Cathy Reisenwitz and Rob Clark are a couple seeking to perform what is likely perceived to be a tall task: eliminate homelessness in Huntsville by 2026.
APR spoke to Reisenwitz and Clark about their inspiration for this undertaking, how they seek to accomplish their goal and what is driving homelessness in Huntsville.
The pair founded the Huntsville New Liberals organization in June and created a podcast called “Housing for Huntsvillians” in August.
Huntsville’s homeless population is estimated to be about 600, according to a point-in-time summary from January, but this is likely an undercount. The issue of homelessness is not a visible problem yet in Huntsville, hence why data is very scarce and limited. But Reisenwitz says she notices it is growing and going to become a bigger problem if it is not addressed properly over the upcoming years.
Reisenwitz was raised in Huntsville and lived in San Francisco for four years. During her time in San Francisco, Reisenwitz said she witnessed the most, “severe, dehumanizing forms of homelessness.” After moving back to Huntsville in 2022, Reisenwitz noticed that the city had more homelessness than when she was growing up and was repeating the same mistakes that led to San Francisco’s housing problem.
Reisenwitz said that Huntsville is bringing in a lot of new citizens but is not building new homes while housing costs are steadily growing in Huntsville.
“We’re bringing in a lot of new people but we’re not building a lot of new homes,” Reisenwitz stated. ”Average housing costs are skyrocketing. People are getting displaced out of the city and out of their homes into homelessness. And we need to make different decisions, or we’re going to end up where San Francisco is now…homelessness results, first and foremost, from a lack of affordable housing. And so we’ve got to solve that problem if we’re going to solve homelessness. And homelessness is a policy choice. We don’t have to have homelessness.”
Clark also is originally from Huntsville but moved to Chattanooga in 2015, eventually returning in 2020. Clark said that it was shocking to see how much the cost of an apartment complex he lived in rose during the time he left Huntsville.
“It was like $650 a month for a studio there,” Clark said. “Same studio when I got back was over $1,000. Just the rapid increase for housing demand and the price here has been insane.”
Clark and Reisenwitz are not pretending to have all the answers as they just started this project 5 months ago, however, one solution is obvious: make more homes available and make them affordable.
Several studies and organizations have found that the biggest issue causing homelessness and preventing people from obtaining housing is the cost. Since 1970, wages have stagnated compared to the amount of production in America. Also, over that time rent and housing costs have only continued to increase leading to problems of affordability for many would-be buyers or renters.
A recent study by the Benioff Homeless Housing Initiative found that high housing costs and low income were major variables that contributed to homelessness.
The pair said that overall Huntsville’s citizenry has been very receptive to solving homelessness but the impediment is politics and housing being a means of wealth accumulation.
“Housing cannot be both a vehicle for wealth generation and broadly affordable at the same time,” Reisenwitz said. “What we do need to do is not make owning a piece of property, super profitable.”
Reisenwitz believes a policy solution is to legalize and build smaller, denser homes. The pair also believe it is in the best interest of the community to solve the problem because homelessness affects the economy, environment and the individuals affected by it, which are also often children.
Federal officials revealed Friday that homelessness in America was up 12 percent and was at the highest level reported since 2007 when the country began tracking the figure.
Anti-homelessness bills in Alabama have grown over the recent years. Just this past legislative session in 2023 a bill criminalizing panhandling was signed into law further targeting the homeless population in the state advocates have argued.
Reisenwitz and Clark are in the process of coalition building around the goal of eliminating homelessness by 2026. They are policy-oriented and are open to working and speaking with individuals across ideological lines.
Their main focus is continuing to investigate homelessness in Huntsville and creating a solution that is effective for the community.