Homelessness has many causes, but one near-universal effect: hopelessness. But thanks to a unique partnership with a local shelter, Birmingham, Ala., Local 136 is tackling the issue in an innovative way, offering hope to a portion of the city’s homeless population in the form of training, jobs and a crash course in union solidarity.
“Every single one of us has made a mistake in our lives,” said Matt Dudley, director of Local 136’s Joint Apprenticeship Training Center. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity for us to give back to our community.”
This philosophy helped the local get connected with the Brother Bryan Mission, a 65-bed shelter for homeless men that’s celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, located near Birmingham’s Civil Rights District.
“Although the homeless or the at-risk population of Alabama may not be the ideal recruiting ground for some places, we see these folks as people that just need a hand,” Dudley said.
One of the things that made the Brother Bryan Mission especially attractive to Local 136 Business Manager Bill Blackman was the special attention given to those who are also struggling with addiction.
“If you know anyone that’s homeless, that’s a problem,” Blackman said. “Oftentimes, the problem’s not just the homelessness, it’s also what caused it.”
Brother Bryan’s residential recovery and back-to-work programs are designed to address the causes of a person’s homelessness and the barriers standing in the way of their becoming productive again, as well as to provide a temporary place to live until they can make enough money to support a home of their own.
“The mission helps them every step of the way to try to get these men get back on their feet,” Dudley said.
The local works with the mission’s staff to find candidates at the shelter who might be interested in learning new electrical trade skills, potentially putting them on their way toward a meaningful career as they recover from their addictions.
“We have so much work in our pipeline, we sometimes have trouble finding enough people, so we recruit heavily,” Dudley said. In that regard, working with the Brother Bryan Mission is a win-win.
The mission’s program director, Brian Keen, vets candidates before referring them to the local, Blackman said. “Then, they go through the normal approval process to get accepted into the apprenticeship,” he said. “We’ve gotten some really good guys going through.”
Not every candidate has worked out, Blackman said. “But the ones that have show what the IBEW is all about,” he said. “They want that second chance real bad.”
One of the local’s most successful examples is apprentice John Hancock.
“I had a problem with alcohol, and it led me to a series of events that I wound up being incarcerated,” Hancock said. “That moment when I got out of jail, I was homeless, didn’t have anywhere to go.”
He headed to the Brother Bryan Mission. “I knew I had to get somewhere that could help me get my life straightened out so I could become a productive member of society again and get on with my life,” Hancock said. “I had a friend who was a counselor there. He told me about the IBEW and set things up with Matt.”
The now-fourth-year apprentice said he was glad an opportunity like this presented itself. “I would have been too intimidated to apply on my own,” he said.
“Most locals try to help give back to their communities,” Dudley said. “We have a very philanthropic attitude, too, and we’re always trying to break down barriers to electrical work.”
“We were able to put John on jobs that were just blocks away from the mission, where he was living at the time,” Blackman said. “He would walk or ride his bicycle—whatever it took—to get to that job every day. That’s how dedicated he was to turning his life around.”
It wasn’t long before Hancock had made enough money through his apprenticeship to buy a vehicle of his own, Blackman said.
“It’s a lot of people to help you, in the IBEW and at the mission,” said Hancock, who said he might like to become a traveler after he tops out. “That’s really who the success story is. I’m just a product of what they’re doing.
“It’s been a long road,” he said. “They’ve guided me and held my hand the whole entire way.”
“A great thing about working with Brother Bryan’s is that they’re not just giving these men a handout,” said Business Manager Blackman. “The IBEW needs qualified electricians; these men need opportunity and someone to believe in them.
“When we can make that work for everyone, we’re able to change lives,” he said.
“It makes me very proud to see Local 136 making a difference, not only in the community but in people’s lives as well,” said Fifth District International Vice President Brian K. Thompson. “One of the objectives of the IBEW is ‘to seek a higher standard of living.’ To me, that statement not only applies on the job but also in the community. The fact that Local 136 and other locals in this district create outreach programs like this in their communities lets people know what the IBEW stands for and who our brothers and sisters really are.”
Learn more about the Brother Bryan Mission at bbmission.com.