BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Moments before Birmingham announced it would open the BJCC as a warming station for at least two nights this week, a city official confirmed that no direct outreach is taking place to promote it.
On Wednesday night, a public information officer for Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office announced via email the opening of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex as a warming station on Thursday and Friday nights. Moments before, Don Lupo, the city’s operations manager, said in an interview with CBS 42 that no direct outreach to promote the warming center was taking place.
“We reach out to one group,” Lupo said, referring to One Roof, a local homeless advocacy group, “which is the umbrella organization for all the homeless providers, and they get the word out.”
Erica “Star” Robbins, the founder of Be a Blessing Birmingham, which provides aid to people facing homelessness, said that the city should make a concerted effort to directly inform those in need about the warming station and ensure they have a way to the site.
“Not only should it be promoted, but we should be offering transportation to the elderly and disabled citizens in our neighborhoods,” Robbins said.
The official announcement of the BJCC’s opening as a warming station comes just days after the city faced criticism when it did not open Boutwell Auditorium Sunday as snow fell across the Magic City.
According to city officials, Boutwell Auditorium was “unavailable” as a warming center that day.
A joint statement by Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and One Roof Executive Director Michelle Farley issued Monday said the city instead provided supplies to local shelters.
“The City of Birmingham and One Roof connected in advance of this weekend’s weather event,” the statement read. “Because the Boutwell Auditorium was unavailable, the city was able to offer support in the form of cots, food, and masks/PPE to area providers so that the shelters could accommodate as many people as safely possible.”
Lupo resisted providing a reason for the Boutwell being unavailable on Sunday. When pressed, the longtime city employee said “there was a contract for the building,” although he would not confirm the parties involved in the agreement.
Rock City Birmingham held a church service at the downtown venue beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday, according to its Facebook page. A schedule on Boutwell’s website said the auditorium was booked by the church between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
That morning, the Church of the Highlands also held a service, theirs at the BJCC, according to their website.
Lupo said that Boutwell, the BJCC, and Parker High School are the three venues the city looks to when opening a warming station.
On Wednesday, Birmingham City School Board President Jason Meadows said Parker High School has been made available to the city as a warming station.
“Dr. Sullivan has been in conversation with the mayor and has made Parker available,” Meadows said.
Meadows said he was unsure whether conversations about making Parker High a warming center took place before Sunday night. He also told CBS 42 he could not confirm whether Parker was available on Sunday night.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Meadows said.
Asked if booking Boutwell or BJCC during the day would prevent the city from running a warming station at night, Lupo referred questions to the city’s legal department.
Policies regarding when warming centers open vary from city to city. Some cities open warming centers each day the temperature falls below freezing. Others use more complex formulas for when they should open, taking into account factors like precipitation and wind.
Lupo outlined Birmingham’s policy on warming stations.
“When the temperatures fall below 32 (degrees) on consecutive nights and when the space is available, we attempt to do a warming station,” he said.
In its announcement that the BJCC will open on Thursday and Friday, the city said a warming station will be open on Monday and Tuesday as well “if the current forecast of freezing temperatures holds.”
Asked about Saturday and Sunday nights, Lupo said he does not expect temperatures to fall low enough to warrant a warming station under the city’s policy.
Lupo confirmed that city and BJCC officials met on Wednesday to discuss the issue. He would not say whether the Birmingham Squadron game scheduled to take place Saturday night was discussed at that meeting, which was closed to the public.
“The temperatures won’t fall below freezing,” he said instead.
Robbins said that the city’s lack of direct outreach regarding the warming stations is the sign of a systemic problem.
“I’m extremely disappointed with the lack of concern for the wellbeing of everyone in our 99 neighborhoods,” she said. “Housed or unhoused, they matter.”
As for Thursday and Friday, the BJCC’s South Exhibition Hall will be open as a warming center from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. on Thursday and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, according to the city.