By: Javacia Harris Bowser
Gun violence and homelessness are two of the greatest social problems the City of Birmingham and surrounding areas are facing right now. Issues like these can seem so big that some people might feel that there’s nothing they can do about it. But Albert Schweitzer Fellows Trinity Houston and Madison Jeziorski are determined to make a difference.
When Trinity Houston moved to Birmingham for school, the Oxford, Alabama native was shocked by the amount of gun violence in the city. But instead of writing off Birmingham and surrounding areas, Trinity wanted to do her part to help adolescents affected by gun-related crime.
For her Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project, Trinity is conducting an in-school program for 7th and 8th graders at Tarrant High School (which serves 7th through 12th grade) that seeks to address the effects of gun violence on mental health.
“A lot of the times, especially in minority communities, we just don’t have enough resources available to discuss mental health and discuss how to really navigate things like gun violence and trauma and coping with loss,” Trinity says.
She wanted to work with 13 and 14-year-old because she feels this is a pivotal age.
“They’re kind of in this transition period,” she says. “They’re getting older and they’re starting to understand a lot more of what’s going on in the world. And I think that a lot of them may start experiencing things like depression and anxiety and just don’t know exactly how to deal with it.”
Trinity, who’s a part of the MD/Master of Public Health program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has partnered with Impact Family Counseling to develop a curriculum of interactive sessions designed to teach students healthy coping mechanisms, anger-management, conflict-resolution skills, and effective self-care practices. She also hopes the program will help students deal with peer pressure and better cope with trauma and loss.
“I really just wanted to focus on fostering mental and emotional development and emphasize good decision making and hopefully, that’ll play a role in maybe reducing some of the gun violence that we’re seeing in Birmingham, especially in the younger community,” she says. “What I keep telling myself is as long as it helped at least one person, I’m okay with that.”
Madison Jeziorski has been passionate about addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness since she was a student at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. It was there that she took a class on poverty and homelessness.
“The professor was amazing, and he really brought to my attention a lot of issues that, as somebody who comes from a family that’s very well off, I didn’t think about that often,” Madison says. “I got the opportunity to interact with people that have experienced homelessness or currently are, and it really just stuck with me.”
So when Madison had the opportunity to work with One Roof, the coordinating agency for continuum of care for the unhoused of Central Alabama for her Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project, she jumped at the chance.
In summer of 2022, Madison conducted interviews with citizens who used the Safe Sleep Area units that were developed for people displaced by The World Games.
Her goal was to determine how likely people were to use the units and if they felt safe doing so.
Madison’s data is being used to help with the development of Home for All, a safe sleep pilot program by the City of Birmingham designed to provide safe sleeping alternatives to unhoused residents through micro-shelters. Home for All is a community-wide partnership that will include sleeping units as well as a number of wraparound services.
One of the most memorable lessons from that poverty and homelessness class, she says, was realizing that homelessness intersects with every other part of society and impacts every facet of a person’s life.
“The difficulty of experiencing homelessness is not just, I don’t have a bed to sleep in tonight,” Madison says. “The difficulties just compound and multiply and become infinitely more complex and intersect and you can think you’ve solved one problem, but then there’s another one that’s always waiting right around the corner.”
Madison, a second-year student at UAB’s Heersink School of Medicine, believes this project has taught her how to have meaningful conversations with people from a variety of backgrounds – an invaluable skill for any medical professional – and the importance of simply giving people the benefit of the doubt.
“Part of the reason that I got involved in ASF in the first place is that I would like to make sure that in whatever practice of medical care I do, I’m focusing on the social determinants of health and not just who’s coming into my office that day,” Madison says.
Madison hopes that more people will find ways to get involved in the efforts of groups like One Roof.
“The people that are experiencing homelessness are just as much a part of Birmingham as the person who has owned their own home in Highland Park for their entire lives,” she says. And Madison believes that helping the homeless community helps the whole community.
“The more access to resources and opportunities that people experiencing homelessness have, ideally, hopefully, we can decrease homelessness in Birmingham,” Madison says. “That’s the end goal of this. The end goal is not to put people in these temporary shelters for the rest of their lives. And I think eradicating homelessness is something that we should all be supportive of and would benefit our community and our healthcare system overall.”