TUPELO - The dismantling of an established homeless camp off South Gloster Street early Monday left lingering questions about the future of its inhabitants and the city's responsibility to care for them.
Prompted by a request from the private property's manager, the Tupelo Police Department evicted several people who had been living for months in tents along Town Creek behind Wendy's.
"They told me they'd give me five minutes to get my stuff and get out," said Jimmy Miller, who had been staying on the site for the past eight months.
He said police officers told him and other inhabitants not to come back.
"I don't know where I'll go now," Miller said.
The city's Public Works Department then used a back hoe to tear down the camp - removing trees, shrubs and debris along the creek where the people had lived.
Although several commercial property owners praised the move, citing numerous problems with the homeless population during the past months, some residents criticized it as short-sighted.
"You're moving them from one site to another," said Max Munn of the nonprofit Helping Hands Helping Homeless. "That's not a solution. It looks like they kicked the can down the road."
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. told the Daily Journal he takes responsibility for all city residents, including those without permanent shelter. But he cited a litany of complaints against that encampment - coupled with the property manager's request for eviction - that left the city little choice but to act.
Reed said police have arrested at least seven people at the camp since the beginning of the year, including four involved in a drunken knife fight there last week.
Police Chief Tony Carleton confirmed the arrests.
"Most seriously of all," the mayor said in a statement, "recently one of the trespassers approached children playing baseball on the nearby Salvation Army baseball field and made sexual advances before city police officers were called."
The baseball team coach declined comment to the Daily Journal about that incident.
According to the city, Billy Haygood, manager of L.D. Hancock Company, had made the request for eviction. He also was responsible last month for the construction of an orange fence and several "No Trespassing" signs that had done little to deter the camp's inhabitants.
Reed had commented on the homeless camp earlier this year, calling it a problem that harmed the area's already struggling business sector.
On Monday, Kip Tigrett of Atlanta Bread Co., which sits adjacent to the property upon which the camp was located, said inhabitants scared her customers. They also lessened the likelihood of another establishment occupying the vacant lot and boosting the business sector, he said.
Some of the inhabitants had threatened employees at The Imaging Center, said its executive director Tami Rhudy-Busby.
"Over the last couple weeks one individual in particular has come into The Imaging Center on three occasions and gotten ugly with my staff," Rhudy-Busby said in a statement. "Two of my employees have expressed to me that they felt very threatened by his attitude and actions. This is completely unacceptable."
Since the camp's dismantling, Tupelo-area residents have expressed mixed feelings on Djournal.com and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Some said they support the city's move, others say they're angry. Still others have said they're undecided on the matter.
Not undecided is Doyce Deas, whose mother owns the property. Deas said she's "appalled" at the situation and believes the city somehow influenced her family members to authorize the eviction.
She believes Tupelo should have had a plan in place before moving the homeless population.
Reed said the city's Homelessness Task Force, comprised of volunteer residents, is studying the issue and will continue to do so. But a clear answer hasn't yet emerged.
Task Force spokesman the Rev. Paul Stephens said he wasn't formally consulted about the eviction, although he had been notified, and wasn't able to immediately discuss the situation.
In the meantime, some of the homeless people who had been living along South Gloster said they're exploring their options.
Miller said he might go to the Salvation Army, but others have complained the Carnation Street shelter's rules on alcohol consumption and job-seeking are too strict and they won't abide by them.
Salvation Army Maj. Sue Dorman said that, while none of the homeless people from the camp had approached the shelter Monday, it was open to everyone.