Eviction puts focus on homeless issue

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The city’s surprise dismantling Monday of a makeshift homeless camp off South Gloster Street angered some elected officials and sparked calls for compassion by those who say the core problem remains.
“I’m very disappointed in the city’s response to a very difficult situation,” said Ward 3 City Councilman Jim Newell. “This administration has known that problem has existed for three years and we’ve done nothing.”
Newell represents the area in which the camp was located and sits on the city’s Homeless Task Force. He said no one consulted him prior to the eviction, which was carried out by the Tupelo Police Department with support from the mayor’s office.
Said Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis: “I had a problem with the way it was handled. If they were going to abruptly move those people, they should have had a shelter set up. They’ll just be roaming all over the city trying to find another place. We need compassion.”
Not all council members voiced dismay. Council President Fred Pitts said Monday he supports the city’s move.
“The council has been discussing this for months with the mayor,” Pitts said. “With the request from the Hancock Company regarding trespassing and local business’ asking us to do something about it, I am glad we are taking some steps to fix the situation.”
Three of the displaced inhabitants told the Daily Journal on Tuesday they plan to stay in Tupelo and will find other spots to camp. The Salvation Army is off limits, they said, because of its rules.
“You gotta get up at a certain time, you gotta go to bed at a certain time,” said Jimmy “Slim” Miller. “They treat you like a child.”
The Salvation Army requires its residents to stay sober and seek employment daily. It also charges a modest fee for lodgers after they have stayed a certain number of nights.
The agency’s director, Maj. Sue Dorman, acknowledged those rules keep some people out but said they’re necessary to avoid permanent dependency.
“You need to teach them responsibility,” Dorman said. “Somebody could probably open a place for them and not ask for anything in return, but the only thing we ask in return are things that will help them – looking for a job, keeping themselves sober so they can start thinking clearly.”
Someone does need to open a shelter with fewer restrictions, said Woodrow “Bonky” White, who was among those evicted from the camp. At 64 years old, he said he’s nearing retirement age and shouldn’t be forced to look for work.
Whatever the rules, Dorman and others say Tupelo needs additional lodging. The Salvation Army has exceeded its 19-bed capacity every night for more than a year.
Last month, capacity reached 112 percent, Dorman said.
In light of this, the agency wants to convert its storage building into another shelter with an additional 24 beds. Much of it would house families who, because of gender-assigned beds, find their members separated into different rooms.
Even with that extra capacity, Dorman said, “I’m sure we’d be filled.”
In addition to lodging, The Salvation Army provides meals, counseling, medication, clothing vouchers and it arranges for people to enter treatment facilities where they get help for drug and alcohol addiction. It also has a computer lab and will start helping people seek employment. It puts no restrictions on such aid.
Dorman said many of those living at the camp have received some – if not all – of those services at some point within the past year. Some aid recipients have found their way out of homelessness, she said, while others stay trapped.
Said Newell: “You’re never going to move them out of poverty until you address (the underlying) issues. And then there are some people that you can’t help at all.”
Those who lived at the camp say they didn’t necessarily want the extra help. They just wanted a place to say. And they said they were blamed unfairly by city leaders and local businesses for offenses they didn’t commit.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and two area business owners had said in statements to the media on Monday that camp residents had threatened customers and employees, made sexual advances on a young boy, and got into a drunken knife fight.
But at least three of the residents said they never had frequented the cited businesses. They also said the man who had confronted the young boy didn’t live at their camp – he lived in a baseball dugout. And the people who caused the knife fight were just visiting the camp that day; they didn’t live there.
“It wasn’t us who did that,” White said.
White and Miller were arrested after the May 15 fight and charged with public drunkenness. They later were released.
Two others also were arrested that day, according to records at the Lee County Sheriff’s Department: Samuel Lamantina, 47, for public drunkenness and Robert Anderson, 41, for aggravated assault. Anderson’s charges later were dropped.
Prior to that fight, at least three other homeless people had been arrested near the camp: Two on April 14 for public drunkenness; and one on Feb. 13 for disorderly conduct.
But wherever they are, White said, if they’re homeless, they’re a target for eviction.
“I’m afraid,” he said. “I’m afraid we’ll be evicted wherever we go.”
Daily Journal staff writer JB Clark contributed to this story.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com

Arrests
SEVEN HOMELESS PEOPLE were arrested at or near the South Gloster Street homeless camp so far in 2012:
Feb. 13: Disorderly conduct – West Main Laundry; West Main Street

April 14: Public drunk – Wendy’s, South Gloster Street

April 14: Public drunk and open container – Sprint Mart, South Gloster Street

May 15: Aggravated assault (charges later dropped) – South Gloster Street camp

May 15: Public drunk – South Gloster Street camp

May 15: Public drunk – South Gloster Street camp

May 15: Public drunk – South Gloster Street camp

SOURCES: TUPELO POLICE, LEE COUNTY JAIL RECORDS