When Brittany’s 4-year-old son asks, “Is this where we are going to stay now?” she is lost for words.
Brittany, whose son now lives with his father’s relatives, alternates between sleeping in a friend’s car or a motel room, when she can afford it, while she strives every day to be a better mother to her son.
“I just keep doing the next right thing and go to work. I don’t want (my son) to see me like that, so it makes it difficult to be a mother because I can’t right now,” she said.
Brittany, who requested her last name be withheld, went to prison in 2016. Since her release, it has been a constant struggle to find an affordable place to stay.
“Things happened while I was gone for two years, and I really had no one to turn to,” she said. “It feels really horrible to have to pack my things up and carry my life around with me.”
When she doesn’t have access to her friend’s car or money to spend on a motel room, she is forced to live on the streets.
“It’s stressful because sometimes I’m hungry outside,” Brittany said. “I have to be careful because I’m a woman and a lot of people don’t want you hanging around their business or anywhere, so there’s really nowhere to go, stand, sit or anything.”
Although she has a job, Brittany said it is difficult to find long-term housing that she can afford.
“I know I’ve been turned down for a lot of things because of my background, but I think it’s kind of unfair because I’ve made a change,” she said. “I was stuck in a cycle where I can pay for my room, but I can’t pay the first month’s deposit, rent and power at the same time.”
Within the past year, the Auburn-Opelika community has seen an increase in the number of people who, like Brittany, are homeless. Though, at first glance it may be hard to notice.
A new project to be located in Opelika aims to give women struggling with homelessness a second chance at life.
“These are the people we are trying to help. These are the people that have fallen through the cracks and have not so much been forgotten, but rather we were not aware of,” said Jean Causey, president of One Voice Shelter Coalition, which was formed in 2018 to help individuals in need of housing assistance.
The coalition, alongside nonprofit Friends of the Community, will offer women transitional housing at the former Northridge Assisted Living Facility in Opelika. The 16-room facility will have an on-site manager, and women will make monthly rent payments based on their ability to pay.
“This may be a one-of-a-kind program. (Women) will be able to stay there for six months, and at the end of those six months we’ll have a place or apartment they can move to and afford,” Causey said.
Lee County Commissioner Robert Ham and Steve Benson, a local attorney, formed Friends of the Community about 25 years ago. The organization is responsible for acquiring and renovating the Northridge property.
“We took it as a challenge to raise the funds to acquire (the property) — no debt, which is probably around $400,000,” Benson said. “I won’t call it luxurious. I will call it clean and safe.”
Ham added that once the property is finished, the coalition will be in charge of management.
“We’ll have a trained counselor there, and that trained counselor is the key to making this thing work because they’re going to get right to the heart of what (the women) need,” he said.
Residents will be provided five meals a week and will also learn important life skills to help them successfully transition to living on their own.
“I went into the bank the other day to see a banker, and his secretary stopped me and said, ‘I can help with teaching people how to balance a checking account, help people with their finances,’” Ham said. “This is a beautiful community we live in.”
Causey said that most homeless people approach her after being redirected by various agencies.
“Different people send them. They’ll go to churches for help, they’ll go to organizations like United Way, DHS, the Social Security office and hospitals,” she said.
While homelessness in the area is not as prevalent compared to other cities, reported numbers of homeless people have steadily increased.
“The first time I talked to Jean about this three months ago, she told me there were 80 (homeless people),” Ham said. “Here we are a little over three months later and she’s telling me there’s 90. That tells you where the curve is going.”
Causey said one reason many people are not aware of the homeless problem in Lee County is that the homeless are not broadcasting their situation.
“They don’t want people to know that they’re in cars, they don’t have a house and they’re not sleeping like everybody else does at night,” she said. “They’re ashamed of it. They don’t want you to know. Those are the people we’re trying to help.”
Todd White, director of community development in Auburn, said one reason it is difficult to pinpoint homelessness in the area is that it is not as obvious compared to other cities.
“Auburn is a difficult place to be homeless because homelessness is kind of under the radar,” he said. “There is really positive momentum, if you can call it that, but it’s all for the good of individuals that are seeking services and want to stay in jobs and want to be here.”
He added that he can see how the homeless population could be larger in Opelika than in Auburn because of the resources available there.
“I think it’s very imaginable for someone to be in a situation where one day they have a stable residence and the next day they are homeless because they are a victim of domestic violence and they have to enter into a program with the Domestic Violence Intervention Center in Opelika,” he said. “So, they were a resident of Auburn and now they live in Opelika or are homeless.”
The city of Auburn does maintain a $5,000 fund per fiscal year to help people who are not chronically homeless and need immediate, temporary assistance.
"We have homeless services. We have funds that we allocate to pay for a hotel room," White said. "It starts with one or two nights and if their circumstances are fair and reasonable then we may grant longer than that."
The vision for the Northridge project came after realizing the importance of focusing on problems directly affecting members of the community.
“A lot of these churches have missions,” Benson said. “They go to Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica and they’ll go help somebody build a hut. We’re trying to build a hut here.”
Benson said that this project was unanimously approved by the Opelika Planning Commission. The organization hopes to have the project complete and ready to open by the end of July.
“It’s a great neighborhood where it is. We know so many people in this community that we don’t mind saying that we need help,” Benson said.
Ham agreed, saying many people in the community have reached out and offered to do whatever they can to help make this project a success.
“We appreciate the generosity of this community. If there’s a silver lining behind having all these homeless people, that most of us didn’t know about, here it is,” he said. “The silver lining is how generous this affluent community is, and we love giving to people who can’t help themselves.”
Causey said Brittany is exactly the kind of person this project is geared toward — a woman who is actively trying to improve her life.
“I know that being honest has worked for me,” Brittany said. “It’s way better than the decision I made before. I just try to also give back to people what I want in return.”
According to Causey, Brittany’s son will be able to visit and stay with his mother on weekends. The transitional-housing project has given Brittany hope for the future.
“I was surprised there were programs like this,” Brittany said. “I didn’t even know that people cared. I was amazed, really, that people reach out to somebody else like that.”
For more information on One Voice Shelter Coalition and the Northridge temporary housing project, visit ovscleecounty.org.