Pastor Mike Ramsey

We’ve all seen a homeless person walking down Highway 90 with all of his or her possessions in a backpack. His clothes are worn and dirty. Possibly our most common response is the feeling of relief that he will soon be out of sight and into the next county and the next state, probably never to be seen again.

A more anxious encounter is finding yourself first in line at a red light, a homeless person feet away holding a sign asking for help with a scruffy dog guilting you with sad eyes. We try to avoid eye contact, to pretend the person is invisible.

After all, what can one person do at a stoplight that would get that person out of homelessness? If you give him money, will he buy food, alcohol or drugs? Is he mentally stable or will you risk an irrational or unsafe confrontation just by rolling down the window? And finally, you latch upon the comforting thought that there are plenty of shelters for homeless, so if he’s begging out in the heat or cold it’s by choice.

Homeless by choice? That’s a good place to start the discussion.

Kenney Washington is the director of client services at the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, and he acknowledges his initial view of homeless was flawed.

“I had a perception about homelessness before I took this job nine years ago just like anybody else and I’m willing to say that. I’m willing to say that when I saw a homeless person I said, “Hey, he or she could do better. This is America. Why are they in that situation?’ ”

Washington shares a truism of homelessness that erased his false perception.

“Nobody grows up and says, ‘You know what? When I turn 18, I can’t wait to be homeless.’ Or no one says, ‘You know what? My goal in life is to live in poverty or be poor.’ No one says that.”

Washington says seeing a homeless person on the street should be a wake-up call to those of us of moderate means.

“We all are a situation away from being in a homeless situation if you don’t have a safety net in place. This thing called life, loss of job, injury at work, death of a family member, nasty divorce; everybody who’s homeless is not drug- and alcohol-addicted or has mental health issues. Many just have life issues.”

Todd Wimbish has personal insight into homelessness, living that lifestyle for about six years.

“None of us went from sitting where we’re sitting now to just jumping right out into a tent,” Wimbish said. “It happens slowly. They might have lost their job and then a few months later the bills are delinquent and they lost their lights and their car and then their house and then their wife.”

Jack (not his real name) has been homeless in the area for about a year and a half. He lived in his van for the first six months until it broke down. With no money to fix it, he began living in the woods. His story affirms Wimbish’s description of the slow and unforeseen transition into homelessness.

“I moved here about eight years ago,” Jack recalled. “I met a girl down here who became pregnant and I was blessed with a child, but her mother went into post-partum psychosis and she has ruined our lives over it. It’s not her fault; it’s a mental disability.

“We had a brand new house we lived in along with her parents,” he continued. “They were supposed to be paying the bills because they knew the landlord, but we had 12 shut-off notices at the end of the year. I was being sued by the landlord, was kicked out of the house and she kept calling up at work until my boss finally let me go when it became too much of a hassle. Then my phone and my ID were stolen and I couldn’t apply for a job without an ID. It all came tumbling down.”

Jack describes what being homeless has done for his self-esteem.

“Being homeless is embarrassing. You don’t want anybody to know. I feel like there was something I could have done different about it but there wasn’t. I stay here for my daughter because she’s the only thing I care about in this world and I know her mother’s mentally disabled.”

Elijah Mitchell is the executive director of the Seashore Mission in Biloxi and he explained the causes of homelessness he is seeing first-hand.

“Some get trapped in the system here and cannot move. Most people come to the Mississippi Gulf Coast because of job opportunities only to discover there may be jobs, but they never considered the housing situation. They can’t afford to move into permanent housing because the deposit is so much. And then if they end up with a job they can’t maintain that job because you can’t work sleeping on the streets and be efficient at a job in the daytime.

“So they end up losing their job. In some cases, jobs are promised to them but by the time they arrive here, the job’s filled by somebody else and they used all their resources just to get here.

