BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Sunday night, as snow fell across the Magic City, Rentle Lee Wilson was trying to find a place to keep warm.
Wilson, who said he’s faced homelessness for three years, had heard from others living on the city’s streets that Boutwell Auditorium wasn’t open as a warming station as it had been in years past.
So instead, Wilson and two others headed to the McWane Center, where they slept under a concrete overhang.
According to the city, Boutwell Auditorium was “unavailable” as a warming center on Sunday.
A joint statement by Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin and One Roof Executive Director Michelle Farley said the city instead provided supplies to local shelters.
“The City of Birmingham and One Roof connected in advance of this weekend’s weather event,” the statement said. “Because the Boutwell Auditorium was unavailable, the city was able to offer support in the form of cots, food, and masks/PPE to area providers so that the shelters could accommodate as many people as safely possible.”
According to the church’s Facebook page, Rock City Birmingham held a service at the downtown venue beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday morning.
Erica “Star” Robbins is the founder of Be a Blessing Birmingham, a grassroots organization that aims to “bring awareness and community support” to those facing homelessness in the Magic City. She said the city should have made alternate arrangements if Boutwell could not be used.
“When the Boutwell has been booked in recent years, there have been warming stations open at the BJCC and at Parker High School,” she said. “So we’re not going to accept that as an excuse as to why we didn’t have warming stations open.”
Robbins said she didn’t sleep on Sunday night, worried about the people her organization serves. Instead, she brought blankets and other supplies to unhoused folks in the city.
Robbins said that the joint statement released by the mayor’s office and One Roof, which references shelters, leaves out many who would otherwise use warming stations.
Calls by CBS 42 to local shelters went largely unanswered Monday. When asked by CBS 42 whether Firehouse Shelter would be open as a warming station on Monday, a staffer said they would be open as normal, accepting those who are homeless.
Robbins said that is not enough.
“We also have people within our city who just don’t have access to heat,” she said. “They may be in their homes, but they may not be able to afford to cut the gas on or their power has been cut off.”
Robbins also said it is hard for individuals living on the streets to gain access to homeless shelters, a challenge made more difficult by COVID restrictions.
“You cannot just show up and get in,” Robbins said. “There’s not enough room. Capacity has changed with COVID. There’s no room in the inn.”
For his part, standing outside the Boutwell Auditorium on Monday, Rentle Wilson said that he believes that the people of Birmingham do care about those facing homelessness, but he said the city isn’t doing enough to help people like him.
“We need money. We need jobs,” he said. “Maybe an apartment.”
Wilson, a native of North Birmingham, said he worked at a gas station in Ensley and lived in Woodlawn before high rent prices forced him onto the streets.
“They were telling me I had to pay six, seven hundred dollars,” he said.
Wilson didn’t make enough to pay the increased rent, so he left his house and began living on the streets of downtown.
Wilson said that on Sunday, as temperatures began to drop, he wished the Boutwell had been open as a warming station.
In the New Year, Wilson said, he wants to get off the streets.
“It’s 2022,” he said. “I don’t want to continue staying on the streets. But I do need a place. A bed. An apartment.”
The statement released by the mayor’s office on the issue also asks that those interested in opening as warming stations contact the city.
“Because addressing homelessness is complex, the City of Birmingham and One Roof invite additional partners to help in extreme weather and every day,” the statement said. “For more information on how your business or house of worship can participate in this challenging, but rewarding effort, please contact Don Lupo at the City of Birmingham at 205-335-4573 or Michelle Farley at One Roof 205-254-8833, ext. 114. When we all work hand in hand to combine our resources, we can be transformative in our impact in supporting our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness.”
Following the release of the joint statement, CBS 42 provided follow-up questions to the mayor’s office but has not yet heard back.
CBS 42 also reached out to Rock City Birmingham for comment via e-mail and phone without success.