It's bitterly cold and almost 11 p.m. when the white van stops under the highway bridge in South Jackson. Fifty yards from the road, there's a small campsite lit by the flames rising from an oil drum. For nearly 20 years, David "Twin" Womack has lived here, with a tent, a sleeping bag and a pair of shopping carts that he used to use to collect aluminum cans in the daytime.
Every Wednesday night, members of the Jackson Street Ministry, a joint project of several metro area churches, visit Twin at this camp, and he has been expecting them. When the group arrives, he is burning pants and sweaters in the barrel. Two other men are sleeping next to the barrel in layers of blankets. One, Ricky, sits up to greet us. Malt liquor bottles are piled on another side of the barrel. Twin stands up and puts on a prosthesis. He lost his right leg two years ago in a hit-and-run as he was trying to cross the street.
"Is your leg clean?" scolds Kelli Irby, a fitness instructor from Madison. She and another Street Ministry member, Mike England, recently took it from him while a knot on his knee healed.
A self-confessed "beer-holic," Twin laps up the attention, posing for pictures and making jokes. He is eager to tell his story and delivers it quickly, broken by wheezing that is a symptom of his emphysema.
Born in Hazlehurst, Twin, 50, moved to Jackson in 1975. He studied auto mechanics at Utica Junior College, now Hinds Community College, but alcohol and crack cocaine left him on the streets, where he has lived for most of the past 26 years. He spent four years in jail for burglary, getting out in 2002. While he was in prison, his twin brother, Daniel, had two children by Twin's wife. Daniel died of lupus two years ago.
"Since I've been back out, the only thing they'll catch me with is an open container or public drunkenness," Twin says.
He asks Irby about a pair of reading glasses she gave to "Red," another homeless man in the area. He needs his own pair, he says. Irby hands him hers and asks him to read the label on a pair of gloves.
"Fifteen-ninety-nine," Twin says.
"You need a 2.5," Irby tells him. "You're good to go."
As before, the group leaves several bags of sandwiches for the men and prays with them. Then they board the van, ready to drive home.
Prayers and Sandwiches
The members of the Jackson Street Ministry have homes in Ridgeland, in Madison and Rankin County. Some live in Jackson, too. Every Wednesday night, they visit the homeless in Jackson, traveling in two white vans, dispensing prayers and sandwiches in brown paper bags.
The group stops first in the parking lot of the Opportunity Center, a day shelter run by Stewpot Community Services, where they unload boxes of food. Ordinarily, there might be 40 or 50 people waiting, but it's close to freezing the night that I join them, and there are about ten people.
The two vans take separate routes through the city. I hop in one with England, an affable 60-year-old with glasses and a white goatee, a baseball cap pulled low over his head in the cold.
England joined the Street Ministry six months ago, when another member of Jackson's Trinity Presbyterian Church told him about it. The work bears a special significance for him, as he spent two years homeless himself. A native of Jackson, he started drinking at 14. Disowned by his family, he found work as a riverboat engineer in Greenville, but his drinking and, later, drug use ruined a burgeoning career.
"Those last couple years, I discovered cocaine," England says. "It took me places I'd never been before. I had a pretty sizeable 401(k) that cocaine got."
England lived in a car in the woods, alone with his paranoia, for two years before an out-of-body experience in 1989 compelled him to get help. Now, England works as chief engineer for the Fairfield Marriott and lives in Northeast Jackson, in his father's old home.
"Twenty years sober, and he put me back in his will," England explains.
Routes to the Street
The last official count of homeless in the city, conducted over one day in January 2009, found 695 homeless people living in Jackson. It is nearly impossible to get an accurate count, though, and the city's homeless program coordinator Heather Ivery says that a more accurate estimate would include an additional 100 people in shelters or simply out of sight. The homeless are hard to reach, and the population is inherently transient, with people moving in and out of homelessness as they find permanent shelter, receive medical treatment or become incarcerated.
Research by the Urban Institute—including, most recently a 2009 study—has consistently found that the primary cause of homelessness—aside from aggravating factors like mental illness, addiction and health costs—is a lack of affordable housing. The ongoing economic recession has exacerbated that need in Jackson, which has never had a glut of quality affordable housing.
