Facing the Stigma of Homelessness in Florence

Two homeless men rest on a bench in the heat in downtown Florence. During daylight, these two individuals roam the streets with backpacks and their jackets tied around their waist.

Gabe Rhoden Volunteer Writer [email protected]

“It’s about us, not them and us.”

This is the mentality Krista Manchester, the executive director of Room in the Inn Shoals, said is the key to changing the homeless community in Florence.

“The fix people want it to be is not it,” Manchester said. “[I did this] not because I wanted to or because I was comfortable.”

In the winter 2013, Manchester opened what she called “the warming center” in Florence. That original shelter was always open when the temperature dropped below 32 degrees. In the 39 nights that it was open between 2013 into 2014, it served 57 people.

This, Manchester said, is what started to show her the need for a more permanent shelter for the local homeless during the coldest months of the year. Inspired by the Room in the Inn Nashville, Manchester, with the help of her closest friends, founded Room in the Inn Shoals in January 2015. The organization started with four sponsor churches and is now sponsored by 46 churches and has served over 500 people as of September 2019.

In April 2019, Manchester realized the shelter’s location was no longer big enough to accommodate the growing need. Because of this, she moved Room in the Inn to its new home on Veterans Drive in July. On paper, Manchester would tell you the goal of Room in the Inn is to “provide food and shelter to anyone in need during the winter months,” but in reality, her goal is much larger.

“It’s about the community,” Manchester said. “[To] make the invisible, visible. Most people have a story to tell [and] everyone matters.”

“Everyone matters” has become the slogan of Room in the Inn and Manchester and her volunteers stand by it.

Walking into the new building for the first time, I was greeted by Manchester. She quickly introduced herself, shook my hand and welcomed me in to start touring the facility on my own.

The interior was warm, the bare cement floor did nothing but reflect the outside heat from the hot September day. Along the floor, labeled boxes and containers crowded the open area as if a big family had just moved into a new home. Hung on the left-hand side wall were blueprints and sketches of what this now empty space would soon become.

These plans were a present reminder of that motto of the organization. Everything planned to be done was for a reason, giving hope to those in the community that need help.

Growing up in Denver, Colo., Manchester was never far removed from the concept of homelessness. From the time she was 15-years-old to half-way through age 17, Manchester lived on the streets of Denver. With the help of some local friends and families, she was able to get back on her feet, finish high school and graduate from college.

Manchester moved to Florence hoping to escape the stigma of her past. One winter night shortly after moving to town, Manchester saw a young man sheltering himself from the frigid negative degree temperature of the night. After much self-debate, Manchester decided to take the boy in and provide him a place to stay the rest of the night.

“The universe had just put this back in my lap,” Manchester said. “[So now] like what are you going to do about it?”

In the coming months, Manchester is preparing to start a new season of volunteer training and with that she hopes to introduce more people to an idea that she thinks is key to changing the “negative stigma” that follows the homeless.

“We throw out the net and see what gets caught up in [it], it’s the domino effect,” Manchester said. “[If] we treat people like people, we would change the narrative. Personally, I’ve enjoyed watching the little cracks in the bubbles of preconceived ideas and stereotypes.”

To Manchester, the causes and possibly the solution of the growing homeless lie in those “preconceived ideas” that many people have. But she says her goal is not to fix the problem.

“[It’s] about people,” Manchester said. “[We] focus on community, not fixing homelessness.”

Florence mayor Steve Holt is certainly aware of the growing homeless population. He said Room in the Inn and other organizations like it might be adding to the problem.

“There’s a big, fine line about where you stop helping and start enabling,” Holt said. “I don’t have the answer to that. We have to ask ourselves that question. We have more people on the streets

Two homeless men rest on a bench in the heat in downtown Florence. During daylight, these two individuals roam the streets with backpacks and their jackets tied around their waist.

here than we ever had, and they’re finding their way here.”

Holt enters his third year in office in October. He said homelessness is a topic that has been “constantly” talked about over the last year-and-a-half. Holt said that this issue is collective between the city and the community.

“It’s a city issue for us because we have to manage it,” Holt clarified. “The community has an extraordinary heart, a desire to do good things and a willingness to help people. [But] so does the city.”

Holt believes the city mechanisms are in place to provide help for those who want it. The problem and concern for Holt is that many don’t want or seek out this assistance.

“Every time we can find one person the help that they want–truly want–[the help] we know that they need, but they have to want that help,” Holt said. “From the maintaining, caring side of it–I think we’ve covered all of our bases. [But] we can’t keep taking everyone else’s problems. That’s my biggest concern.”

This concern is the main reason Holt believes the homeless population is on the rise. Holt is aware of rumors of neighboring cities around Florence “buying bus tickets” for many of their homeless to be sent here. He said that he is told frequently that the city of Huntsville buys their local homeless a bus ticket here. Holt said that–if true–this is a major problem for the city.

“We’re absolutely determined to take care of our own, but we didn’t set out to take care of everyone else’s,” he said. “Florence has got the reputation – it’s on the list of being a homeless friendly city.”

Holt said that at this time he simply doesn’t know of any real solutions to the rising homeless population in Florence and he doesn’t see the problem going away anytime soon. Despite this, the mayor is reminded of the city and community’s commitment to help.

“I don’t think we’re on opposite pages, we’re just not on the same page,” Holt said. “Everyone’s intent is wonderful. I think the city – its benevolent heart and its willingness to help is clear.”