TUPELO – A makeshift homeless camp off South Gloster Street has drawn city scrutiny, with officials calling it a problem that needs to go.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said the camp’s presence mars the area’s already-struggling commercial sector and poses health and safety hazards.
“We talk about it every week,” Reed said during a City Council work session. “It’s not fair to the businesses around there.”
For those who call the crude shelters home, however, a possible eviction adds more hardship to an already stressful situation.
“We’re not here because we want to be here,” said Geraldine “Sunshine” Jones. “We’re here because we have nowhere else to go.”
About one dozen people live in tents and tarp-strewn dwellings pitched on the north bank of Town Creek behind Wendy’s. They have formed a small community whose members share food, resources and a communal area where they drink, smoke and plot their next moves.
Many there say they’ve sought help at The Salvation Army but were turned away for various reasons. They alleged the nonprofit agency provides little to no relief and sets impossible rules by which they have struggled, but failed, to abide.
“They charge you $25 a week to stay there,” said a squatter who identified himself only as Ax Man. “How you gonna afford that when you don’t got a job?”
Salvation Army Maj. Sue Dorman said the agency requires its residents to stay drug- and alcohol-free and show proof they’re actively seeking work. As long as those conditions are met, they lodge for free. When they find work, residents must pay $5 per night lodging as a way to give back to the nonprofit and learn responsibility.
The Salvation Army, located on Carnation Street within walking distance of the camp, also provides free meals daily to anyone in need – whether they reside at the shelter or not.
Creek squatters said they dislike the food, calling it cold and dubious. Dorman disagreed, saying she eats it every day, and it’s fine.
Although the camp provides an unsightly view from the street – littered with tarps and trash – its residents rarely cause trouble from a law-enforcement standpoint, said Tupelo Police Capt. Rusty Haynes.
“There is the occasional fire they start,” Haynes said, “But the city of Tupelo, for better or worse, has been doing a lot of outreach and feeding them, which has cut down on the panhandling.”
If the city forces the group to leave, its members said they’ll simply set up camp elsewhere. The result might be a better-concealed, but still existent problem. And it’s one acknowledged by the Rev. Paul Stephens.
Stephens is on Tupelo’s Homelessness Task Force and pastors All Saints’ Episcopal Church, which provides free breakfast daily to those in need. It serves an average of 65 people each morning and had spiked to nearly 100 people daily at the end of January and in early February.
The task force estimates anywhere from 85 to 125 homeless people sleep in Tupelo each night. That doesn’t include students. According to the Tupelo and Lee County public schools, a combined 662 homeless students were enrolled in December.
“It’s a real conundrum whichever way you go with it,” Stephens said. “People are homeless for lots of different reasons.”
The task force is exploring a variety of options to help the city’s homeless population, but it’s in the early stages of its work. Stephens said members, who were appointed by the city last year, will hold a public meeting seeking ideas before issuing formal recommendations to the mayor and City Council.
In the meantime, creek squatters said they’ll stay put unless told otherwise.