"When I have someone who gets a $600 disability or Social Security check, and we have to find them somewhere decent and affordable to live, their entire check is gone," Ivery says. "They still have to pay their utilities and go to Stewpot for food. They still have a roof over their head, but it's taking everything they have to do that."
Whatever the initial cause, homelessness is often intertwined with other problems, especially mental illness. Drug and alcohol addiction are often the result of self-medication for mental illness, England says. Getting mental-health treatment is difficult, even for those with more resources, England knows. His wife suffered from bipolar disorder, and he had to pursue lengthy civil commitment proceedings to get her institutionalized.
"These people that live on the street—who's going to push them into a home?" England asks.
Prayer and Sandwiches
The Street Ministry van heads to South Jackson, down Terry Road, stopping under highway overpasses and in front of gas stations. We stop on a wooded access road where a woman is sitting in a gray sedan. She opens the passenger's door as the group approaches. They clasp hands with her, and she bows her head, the overhead light from her car illuminating her gray hair.
A path winds roughly 30 yards downhill through the woods to a permanent-looking camp. This is the home of "Cowboy." Tonight, though, Cowboy is not in the mood to play host and stays in a tent that he's draped with a blue plastic tarp. Clothes, some on hangers, hang from clotheslines strung between thin saplings. There's a fire going, ringed by cinderblocks, but it's wet and putting off more smoke than heat. There's a half-finished bottle of Cobra Malt Liquor and a can of Steel Reserve sitting on a bucket near the fire. Two of Cowboy's campmates are standing near the fire, and they pray with the group.
Like most people the Street Ministry visits, the residents of this camp are wary of outside attention and do not want to share their names with reporters.
"Everything we do is predicated on establishing a bit of a relationship first," Malcolm Woody tells me later. "Until trust is established, it's really hard to get it going on. They're on guard for the most part."
Woody, 43, has led the Jackson Street Ministry for two years. He fell into the work unexpectedly, feeling a compulsion.
"It's hard to quantify that," Woody says. "It had salt. It tasted right."
A Part of the Neighborhood
The Jackson Street Ministry started six ago at Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison but now draws members from several metro area churches. The project has moved along with the homeless population, as downtown development pushes them further west and south. The group started feeding the homeless at the city bus depot on Mill Street. The bus depot was an ideal location, Woody says, because it was centralized and provided shelter from the weather. The group then moved to Smith Park, but two years ago Jackson police began running homeless out of the park, and the feeding program moved to Farish Street. Last year, the program started delivering further west, at Poindexter Park and the Opportunity Center.
Before its re-development, Jackson's downtown offered shelter and open park space to the city's homeless. When tenants and investment move in, however, the homeless often move out. That migration is partly the result of law enforcement. The Jackson Police Department originally formed its mobile precinct, Precinct 5, to address crime downtown. As part of its policing, the precinct enforced city ordinances that prohibited homeless people from loitering in Smith Park after dark or from panhandling downtown.
Occasionally, though, police officers would treat homelessness itself as a crime, telling homeless people—or those who looked homeless—that they could not sit in Smith Park in the daytime and otherwise harrassing them. Complaints from homeless people led the Mississippi ACLU in March 2009 to contact JPD and urge restraint on the part of its officers.
Since then, the pressure has been soft more than forceful: Last year, Downtown Jackson Partners hired a team of "ambassadors" from the security company Block by Block, outfitted with bright yellow shirts, to conduct clean-up and low-level security patrols. DJP Associate Director John Gomez believes downtown businesses have begun to see the value of a more cooperative approach to dealing with homelessness.
"With all the social-service providers around downtown, you have to figure out a way to coexist, or it becomes a conflict," Gomez says. "I think now people are more open to the idea of trying to find ways to help each other out."
Still, Downtown Jackson Partners' emphasis on making residents and visitors feel safe from unwanted contact with the homeless is clear. In a Jan. 25 post on Downtown Jackson Partners' blog, Jackson NOW!, Downtown Jackson Partners President Ben Allen warned about a new cohort of "aggressive" panhandlers who were frequenting the stretch of Capitol Street near the newly re-opened King Edward Hotel.
