BIRMINGHAM — It wasn’t that long ago that Doug Matmey was holding a sign in Homewood that read: “Homeless, Vietnam vet, Katrina evacuee, need help.”
Matmey muses if he hadn’t stumbled into a repurposed fire station on the corner of 15th Street and Third Avenue North, he might not be alive today to tell his story. Matmey, along with more than 50 other men battling chronic homelessness, is a resident at the Firehouse Shelter in the historic Firehouse No. 6 Building. He went there to get sober and find a home.
The 66-year-old, who grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, admitted he made plenty of poor choices throughout his life, choices that left him sleeping under bridges and wondering where he would get his next meal. After serving in the Vietnam War for 18 months, 5 days, 11 hours and 9 minutes — Matmey can recite his service time without pause — he settled in Gulfport, Mississippi. When Hurricane Katrina wiped out a large portion of the area in 2005, however, Matmey found himself with no more than $400 to his name and nowhere to live. He decided to move to Birmingham, and that’s when his troubles worsened.
“I got to know Birmingham real good, and I got in a little trouble back then,” he said.
After a few brushes with the law and developing an intense alcohol dependency, Matmey said he knew he had to get sober and off the streets. He was sleeping in an abandoned restaurant downtown, and on more than one occasion was sent to the hospital for alcohol-related issues.
Finding the Firehouse Shelter was akin to a miracle, he said.
“This place is a godsend,” said Matmey, who has been living at the shelter for about three months. As of late April, he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol, either.
“I stayed here on and off for a couple of months, and then stayed in another motel for a while,” he said. “I just wasn’t ready to give up the drinking.”
Now, Matmey said, his days mostly consist of helping employees and volunteers at the shelter with everyday tasks, such as doing laundry and setting up and taking down chairs. These are jobs he takes great pride in.
“I like being an asset around here,” he said.
A Vital Service
Matmey is one of nearly 4,000 local men, women and children who receive regular services from the Firehouse Shelter. Anne Wright, executive director of the shelter, said most Birmingham residents don’t realize how many services the shelter offers.
“We’re the last house on the block,” Wright said. “Meaning, when you burn all your other bridges, you come here.”
Along with one of the most basic human needs — shelter — the Firehouse Shelter also provides a long list of programs that help men overcome substance abuse, mental illness and financial barriers. Every day, men line the exterior brick walls of the building to receive food, housing, clothing and other supportive services. Without the shelter, Wright said, a significant number of men would be sleeping on the street.
“Our main goal is to help the people who have slipped through the cracks,” said Wright, who is a Mountain Brook native and has worked in social services since she was 17. “We have one of the biggest street outreach teams in the area — that means sending people out to abandoned buildings, parked cars, places that are inhabitable.”
Wright said sometimes it can take years of ministering before men even step foot in the shelter, which has been in operation since Dec. 21, 1983. Many clients, she said, are fearful of being placed in a system. Once they receive the shelter’s services, however, many clients find their footing and are able to regain strength physically, mentally and spiritually.
“A lot of people think the Firehouse Shelter is just an addiction facility, but it’s more than that,” she said. “Our focus is on getting people into permanent housing in a way that will actually be sustainable.”
With its many services and clients, Wright said the only obstacle standing in the shelter’s way of progress is its building, which is beginning to show its years.
A New Shelter
In the shelter’s upstairs sleeping quarters, which boasts no more than a floor with mattresses piled high in the corner, insulation is beginning to cascade from the ceiling, and a humid breeze wafts from cracked windows where old Bibles are stacked atop windowsills.
“The quality of the building doesn’t match the quality of the service,” Wright said. “It’s not fair to our staff, it’s not fair to our clients and it’s not fair to our volunteers.”
In an effort to bring the shelter up to date, Firehouse Ministries recently purchased property at 626 Second Ave. N. — about nine blocks away from where the shelter currently sits. Wright said this property will hopefully become the new site of the Firehouse Shelter. It comes with a $7.8 million price tag, however, and a lot of planning. No ground has been broken yet.
“Basically, the Firehouse Shelter has been looking to build a new facility for years and years,” she said. “Once the building reflects the compassionate care we offer, we’re going to see even more progress than what we see already.”
Amenities included in the new building’s design are increased housing space, counseling areas, wet housing for men battling alcoholism and a place for clients to be nurtured spiritually. A new lobby area, Wright said, will also allow clients to wait for shelter services in an enclosed area, instead of exposed to the elements outside.
“What I wanted was a building that was made for the chronically homeless individual,” she said. “It had to have every space be multipurpose, and it had to be built to last.”
Shelter coordinator Rob Davis said because the shelter provides such a long list of services, this new building will allow staff members and volunteers to better accommodate clients, thus making a difference in more lives.
“Being homeless and on the street is a very traumatic experience,” Davis said, who works with the men every day. “We deal with not only meeting their immediate personal needs for a place to lay down, clothing, food, but also help them deal with the trauma that they’re experiencing.”
And while the need for the new shelter is apparent, raising funds for its construction is easier said than done. Wright said the ministry still has a long way to go before the building will come to fruition.
“Ideally, we would like to break ground next year, then have it built within the next couple of years, but it just depends on if the community is truly willing to support the people that we serve,” Wright said. “It’s a lot easier to raise money for a homeless puppy than a homeless man.”
A bright future
Because so many men use the shelter daily, Wright said she hopes to see the new shelter become a reality soon. Many clients, just like Matmey, will benefit from a new, better-equipped facility.
Considering the great progress he’s made in a short period of time, Matmey said the shelter is a vital service to Birmingham — and he’s thankful their doors were open when he needed help. He’s looking forward to having his own apartment soon and continuing to pave a new, positive path.
“My future is looking good,” said Matmey, who has found steady work and will be in permanent housing soon, provided by the Firehouse Shelter. “I’m doing my best to stay busy.”