The Birmingham City Council unanimously passed a measure to move forward with a plan to build a community of "micro-shelters" for the homeless in the city.

Micro-shelters are small lockable, one-room shelters with power, heating and air conditioning. The city intends to purchase up to 100 of these shelters from Pallet Shelter and place them in communities. Pallet Shelter has constructed micro-shelter communities around the country, including several on the West Coast.

According to the data presented to the city council by Birmingham's Director of Community Development Meghan Venable-Thomas, Birmingham homelessness is on the rise.

Jefferson County has around 943 homeless on a given night. Though most of them are sheltered in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing, 343 people are currently unsheltered, 267 of whom are chronically homeless.

As much as 75% of Birmingham's homeless population suffers from substance abuse. An even larger percentage suffer from mental and physical health conditions, and at least half experience all three.

Venable-Thomas could not yet provide a projected cost for the site's day-to-day operations. She said the city would only have an idea of the cost following the request for proposal (RFP) process, through which the city will solicit bids from not-for-profit public service providers.

"It will be in partnership with the providers who are applying to the RFP," said Venable-Thomas. "So we don't yet have a cost, but we will have a cost to come before [the council] once we close the RFP process."

Venable-Thomas insisted there's no proper way to predict how much the project will cost based on similar projects outside Alabama.

"Any number we give you is premature," Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin added. "... If you're asking whether the city will bear the entire cost, the answer is no. Will we be asked to support whoever submits the requests? The answer is yes."

Woodfin said the city would help pay for the community's operations with community development block grant (CDBG) dollars. The service providers would also help pay, and he said he thinks others in the private sector will help pay while utility companies will lower costs for the project.

However, according to Woodfin, the city can cancel the contract if no public service provider meets their standards. The shelters will only be officially purchased and delivered when an RFP application has been approved. 

The RFP application process went public at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

The city has not yet identified viable sites for the projects. RFP applicants will select sites, and the city will ensure that they meet certain criteria and are in line with city ordinances and zoning laws. 

"I want the city to understand that what is being presented is not a neatly packaged, wrapped up silver solution," said Councilor Darrell O'Quinn. "It is a beginning of a conversation and one that every member of the community should feel responsible for having a part in."

All eight members of the council voted in favor of the resolution. If the project remains on track, the city will construct and launch the site in May.

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