The circumstances that bring women to shelters like First Light have changed. Director of volunteer services Deborah Everson calls it a stew of factors, and the recipe looks something like this: “1 cup mental illness, 3 dashes of joblessness, 2 scoops of addiction to medication to deal with the mental illness.”
She shares this recipe for homelessness to church groups, organizations and businesses, hoping to offer insight into an issue that is perceived by most as “someone else’s problem.” And it is “until that stew happens in their families,” she adds.
And when it does, First Light is there to help.
In the 1980s when First Light was just a volunteer-operated emergency night shelter for women and children located in the basement of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, it was easy to describe the face of homelessness.
“They were bag ladies. Single women. Alcoholics or prostitutes,” Everson says.
Fast-forward to modern day, and the faces have changed. The women are old and they are young. They’re black, white and brown. They are uneducated and they are college educated. They’ve held blue-collar jobs and they’ve had professional careers. They are a diverse group, but they all have one thing in common – when crisis struck, they had nowhere else to turn.
The four-story, 24-hour shelter is specifically designed to meet the needs of homeless women and children, with a fully stocked commercial kitchen that serves two meals daily, as well as a 36-bed sleeping area. The dayroom and dining room transform into the overflow shelter each evening providing space for an additional 15-20 guests. The program room where group therapies are conducted is also used for weekly art therapy classes. Walls throughout the facility are lined with artwork made by the women and children who live here.
At 71 and 69, respectively, Terry and Lenate are called the Golden Girls. They are often seen sitting together in the dayroom with Lenate watching as Terry carefully stuffs tobacco into paper cigarette holders. Their lighthearted conversation often invites comments from the others around them.
Lenate lost her home two months ago after her husband died. With no family in town, she had nowhere to go. Terry was kicked out of her daughter-in-law’s house after her husband passed away. Though they both are grateful to have a roof over their heads, if you ask what they hope for in the future, they say in unison, “An apartment.”
First Light aims to grant that wish, as it does for all its residents. The shelter provides temporary shelter for women and children in immediate need. Its many programs seek to find permanent housing for them depending on their circumstances. For example, nine guests with severe mental illness who are considered unlikely to successfully live independently are provided permanent support on the fourth floor of the shelter.
About 50 women who were chronically homeless or have disabling conditions are housed in apartments in Bessemer, Birmingham, Homewood, and other metro areas. They also receive intensive support from a social worker.
And the shelter’s Forever Home program quickly rehouses First Light emergency shelter guests with children who are likely to achieve independence with limited intervention such as diminishing financial support and social services.
The nonprofit shelter is run by a small staff of full-time and part-time employees with Ruth Crosby serving as the executive director. But the shelter relies heavily on volunteer support. Volunteers put in about 800 hours per month, serving meals, staying overnight in the emergency shelter, conducting activities, taking women to events around town, and planting flowers in the courtyard.
There is little turnover among the staff and volunteers, Everson explains. That’s because the facility operates under an environment of love and respect. Those who interact with the women tend to develop a deep sense of membership. “That’s a tremendous testament to the many volunteers here,” she adds.
To keep the facility running, First Light accepts donations of food, toiletries, over-the-counter medicines, blankets and linens, as well as money. A quarter of the shelter’s income comes from fundraising efforts, including the First Light Gala. About 35 percent of the nonprofit’s revenue comes from grants or gifts from the government, corporate donors, foundations and civic organizations. One such contributor is the Protective Life Corporation’s IT Golf Tournament, which also supports the Firehouse Shelter for homeless men.
The Protective Life Foundation supports the golf tournament through a partial matching gift on monies raised at the annual event. In 2016, the tournament raised more than $51,000, and awarded First Light a gift of $26,000 to help support its operations. Protective is still receiving contributions from this May’s event, and all signs indicate the 2017 tournament proceeds will be as strong as before.
“Once again Protective’s IT Department is proud to host this event,” says Mark Cyphert, senior vice president and chief information and operations officer, who serves as host of the event. “We appreciate our Protective colleagues, the Protective Foundation, and our business partners, who make this event a success. We all continue to be inspired to act by the ongoing need and the important work these two organizations are doing to meet it.”