Firehouse Ministries Loses City Money in Racially Charged Dispute
Tensions continued through the week between a Birmingham City Council member and Mayor Randall Woodfin over the council’s Tuesday decision not to contribute $1 million over five years to the Firehouse Ministries Homeless Shelter.
That proposal is no longer on the table; the council voted it down at its Oct. 23 meeting. But Woodfin and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt continued to trade barbs in one of the most high-profile public disagreements between the mayor and council since Woodfin took office nearly a year ago.
The proposed funding agreement would have given $1 million over five years to the Firehouse’s parent company, Cooperative Downtown Ministries, to build a new 112-bed facility downtown. The contribution would have accounted for roughly one-fifth of the Firehouse’s $6 million capital campaign.
At Oct. 23’s council meeting, discussion of the proposal quickly devolved into open hostility, with Woodfin vigorously defending the Firehouse against skeptical council members Hoyt, Lashunda Scales, Sheila Tyson and John Hilliard. Those four would ultimately vote against the proposal, resulting in a tie, meaning that the item failed.
In the discussion that took place before the vote, opponents taking aim at the Firehouse for a list of reasons, many of them racial. Amid other critiques of Woodfin’s performance as mayor, many of which were only tangentially related to the matter at hand, Scales said she was “bothered” that Firehouse Executive Director Anne Rygiel was white, while the majority of homeless people served by the Firehouse are black. She also said she had received calls alleging that the shelter was racially discriminatory, something echoed later in the discussion by Tyson.
Tyson claimed she received “over 215 calls” from Firehouse employees who said that the shelter discriminates against black patrons. White patrons were given priority in receiving housing, she said, and were given better service than black patrons. “You let the blacks sleep on the floor. You give the whites cots,” Tyson said she had been told. “You give the whites fresh food and give blacks the old food.”
Tyson did not give Rygiel a chance to address those allegations during the meeting. “I don’t want to hear no response,” she said. “I don’t need it.”
But after the meeting Rygiel flatly denied the claims. People are selected for housing through a needs assessment from an independent agency, she said, and patrons received uniform service regardless of race. “Everyone gets served the same food… You go through a line, and everyone gets the same thing.”
Hoyt, meanwhile, took issue with the fact that other nonprofits allocated money in the FY 2019 budget had not yet received their funding.
“We have a mayor who has not advocated for other nonprofits as he has for you all,” he said, listing off nonprofits in the budget he said had not yet received their allocated funding. “Hell, you haven’t even addressed these (organizations) here!” He held up a copy of the budget. “You’re not fair!”
Woodfin described Hoyt’s statement as a “mischaracterization.” He accused Hoyt of unsuccessfully applying for a job at the Firehouse Shelter, which Hoyt called “the biggest lie you have ever told.” Hoyt had applied for a job at the Jimmie Hale Mission, he said, but not the Firehouse. Woodfin later apologized to Hoyt for letting his “passion and disappointment” get the better of him.
“The frustration and anger and sadness that I have right now of people wanting to make homelessness an issue that is politically and racially charged … It’s just stupid,” Woodfin said. The nonprofits Hoyt mentioned had not received the money from the budget yet, he said, because “we’re 90 days into the budget … I’m unaware of people who get their money in the first 90 days.”
The FY 2019 budget was not being discussed, Woodfin said; the Firehouse would not start receiving funding until 2020. “Let’s stop pitting nonprofits against each other,” he said.
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After the motion failed, Rygiel indicated that Firehouse would “probably not” ask the city to help fund the project again. But the debate has continued for Woodfin and Hoyt.
“The behavior exhibited during Tuesday’s City Council meeting was beyond disappointing,” Woodfin wrote in a statement released Thursday. “Playing politics with a serious issue like homelessness is unconscionable, especially as temperatures are quickly falling. Making false allegations about a group of people who are committed to serving the poor is shameless.
“The broader issue is about simple respect and civility. We cannot solve real issues we face as a city if we cannot have respectful dialogue without bullying and divisiveness. The people demand more from their leadership during our interactions in council meetings.”
Hoyt fired back with a characteristically long open letter to Woodfin. “Tuesday’s discussion at the Birmingham City Council meeting on funding for a new facility to house the Firehouse Shelter was never about homelessness or about race,” he wrote. “You, as mayor of a city with a storied past of racial division and high poverty inaccurately portrayed this issue to the media, instead of providing clarity and transparency. I am bigger than that.”
Hoyt repeated, without evidence, claims of the Firehouse’s “history of employing discriminative practices,” as well as his argument that other nonprofits have not yet received the funding allocated to them in the FY 2019 budget.
But most of the letter was dedicated to directly attacking Woodfin, taking aim at what he called the mayor’s “inability to communicate and maintain formidable dialogue with the council which you claim you do.”
“Lastly I am far beyond the petty politics, mirrored only by Donald Trump, when you can’t have your way,” he wrote.
Hoyt’s letter, released though the City Council’s official social media accounts, was marked with a disclaimer that it did “not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Birmingham City Council.”
During his campaign in 2017, Woodfin was critical of then-Mayor William Bell’s contentious relationship with the council — which famously turned physical — and promised to prioritize “repairing the broken relationships between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council.”
A year into Woodfin’s term and amid an unusually tumultuous period for the City Council, the atmosphere at City Hall appeared familiar.