Just beyond the veil of downtown Dothan, homeless communities are quickly growing.
Some of the tent cities in the woods have over 70 tents, although the ones who have tents are considered lucky. Many sleep on cots and pallets or simply on dirt, without blankets or pillows.
It’s no wonder that many service ministries and nonprofits have noticed the homeless population is increasing in the area.
David Duke, executive director of Wiregrass 2-1-1, said calls from homeless people seeking assistance have gone up 23% over his organization's fiscal year ending Sept. 30 – the calls totaled 854.
Duke and others point to displaced Hurricane Michael victims as the primary cause for the increase.
“It’s a wide spectrum, whether it is because of a hurricane, because they just fell on hard times…” Ken Tuck, executive director of “Love in Action,” said. “We have seen women who go through divorce or their relationships break up and they have nowhere else to go; they end up on the streets. Some fall into homeless because of bad decisions – drugs, alcohol.”
He noted that the number one reason for Dothan residents falling into homeless is the catastrophic loss of family.
“When a person loses their family because family members have died or they part ways and when a person doesn’t have a family to receive help from or to be loved, their world starts falling apart pretty quickly and they start to lose that hope,” Tuck said. “When you don’t have family, or your family doesn’t love you… people end up on the streets. Helping with food is just one way to show them they are loved and that someone does care.”
Tuck’s ministry serves hot meals to many low-income families and homeless persons at their camps with its mobile food truck. It also provides groceries to families through its food pantry. His ministry has seen a large increase in the number of people it serves since the first of the year.
Last year, volunteers served roughly 1,600 meals a month. Now they’re serving 3,000 people. Through the food pantry, the ministry was providing food for just over200 people a month. That number is now well over 400, Tuck said.
He noted that one in six people in Dothan are food insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Kody Kirchoff, executive director of the Harbor in Dothan, said the nonprofit has observed the increase “in every way.”
“Hurricane Michael was a big piece; that brought a lot of people north,” he said, adding that his ministry has also seen a significant increase in the number of single women seeking help.
The ministry has experienced a 35% increase in all of the services it provides to the homeless.
“I think there are people that are hurting,” Kirchoff said. “We have a large near-homeless population that may be living small paycheck to paycheck. When you get sick or miss a paycheck, they’re out on the street.
“I think there are people that were one paycheck away from a homeless lifestyle; I just think we’re seeing that this year. Dothan just has a very large extreme poverty population and at some point, when circumstances happen, those living near homeless will become homeless.”
The Harbor offers many programs directed at helping displaced persons get back on their feet with meals, hygiene items, clothing, and transitional housing.
He said last year at this time, they had served about 42,000 pounds of food. This year, they have served roughly 60,000 in the first eight months of the year.
Kirchoff said in their two programs, he and volunteers see about 3,500 go through the doors of the nonprofit every month.
Many of those homeless are children. Dothan City Schools reported 156 homeless students in the 2017-2018 school year. Despite declining enrollment, the number of homeless students rose to 221 in the 2018-2019 school year – almost a 42% increase.
Dothan Police Maj. Will Benny said the homeless populace is noticeable in Dothan.
“If you go downtown, it’s obvious it has increased,” he said. “It’s just kind of like any other groups of people; we just have to monitor those areas.”
Dothan Rescue Mission Director Brad Hardy said he was concerned that Dothan’s homeless population are not only growing, but are depending on the generosity of service organizations in the area to substantiate their lifestyle.
“It’s a good thing and it says a lot about or community, but it’s going to bring more up as well,” he said. “What’s scary is that a lot of them just won’t come in period. They’re just not going to come in for shelter.”
There are many area organizations helping homeless persons, including Signature Staffing, a relatively new nonprofit that provides transportation to work.
Additionally, several organizations are encouraging donations of hygiene and clothing items, food, tents and other necessities to fill a Covan trailer. Wiregrass United Way 2-1-1 is accepting donations through Nov. 3 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Greater Beulah Baptist Burch family is hosting a drive on Nov. 4 from 8 a.m. to noon and on the day of the Homeless Stand Down event on Saturday, Nov. 5.