"To be sure, we know most of our 'local homeless population,'" Allen wrote. "They are for the most part harmless, kind individuals with sets of circumstances many of us can't fully appreciate. A brand new group, however, has arrived, and (is) not known (nor) are we familiar with them. They can be worrisome and unsettling."
This new group is probably not homeless, Ivery said. After dark, especially in the winter, most homeless would seek shelter, not panhandle downtown.
By any measure, Raymond Quarles would qualify as part of downtown's local homeless population, except that he's not currently homeless. Quarles, 48, has lived in and out of homelessness around the downtown area since 2005, but he currently rents a room on Church Street.
"Raymond was just a little different," says Michael Rejebian, a consultant who lives downtown. "Raymond has a good feel about how to develop relationships being a homeless person."
Quarles does not have regular telephone access, yet, so Rejebian arranged for him to meet me on a rainy Monday afternoon recently. Raymond arrived clutching a plastic bag—lunch from Two Sisters Kitchen, donated from another downtown resident. We sat in the lobby of the Plaza Building on Congress and Amite streets, where Rejebian lives. As we spoke, Quarles broke the conversation periodically to greet anyone passing through.
A tall, thin man prone to biblical turns of phrase, Quarles is especially familiar to residents of the Plaza, where he has offered to wash cars for money since arriving. Because of the city's anti-panhandling ordinance, Raymond had difficulty earning the trust of residents, police and others downtown at first. He estimates that he has been arrested between six and eight times for soliciting.
"From day one, when I came to Jackson, I had a bucket," Quarles says. "I always tried to clean somebody's car, or clean up around their business. I always worked, earned my wages by the sweat of my brow."
Before arriving at the Greyhound bus terminal in 2005 without a place to live, Quarles had lived in Brookhaven. He worked at a body shop until he got married and, feeling the pressure to earn more, took a job with an offshore oil operation. He started as a roustabout and made his way to floor hand.
"One morning, a cable line broke, wrapped around a rail, and the rail hit me," Quarles says. "It knocked me about six feet in the air up against another railing that was going over the rig into the ocean."
The impact ruined two vertebrae in his lower back. He lost his job and his marriage. Almost immediately after his divorce, his mother died, on Christmas Day 2004.
"When I'd gotten her buried, it took everything I had," Quarles say. "I didn't have no more means, couldn't pay no bills. So I thought I could find some place to sleep here in Jackson."
He spent six months in abandoned buildings on the west side of Gallatin Street and on Farish Street. But those buildings were dangerous places.
"They would kill you over there— other folks, other people on the street, poverty," Quarles says. "Then you've got drug dealers over there, and they're just about like the ones living in poverty, just peons out there trying to make a dollar to pay their bills. They end up killing somebody about six or 12 dollars."
Beyond violence, there were the dangers of accidents and neglect. During cold months, homeless people regularly light fires in abandoned buildings to keep themselves warm. This year, a 21-year-old homeless man, Jeremy Smith, died in a Jan. 17 fire that destroyed an abandoned warehouse on Capitol and Lemon streets. It took Jackson firefighters nearly two weeks to discover Smith's body in the rubble.
Quarles took up residence behind St. Peter's Cathedral on West Street. With the tacit blessing of the church's rector Rev. Jeffrey Waldrep, Quarles lived there for almost two years, cleaning up the church grounds and keeping an eye on it at night.
Rejebian moved downtown in 2008, and he met Raymond soon afterward, at a neighborhood party one Thursday night. Plaza residents had organized a small gathering with live music outdoors.
"Raymond stopped by, and he started singing gospel songs," Rejebian told me. "It just made an impression on everybody, that this was someone special."
Rejebian and other downtown residents began to pay Quarles to wash their cars and occasionally offered him money, when they felt they could. Quarles reciprocated, watching out for his new friends. He warned downtown residents this fall when another, mentally unstable homeless man shattered a window at Tye's Restaurant.
"Raymond knew right off the bat," Rejebian says. "He even told us before it happened, this person is not 'one of us,' so to speak."
Quarles also began doing the same with the police and downtown security, informing them when he saw unusual behavior in the area.
