By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Four days until Christmas, Tina Hulett’s best holiday meal arrived Saturday evening among 140 others inside All Saints’ Episcopal Church.
Hulett, 50, and a few dozen others left with full stomachs, bars of soap and flannel blanket gifts.
While appreciative, Hulett tried to hide her teeth as she smiled. She wants to replace the two broken front teeth in her second pair of dentures.
Like her broken smile, the twice-married mother of four tries not to think about experiences she’s spent years trying to forget.
“It’s hard for me to go back to my past,” she said Friday, sitting in a conference room inside the Lee County Library. “When I’m asked about it, I get really uncomfortable.”
Associations with Christmas and New Year’s holidays often involve family, food, relaxation, reflections of the past year and goal-setting for the next.
However, most of that will only arrive in memories and wishes for homeless in Tupelo, Lee County and places throughout the state and nation.
Many local men and women, whose life decisions and circumstances out of their control, have tumbled to one of society’s lowest economic rungs – homelessness.
Hulett, an Amory native who now sleeps nightly in a bunk bed in the Tupelo Salvation Army’s Red Shield Lodge, said she has no plans for Christmas.
Individuals in Tupelo’s homeless population won’t wake Wednesday morning to see smiling faces and Black Friday bargains under a tree. Some waking inside the shelter will feel thankful for access to toilet paper. Some will wake up outdoors in a sleeping bag, most of their worldly possessions fitting into tattered garbage bags.
Invisible to many middle-class and affluent people shuffling through Northeast Mississippi’s economic hub, Tupelo’s homeless population has no official estimate. Clergy and nonprofit leaders who interact with homeless here estimate 75 to 125 sleep nightly in vacant parks, shelters, a friend’s car and other locations besides a place most people identify as home.
Data from Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress estimate 610,042 homeless people nationwide, with an average of 644,161 from 2007-2013. For Mississippi, the report’s 2013 estimated 2,403 is higher than the seven-year average of 2,363.
HUD data shows a three-year decline nationwide in homelessness overall, along with related subcategories. However, homelessness estimates in recent years in Mississippi have remained above the 2,000 mark.
These annual estimates reflect “point-in-time” tabulations from counting homeless people in many parts of the country during a single night in January.
Dozens of chronically and situational homeless individuals can be found in Tupelo. Among the more than half-dozen homeless people interviewed extensively by the Daily Journal over several days, each told unique stories leading to now, which many described is the lowest point in their lives. At least half of them had histories of drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness or dysfunctional childhoods, some had combinations of the three.
In her third shelter stay in 11⁄2 years, Hulett only wanted to share a slipped neck disc and other physical problems as causes for her homelessness. She has been turned down four times for federal benefits related to medical disability but remains hopeful the government will change its mind.
Technically still married, Hulett’s children range in age from 4 to 33
She describes nothing about her life as normal. Born into a solidly middle-income family, money didn’t replace love she never experienced. Hulett and her five siblings lived infrequently with their mother, a paranoid schizophrenic, instead staying in a children’s home, four foster homes, short stints with her grandparents and attending nine different schools.
Her father’s fear of her mother overrode any desire to seek custody of his kids, she said.
“He was always afraid,” Hulett said. “Mother always said she’d blow his brains out if he tried to get us out of DHS custody.”
Her father’s fear ended in 1993, when Hulett’s mom committed suicide by overdose. Hulett chooses not to live Monroe County with her father, saying he prefers not to have running water.
Like many people with homes, most homeless residents’ Christmas and New Year’s Day will disrupt their daily routines.
Many of Tupelo’s homeless will not spend Christmas Day in the Lee County Library, nodding off in a chair, surfing the Internet or otherwise waiting until night, when they return to the Red Shield Lodge, find a spot outdoors or another location that doesn’t belong to them.
David King, 55, a Gary, Ind., native, grew up in Corinth and spent time in Birmingham shelters before arriving in Tupelo a year ago after problems with the law. Divorced in 1984 after six years of marriage, King said his son disowned him and daughter infrequently speaks to him.
He hopes he can follow through with his Christmas plans. King wants to rent a $45 motel room, which offers an actual bed – a sharp difference from his regular sleeping arrangement of a sleeping bag on a concrete floor.
But he says sleeping on a bed isn’t why he desires a motel room the most. It’s the shower. He says he showers every two weeks but really enjoys motel showers. He spends 30-40 minutes at a time washing his skin, trying to remove “caked-up filth” from his body. He says after he showers, he dries off and repeats the process until he goes to bed.
“You don’t shower like everybody else,” he said Thursday. “When you don’t have a shower, you take advantage of when you do.”
But his Christmas Day shower hopes may not happen. He receives a check from the federal government each month related to his disability designation for depression, anxiety and other mental illness. On Friday, he said he had $90 to last until Jan. 3 and didn’t want to spend half of it splurging.
He said he exists each day with no reason to live, having little hope for gainful employment as a felon. But the solitary man hopes things will change, saying he has ended self-destructive behavior like “doping.”
“I’m going to pull myself out of this,” he said, standing next to few garbage bags of belongings he keeps hidden downtown. “I’m going to push myself out of this hole.”
His plan for escaping homelessness includes saving parts of his disability check and one day renting an apartment.
Not all homeless stories in Tupelo sound like dim longshots.
Houston, Texas, native Maurice Whitfield, 19, hopes he has entered a successful phase of his life. After leaving a home of family problems 11⁄2 years ago, he has slept on a park bench, in a friend’s car and wherever else he could find.
Now, he and his fiancee live in an apartment with another couple, paying them $40 a week.
The couple plan to make a life for each other, raising a child they expect in 2014. On Friday, a doctor told them to expect a boy.
But they still eat breakfast at All Saints’ church during weekdays, where volunteers serve up to 130 plates of scrambled eggs, sausage patties and hot coffee and other food daily to homeless and other poverty-stricken individuals.
Sitting next to Whitfield on Friday morning at breakfast, fiancee Tamara Valdez, 21, of Dallas, Texas, listened to him discuss his dream to become a country music singer like Charlie Pride. Before that, he plans to earn a steady income as a truck driver, something more reliable than the money he currently makes for sound and stage work at special events locally and in neighboring states.
Having something close to a place of his own and expecting to start a family, Whitfield feels optimistic about the coming year.
“I want to find a good, full-time job and maybe go to school,” he said.
After learning his future son’s gender Friday, his has talked about it with pride, hoping to one day provide a better life than what he has lived.
“I’ve always wanted a little boy,” he said.