Help for the homeless

By Sandi P. Beason

Daily Journal

TUPELO – You rarely see panhandlers and vagrants around town, but homeless shelters here stay full.

And although it's hard to pinpoint exactly how many homeless people are in the county, the Census numbers are startling.

“They took one night and collected the number of people in shelters for that one night and used it as a basis,” said Terri Blissard, the city's grant administrator. For that one night, March 27, 2000, the tally reached 317, including children.

“I think there's probably more out there,” she said. “Our shelters do such a fine job, but they're limited. They can only house so many people. There are probably a lot of people who slip through the cracks because there's not enough space or money.”

Blissard gathers the statistics each year, when the city applies for the Emergency Shelter Grant through the Mississippi Development Authority. Last year, Alpha House served 20 homeless boys; Faith Haven served 135 children; and Gardner-Simmons served 46 girls.

Drugs, alcohol and mental illness are chief reasons for homelessness, said Salvation Army Capt. Philip Swyers, describing his shelter clients.

“We have a lot of veterans.” he said. “There are a lot of folks who also have other situations in their life that are causing problems as well.”

At the shelters

Many of the children at Faith Haven, Alpha House and Gardner-Simmons have been placed there by the courts. At the adult shelter, The Red Shield Lodge on Carnation Street, the stories are more varied.

On a recent evening, 18-year-old Samantha Barnes sat down to play dominoes with Lawrence Wilson of Grenada.

Wilson said he has been in Tupelo five years.

“I used to live with my girlfriend but she put me out,” he said.

After two nights at a motel, he moved to a hotel with cheaper rates, and then met a man who had been at the Salvation Army shelter. It's free for two weeks, then rent is $25 a week.

He checked it out and got a bed. Residents are required to go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

“I'm not on drugs and not a drinker, but I go and listen,” he said. “On Sunday, I go to prayer meeting and to Bible study.”

He said the shelter's 10 p.m. curfew helps. So does the $20 voucher to the Thrift Store & Boutique clients get if they arrive at the shelter needing clothing or other items.

“A lot of people have been through so many problems,” he said. It's not so easy to “tell someone to put the past behind them and move forward.”

Barnes said her family is separated. A friend took her to the police station and they directed her to the shelter. She had an appointment the next morning at the health department to see if she was pregnant.

“I hope I'm not, but if I am, it's God's will,” she said.

She wasn't. While at the health department, she received information on how to get food stamps and a place of her own. She spent the rest of the morning collecting the required signatures from prospective employers.

“My goal is to get back to Hamilton and find a job and an apartment,” she said. “I want to go back to my church, Praise Assembly of God. When I get back, maybe I can go to college.”

She said she asked the Lord to come into her life. She wants to “not try to do the things I used to do.”

Getting there

Lodge keeper Randy Whiteside said a lot of people who come are alcoholics or use drugs.

“We try to get them into programs,” he said. “We push them to get out and get a job, save their money and move on.”

Whiteside said he hasn't seen anyone violent come to the shelter. If there is a problem, staffers call the police.

“They respond quickly,” Whiteside said.

And the relationship goes both ways.

“The other night they found a lady sleeping in a truck at the airport and they brought her to us,” Whiteside said. “Sometimes people are lost or separated from their money. We had a lot from the Coast, but they come from all over. It's a good mix of local and out of town and state.”

Tupelo police Maj. Anthony Hill said that if patrol officers find a homeless person, they first do a background check “for our safety and the shelter safety.”

“We refer them to the Salvation Army or another shelter,” he said. “Occasionally, we have some church let us know they have shelter for a few days, especially during bad weather.”

It is not a daily occurrence to find a homeless person, he said.

“There are some drifters,” he said. “We do get reports of abandoned buildings and people sleeping there overnight.”

Some people don't want to go to the shelter, and sometimes it is full.

“We try to get these people help when we do come across them,” Hill said. “We hate to see anyone on the streets with no place to go.”

One man, a 52-year-old from Corinth, said he had two DUIs, wrecked his vehicle and lost his job. He came to Tupelo because he knew about the shelter. He said he's stayed a while and now works for a landscaping company.

“This is all right, as far as shelters go,” he said on a recent night at the lodge. “The church services and Sunday school are good. We have Bible study on Tuesday.”

Meeting the need

At the Red Shield Lodge, it's not uncommon to see extra cots and mattresses in dorms and hallways to accommodate the overflow.

“We are almost always at capacity,” said the Salvation Army's Swyers. “Typically, during the winter or in inclement weather, we're the fullest. The men's side is always full. If there's a vacancy, it's on the women's side.”

Many who come to the shelter are transient, making their way along the major highways, but a lot are from Tupelo and the surrounding area.

Swyers said the organization is considering ways to expand to meet the need.

Over the years, a lot of the people who come to the shelter have gone from being transients to needing longer term care, he said.

“Surprisingly, a lot of young folks come to us for service,” he said. “We also have a lot of families with kids that come to us. That one trend is scary. It's starting at such a young age.”

Stats on the Red Shield Lodge for fiscal year 2005:

- Residents: 524

- Nights of lodging: 5,902

- Average stay: 11.3 nights

- HIV: 1 person

Types of residents:

- Elderly: 4

- Veterans: 62

- Chronically disabled: 51

- Developmentally disabled: 8

Residents' problems:

- Alcohol: 100

- Drugs: 154

- Mental illness: 62

- Needing medical assistance: 14

- Needing eyeglasses: 20

Where to go/call/write: The Red Shield Lodge on Carnation Street, opens at 5 p.m. For more information, call 842-9222.

Some rules for staying in the lodge:

- No alcohol or drug consumption or possession.

- Police background checks and frequent dog inspections.

- The first two weeks are free, then rent is $25 a week.

- If clients do not have a job, they must seek employment Monday through Friday, and bring back proof each day to the caseworker.

- Residents must vacate the property on Sundays at 9 a.m. If they attend Salvation Army services beginning at 9:30 or any other church services, they can be admitted at noon for lunch.

Contact Daily Journal reporter Sandi P. Beason at 678-1598 or sandi.beason@djournal.com. Daily Journal staff writer Danza Johnson also contributed to this report.