"Raymond also has a motivation doing that, because he doesn't want to be lumped in with those people who are causing trouble, who are breaking the law," Rejebian says. "What you realize is that there is a certain core of homeless folks who are not here to cause trouble, that are certainly not here as a criminal element. They're just here to survive. They want to be part of the neighborhood."
At their Christmas party this year, the Plaza residents collected money for Quarles and presented it to him with a new camouflage-patterned bucket for his car-cleaning supplies. "I would lay my life down for them," Quarles says. "The love that they showed me, it's not an amount of money that could repay it."
On the individual level, giving money to the homeless can be the foundation for a fuller relationship, as it was for Quarles and Rejebian, but more often, it's a superficial exchange, unlikely to improve anything beyond the giver's self-regard.
"When it comes to individual people, I never give money to people asking," Ivery says. "I carry around snacks in my car, because I run into people a lot. If I'm near a restaurant and I feel compelled, I'll buy them something, but that's often not what they want."
On a larger scale, though, addressing homelessness in Jackson, as in every city, requires money.
As west Jackson businessman Bill Cooley sees it, homelessness may be a problem requiring money to solve, but solving homelessness can actually bring money to the city.
Cooley is a former professor of management at Jackson State University who now fosters small-business development in west Jackson through his Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Long focused on the revitalization of west Jackson businesses, Cooley became increasingly aware of homelessness and its effects on economic development as downtown Jackson's rebirth coincided with a migration of the homeless population westward.
Small businesses like Koinonia Coffee House cannot thrive in the middle of a large transient population like the one clustered around Stewpot Community Services, Gateway Rescue Mission and the Opportunity Center, he realized.
"We can never get small businesses in west Jackson without managing the homeless population," Cooley said.
A former professor of management at Jackson State University, Cooley began thinking about the homeless population in Jackson a couple years ago. What he realized was that "it wasn't a west Jackson problem; it was a major issue that impacts institutions all over the city."
"There are a large number of stakeholders who should be concerned," he said.
Jackson's homeless population places strain on emergency rooms, on city government, on businesses and on law enforcement. Why couldn't representatives of every group help coordinate their efforts? Cooley wondered.
Cooley enlisted the help of Jason Goree, a young business developer he has mentored, to contact the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the Jackson Medical Mall and Downtown Jackson Partners. Out of conversations with these groups, an idea is emerging for a permanent housing facility, complete with a health clinic, located near the existing network of services in west Jackson around Capitol Street and Poindexter Park.
Unlike transitional housing or shelters, permanent housing programs have no rigid system of deadlines and goals to meet. Occupants do not have to quit using drugs or alchohol immediately; they just cannot use them in the building. They take life-skills classes, but there is no deadline for self-sufficiency looming ahead for participants. As a result, permanent housing frees up homeless participants to work on building relationships that are more likely to ensure that they stay employed and healthy.
Permanent housing is an element of the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness, which it adopted in 2006. The plan is part of a general trend in the United States during the 2000s, toward long-term strategies to address homelessness. In the 1980s and 1990s, when homeless populations across the country increased dramatically, cities responded by creating emergency shelters and temporary housing. More recently, though, homeless experts and groups like the National Alliance to End Homelessness have advocated an approach that emphasizes permanent housing options along with rapid re-housing efforts.
Cooley and Goree have begun to enlist the help and input of Ivery and other city officials. Cooley thinks that the city should be ready to apply for a permanent housing grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this spring.
The city is also preparing to conduct a review of progress on its 10-year homelessness plan, Ivery says. That review will include a particular focus on permanent housing.
"I love Heather Ivery, but to us, her goal of ending homelessness—I don't know that you can do that," Street Ministry leader Malcolm Woody tells me. "Let's say that you tried, that you round them all up and institutionalize them all. That would end homelessness—they'd all have a roof over their heads—but it would also cede their freedom."
The Street Ministry's approach is so granular, so individually focused, that it forgoes the policy or politics of homelessness entirely. From this perspective , homelessness isn't the problem to be solved, so much as the suffering and isolation that so often accompany it. As Woody sees it, the routes that lead to homelessness are so varied that broad policy solutions cannot succeed.
"There's so much gray area," Woody says. "There's a bazillion reasons that a guy or a lady goes homeless. You can't put them all in the same pile."
