the service delivery system. The assessment process also solidified the partnership among the city, county, and the state university, as well as among homeless community providers and their clients.

Attracting Resources

The ongoing coordination of efforts has given the entire community an advantage in creating a continuum of care for the region's homeless. As a result of the four-year old MBSH Continuum of Care partnership, the Birmingham/Jefferson County area has secured $19.3 million in grants, including nine Supportive Housing Program grants, three Shelter Plus Care grants, one Single Room Occupancy program grant, and one Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS Competitive grant.

The grant application process has unified participants and has served as a catalyst for further work. These joint efforts have resulted in continual improvements to service delivery for the homeless and a planning process that grew from the assessment during 1995, a subsequent update in 1997, and monthly surveys of area shelters. Committees have been organized to address specific issues, including membership development, research and information, advocacy, and interagency planning.

MBSH has carried out the partnership without funds for professional staff. Members of the collaboration pool funds to pay for professional assistance as needed, and are now exploring more permanent support for a full-time executive director. Currently, the president of MBSH is the executive director of a member agency who works voluntarily for MBSH.

Success in Numbers

It is impossible to estimate the total number of homeless people served through the Continuum of Care initiative, because many of the provider agencies do not have HUD grants, and access to their records is limited. However, a review of the region's seven HUD grantees for fiscal year 1996 indicates that at least 1,224 homeless persons were served, nearly one-half of the region's homeless population. One agency alone recorded serving more than 120,000 meals in 1996.

In addition to linking members across the region, the MBSH partnership has produced a stronger research base from which to coordinate decisions, has promoted collaboration and advocacy among the service providers that make up its membership, and has encouraged joint city/county planning that has stretched limited resources. The more than 2,500 homeless persons and 30,000 precariously housed residents of the Birmingham/Jefferson County area may rest a little easier knowing that the region is on its way to a streamlined, effective approach to helping them put down roots.

Goals of Metropolitan Birmingham Services for the Homeless

Recruit participants for planning from the community and homeless provider agencies.

Obtain agency and individual commitment to actively participate in completion of strategic planning.

Assess needs and resources annually to determine and prioritize gaps to be addressed.

Improve relationships among all planning participants.

Integrate any new programs targeted to serve the homeless into the existing Continuum of Care.

Establish an annual method of evaluation to ensure efficient homeless service delivery and reduction of homelessness.

Produce an annual vision statement, a document including annual goals and objectives of MBSH.

For further information, contact:
Steve Rapp, MBSH Board Member & Executive Director, Community Kitchens
Telephone: 205-251-3569