Hands Across Decatur receives no city funding and little assistance in its mission to help the homeless, a situation the director says is based on a fear the organization will attract homeless people to the city but that some officials say is because the nonprofit needs to demonstrate financial accountability.
Whatever the reason, founder and Executive Director Sue Terrell, a volunteer like everyone else who works at HAD, is left trying to meet the needs of Decatur's homeless with no city appropriations, no grants and minimal donations.
“I can’t just keep spending my own money — I can’t,” said Terrell, who founded the organization in 2012.
Hands Across Decatur requested appropriations from the City Council in fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022 and was rejected each time. It did not apply in fiscal 2023 because of her frustration with getting turned down twice, Terrell said.
Councilman Carlton McMasters said the nonprofits that received money from the city are established organizations with a budget and an ability to show the City Council a plan for the funding.
He said he appreciates how well Terrell takes care of the city’s homeless and he knows she has a lot of support, but he needs to see a plan to improve how HAD is run.
“Hands Across Decatur has to be accountable before we expend taxpayers’ money,” McMasters said. “We have to know a plan to remedy whatever the situation is.”
McMasters pointed out that the city bought HAD a roughly $15,000 freezer at Terrell’s suggestion.
Terrell has been critical of the City Council and mayor since it rejected her funding requests. She said there’s an attitude among some city officials of “if we help homelessness, we’re promoting homelessness.”
“When was the last time someone went and Googled the best place to put up homeless tents? We’re not promoting homelessness. We’re helping the homeless,” Terrell said.
While homeless people do communicate with each other about the best places to find help, she said, most of the city’s homeless are from the Decatur area.
HAD receives some donations, particularly at Christmas, but Terrell said she basically runs the organization by herself at a time when Decatur’s homeless numbers are increasing.
“I’ve got great volunteers who are willing to help with cooking, distribution and other operations of the shelter,” Terrell said. “But, because we’re all volunteers, it’s very difficult to keep the place running. We’re supported 100% by the community.”
During five days in December when a major freeze dropped temperatures to near or below zero, 161 people stayed in HAD's emergency shelter. The organization supplied 764 hot meals, 121 sack lunches and 100 survival bags.
Hands Across Decatur is typically open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., with expanded hours when there’s bad weather. It provides the homeless with food and clothing, and hosts a monthly medical clinic. Terrell said expenses include feeding clients five days a week plus maintenance of its Fifth Avenue Southeast facility, rent and utility bills and various supplies.
She said she does everything a typical executive director does and more, including spending hours each day taking care of the homeless while also doing social media, speaking, fundraising and managing HAD's business side. Late night calls aren’t unusual.
“We are paying our bills, but we’re not able to do some of the things we need to do,” Terrell said. “Our carpet is horrible. It has to be cleaned once a week. We would like to put some flooring in our common areas that we can mop. It’s an old building, but our landlord is great.”
She said her nonprofit receives a lot of financial and item donations, but there are a number of items she buys with her own money.
Calculating the number of homeless people in Morgan County or any region is not easy. It's mainly accomplished through "point in time" surveys conducted on a single day each January, and the numbers are used in evaluating grant requests. Terrell said the homeless population in Decatur is growing, but said the point-in-time survey last month failed to reflect the actual numbers.
January’s survey counted 103 homeless people in Morgan County, which Terrell said was “highly inaccurate” because it came during a period of heavy rains that forced the homeless to stay in their tents and kept the counters from getting into the homeless camps in Decatur.
Terrell and several of her organization’s supporters this month went to a Decatur City Council meeting, this time asking not for an appropriation but requesting that the city write grant proposals for HAD to assist it in obtaining state and federal funding.
“Getting grants is not my expertise,” Terrell said. “I need help with getting grants. The city has a grant-writing department. I’m doing this all myself.”
Mayor Tab Bowling said at the council meeting that Allen Stover, Community Development supervisor who oversees the city’s grants program, “plans to meet with Terrell, but the city can’t write grants for local nonprofits.”
Terrell said Friday that she and Stover are meeting next week, which she views as a sign of progress.
If the city did write grants for HAD, McMasters said other nonprofits would want the city to write grants for them, too. He pointed out the city allocated $2.7 million to nonprofits in the fiscal 2023 budget.