While focused on individual relationships, Woody's group does provide material help, though. For the homeless people they meet who sincerely want to shake addiction, the Street Ministry will sometimes pay $50 for a bus ticket to send them to Mercy House, a Mobile, Ala.-based treatment center. If that first round of treatment is successful, Broadmoor and other churches will commit more money to send them to Teen Challenge, a yearlong, evangelical Christian recovery program that, contrary to its name, serves people of all ages.
Indeed, the Street Ministry's focus on building trust over the long term is an essential part of reaching the chronically homeless, Ivery says.
"For a lot of our chronically homeless, it becomes a lifestyle," Ivery says. "You can't walk up to somebody and say, 'Let me provide you everything you need.' Without that support, that relationship-building, you close off to folks."
Yet, paradoxically, that kind of long-term commitment often seems more expensive to potential benefactors than a generous donation. Initiatives like the permanent housing project Cooley and Goree are proposing are effective precisely because they allow time for the previously homeless to develop positive relationships.
'This Is My Home'
Two weeks later, Twin is subdued, sitting on a mattress. He has a large supply of firewood, thick branches that England delivered to him earlier that day. He still seems grateful for visitors, but less for the audience and more for the company. After our last visit, he tells us, Ricky, his campmate, was attacked and stabbed six times. Twin pulls back the blankets on Ricky's bed to reveal the mattress, with dark bloodstains on the blue plastic.
"Been trying to burn everything I could that had blood on it," Twin tells us—quilts, clothing. Still, he tells us, "I'm sleeping in this bed for a reason. He's my partner."
Ricky's attackers mistook him for "Red," a man who lived across the road, in the narrow space between the overpass and a concrete embankment. Red owed them money, Twin thinks. Now Red has fled to Alabama, and Ricky, after four days in the hospital, is staying with family in Magee.
"That night, Rick called to me, (but) I had my leg off, so I couldn't get to him," he says.
Twin stayed with Ricky while he was at the UMMC, and the solitude back at his camp has him depressed. Life under this bridge is hard, he admits.
"What God wants me to do, I can't find out," he says. "I've helped more people than I've helped myself."
Twin plays protector in the area, welcoming anyone to sleep at his camp and keeping any eye on the prostitutes in the neighborhood. He has thought about helping himself before, though, Woody says.
"At one point, Twin was all fired up and ready to go (to rehab)," Woody said. "We were excited. We told him we were going to get him on that bus. Then the next day, he doesn't show up."
On March 19, Twin has a court hearing in Magee. He's been denied repeatedly for Social Security disability payments, and Mike England is determined to take him this time. But England worries that a steady income alone won't get Twin out of his campsite.
"My goal is to get him convinced to go to treatment," England says. "Money is not good for us. When you're still drinking and using, if somebody gives you an income, you'll just keep doing the same thing."
Twin, for his part, seems ambivalent about leaving. He's lived under this bridge for years—through snow, through summer, through snakes. During hot months, he has rigged an electric fan in his tent, powered by a car battery. For a while he had a waterbed, which he found on the street, patched, filled and crammed in his tent.
"This right here is a blessing, because no shelter—Brumfield House, Gateway, or Salvation Army—when you're kicked out at 5 in the morning, you're back on the streets again," he says. "You come back, your stuff could've been broken into. That's why I sleep out here. I can get up when I feel ready all the time. This is my home."
He points across a drainage ditch.
"Over there, across the creek—I stayed there seven years. I've stayed here 10."
He points in the opposite direction. Across the road, there's a steep concrete embankment leading up to the highway bridge. When he tries to climb it now, he has to use his hands for balance. Where the embankment meets the overpass, there's a small flat space strewn with bottles that amplifies, like a resonating chamber, the thundering cars and trucks overhead.
"My old rocking chair is still up there," he says. "I have a heart here."
Folks, a friend of mine from high school just send me this FB message. This is so wonderful, and it's why we do this crazy journalism thing. ;-)
Thank you to you all for what you do.
Donna, just wanted you to know that after reading most of the article about the homeless, etc., I was inspired to send them a donation today. I had been holding some money that we donate from my husbands bonus each year. Now I feel at peace about that. Thank you for writing that or whoever wrote it.