The worn paths through the woods leading to the outdoor camps hundreds of north Alabamians call home are familiar to Courtney Carmack. In the past five years, the Decatur woman has walked the trails hundreds of times carrying sleeping bags, tents, propane canisters, clothes and food to the homeless camps.
“Every trip has left me changed and challenged,” the 36-year-old Carmack said. “It has opened my eyes and made me more aware. I think a lot of people are afraid of the homeless because of unfounded beliefs that they are all drug addicts and alcoholics. That is so far from the truth. Yes, some of them do drink alcohol or use drugs, but most of them just had bad circumstances.”
Carmack, founder of the all-volunteer Quality of Life Care Team, represents a piece of the outreach coalition trying to serve and address the growing homeless population in north Alabama.
“In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had 11 new people walk through our doors,” said Sue Terrell, founder and director of Hands Across Decatur, an organization focused on reaching the homeless and working poor.
In Huntsville, Carmack witnessed a similar growth in the homeless community. Camps that numbered 20 people four years ago now have 50 to 75 people.
The advocates attributed the uptick to the danger at shelters in Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham, Decatur’s proximity to the railroad and the paycheck-to-paycheck lives many people live.
“Most of the homeless are good people who have fallen on hard times. Many of us are a paycheck away or an emergency away from being homeless,” Terrell said.
According to reports from career and financial education associations, more than half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
David Haller, a member of Decatur’s homeless population, compared the fight out of homelessness — from securing reliable transportation to finding a job to paying security and first month’s rent — to a toilet bowl.
“Homelessness is like a toilet. You are constantly circling the rim, trying to fight going down, but you’re not making any progress, or, you might make some effort, but when you slip, there are no breaks and you’re right back where you started,” Haller said.
Organizations, such as Carmack’s Quality of Life Care Team and Terrell’s Hands Across Decatur, hope to provide those breaks.
While the roots of the Quality of Life Care Team date back five years, Carmack’s connection with the homeless community began as a child. She remembers noticing people camped beneath the bridges and along the overpass. The images stuck with her.
“I always pointed them out to my mom. I always saw them. I always wanted to do something,” said Carmack, who attributed her desire to care for others to spending the first four years of her life in foster care and having a brother with Down Syndrome.
Carmack’s childhood desires became a reality when she, along with three friends, decided to collect toiletries and deliver hygiene kits to homeless camps in the winter of 2014-15. They issued a request for donations on Facebook. The response overwhelmed them.
“We got so much stuff. It was awesome. It was clear that this was something we need to start doing,” Carmack said. “We get a lot of help. I give of my time and a lot of people are giving of their resources. The support we’ve had from Decatur has been awesome.”
What started with gallon-sized hygiene kits turned into truckloads of clothes, food, water, sleeping bags, tents and other supplies. The team, which Carmack described as a fast response group, has filled propane tanks, repaired tents, furnished an apartment for a veteran who previously lived on the streets and provided prayers and emotional support.
“We never leave a camp without leaving behind three things — lots of smiles and hugs, gifts to improve their quality of life and the promise to return soon to visit again,” said Glenn Mitchell, who volunteers with Quality of Life Care Team and established her downtown Decatur hair salon as a collection point.
They have met disabled veterans, addicts trying to get clean, people battling mental illnesses and working mothers, who send their paychecks to relatives taking care of their children.
“Just think about that. These women couldn’t afford to have a house and take care of their children. They had to make the decision of whether to be homeless and help take care of their kids or have a home and not be able to support them financially,” Carmack said.
Along with delivering supplies to camps, the Quality of Life Care Team assists The Tent City Project, BeArded WARRIORS, Good Samaritans of Huntsville and Hands Across Decatur. Established in 2012, Hands Across Decatur, which relies entirely on volunteers and private donations, aims to combat homelessness by addressing basic needs. The organization runs a soup kitchen twice a week, provides weekly access to medical care and houses computers where individuals can search for jobs.
“Courtney and her team have made a huge difference for us," Terrell said. "Anything I need, I’ll text her and she’ll get it. I know I can count on her. She has a passion and a heart for the homeless."
Carmack hopes to pass that passion and care along to her 13-year-old and 7-year-old daughters.
“They both serve in their own ways. My oldest helps clean up the site and will take food to the people and animals at the camp. My youngest just wants to talk with them all. She prays for them every night,” Carmack said. “I hope my kids will continue to do this when they get older. I hope they understand that how a person looks does not matter, who they are is what counts and these are good people.”
The Quality of Life Care Team holds large collection drives five to six times a year with donation barrels at Oak and Lee, Alfonso’s Pizza, Golden Ape CrossFit and Decatur Comprehensive Dentistry, where Carmack works as a dental assistant.