“Decatur is a very giving community,” McMasters said. “There are tons of nonprofits and charitable organizations who help people day in and day out. We help when we can but we have to see their programs.”
Stover said his grant-writing staff is too busy applying for and managing grants for the city to take on the responsibility for nonprofits.
Other homeless organizations in north Alabama have had more success, both in getting municipal appropriations and in securing state and federal grants.
Jennifer Geist, executive director of First Stop Inc., a Huntsville organization for the homeless, said her organization gets most of its financial support from the city of Huntsville through annual appropriations. First Stop got $150,000 in fiscal 2022 and has asked for $184,000 in fiscal 2023.
First Stop also pursues grants, including through a U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant program focused on the homeless. First Stop received a $100,000 grant last year through this program and is awaiting word on whether it will receive another grant this year.
Geist said the city of Huntsville doesn’t write grant proposals for First Step.
“We’ve written every one of our grants,” she said.
Obtaining and managing federal grants is a time-intensive endeavor, Geist and Stover agreed.
Geist said government grants require massive amounts of paperwork, not only in applying but also in follow-up documentation showing her nonprofit is doing what it said it would do and properly handling the funds. She said both federal and state grants are routinely audited, with the penalties for noncompliance including repayment or removal of future eligibility.
Stover said this extensive documentation is required for almost all government grants. It’s one of the reasons his department can’t write grants for nonprofits. He said his staff writes and manages close to 30 grants annually for city departments and projects.
“In order to receive the funds, you have to show your financial and management capacity and how you will manage the grant,” Stover said.
This sort of extensive financial management is a deficiency at Hands Across Decatur that affects both its likelihood of obtaining state or federal grants and, according to city officials, its failure to obtain city appropriations.
Hands Across Decatur doesn’t have an annual budget that is approved by its board.
Terrell said HAD doesn’t have an annual budget “because so much goes in and goes out. We’re not like a big corporation. It depends how much we have and a lot of it comes from my own pocket.”
The nonprofit’s Form 990 tax return says HAD's revenue was less than $50,000 in 2021.
Barbara Wright, a retired Decatur Heritage Christian Academy educator, said she is co-chair of the board with Terrell.
“I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations,” Wright said. “She (Terrell) gives a whole lot of her own money (to HAD). Basically, a lot of it is unknown because we don’t know how many we’re going to need to feed each month.”
Geist and Stover said they appreciate Terrell’s commitment and willingness to work hard, but they think she needs assistance.
“She definitely needs some help. It’s crazy that they’re all-volunteer,” said Geist, whose 15-year-old nonprofit has 12 paid staff members.
Terrell agrees she needs help. She said the first step would be hiring full-time or at least some part-time paid employees.
“We need maybe a part-time counselor to come in maybe one or two days a week,” Terrell said. “I would like someone to come in one day a week to help them with Social Security and EBT cards.”
After Terrell contacted her recently, Geist said she noticed in media reports and on social media that Terrell’s relationship with the City Council and mayor could improve.
“I never raise Cain,” Geist said. “We try to get along. The city came to us because they said they were impressed with us and they wanted to help us get a federal grant for our new building expansion.”
Geist said some of the council members and Mayor Tommy Battle visited homeless camps with her.
“They look to us to help solve the homeless problems,” she said.
Terrell on Friday said she is optimistic relations with Decatur officials are improving, and she's also getting helpful input from First Stop.
"Essentially, we are just like them on a smaller scale — except they have financial support and assistance from their city," Terrell said.
Others are also looking to provide assistance to HAD.
"Next week, representatives from the North Alabama Coalition For the Homeless and representatives from the city Of Huntsville Community Development (Department) are coming to meet with me at HAD to see how they can help HAD," Terrell said.
"Things are in the works but nothing happens overnight. It has taken 11 years to get this far."
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No question Ms. Terrell is doing good, but she can't expect the city, county or any government organization to spend tax money on a loose organization. There are a lot of requirement a non-profit must meet to show they are responsibily run, with cross checks for financial accountability not just for money but also human and material resources, valid delivery to deserving individuals, with some degree of success.
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