“There’s a young man who comes to the Mission who is a prime example of a job falling through,” Mitchell said. “He came from California and was promised a job at one of the casinos as a chef. When he got here, he moved into an apartment thinking he’s going to get that salary, but the job was given away. They offered him a job in housekeeping but it wasn’t enough money to take care of his housing needs and utilities so he ended up on the streets.

“Nice looking young man, but you see him today you think he’s about 80 years of age. His whole demeanor has changed because he got on the streets struggling because of the job opportunity that was lost when he came here.”

A false assumption of homelessness is that many prefer living in the woods and isolated from people. The reality is that those who choose to live in a tent over living in traditional housing are rare. However, Washington met one such exception living in the woods.

“I said, ‘Man, why are you out here?’ He said, ‘Kenney, I’m at peace.’ So, if the guy living in the woods is at peace, who the hell am I to say he needs to be out? I think we’re all searching for peace in some form or fashion. I said, ‘You’re in a good place because most of us are trying to get to where you are.’ ”

Local homeless population

It shouldn’t be difficult to get an accurate count of the homeless living in Hancock County.

In reality, though, some homeless don’t fit the preconceived idea of what homelessness should look like. They work, they shower and they’re clear-headed and rational. What sets them apart from the general population is that at the end of the day, they sleep in their car or in a tent in the woods.

Washington describes one such person. “One guy was a butcher at a grocery but he came back to his tent every night. We washed his clothes (at the mission) and he showered here. No one knew he was homeless when he went to work. He went to work every day but he was underemployed so therefore he couldn’t afford the rent for an apartment but he went to work every day with clean clothes on.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities receiving funding from to conduct a “Point in Time” count of the homeless every two years on a night during the last week in January. Since its inception in 1983, many communities have conducted the survey annually to better assess changes in local homeless populations.

Besides counts in shelters, people living in homeless camps are attempted to be counted by volunteers and local, state and federal personnel who venture into the woods with flashlights. The survey also does not count those who are homeless but are moving from couch to couch by staying with friends or relatives.

Mary Simons, the executive director of the Open Doors Homeless Coalition in Gulfport, further explains this portion of the population, saying, “There are several definitions of homelessness. A definition under the Department of Education would be a family or individual who does not have a lease in his or her own name. Particularly in Hancock County that is a large population.” For the purposes of this series, that category will be termed “sheltered homeless.”

Focusing strictly on those living in their cars or in the woods, or “unsheltered homeless,” the count depends on whom you ask, the data they’ve collected or their personal interactions with the homeless.

Here are samples of population estimates:

“I spent the vast majority of my career in Gulfport, 23 years over there, and the Bay Saint Louis homeless population, compared to Gulfport is tremendously different. I know about one or two homeless we have here in the city but in Gulfport, at any given time there could be a hundred or more.”

-- Gary Ponthieux, chief of police, City of Bay St. Louis

“Mayor Smith told me some guy told him there are 40-something [unsheltered] homeless people in Hancock County and I said I really don’t think so. I said I thought there are about 15 based on what we know.”

-- Rhonda Rhodes, president, Hancock Resource Center

“I would say probably, percentage-wise, at least 10 percent of the population coming to the Kitchen is homeless.”

-- Mike Ramsey, pastor, Central Bible Church and King’s Kitchen

“I would say out of a hundred (coming to eat at the church), I’d say 20 percent (are homeless).”

-- T. Manuel Johnson, pastor, Waveland United Methodist Church

“In Hancock County there were 17 people identified as living outside on the night of Jan. 29. And then the year before was 15 people.”

-- Mary Simons, executive director, Open Doors Homeless Coalition

“It has decreased in the last four years because at one point there were 80 some odd county-wide but now it’s about 17.”

-- Mike Smith, Mayor, City of Waveland

While it’s likely impossible to get an exact count of the sheltered and unsheltered homeless in the county, data and first-hand accounts indicate that homelessness is at least a persistent and, possibly, growing issue.

Permanent vs. Transient

Mention the word “hobo” and the image of a poor migrant worker hitching a ride on a freight train may come to mind.

“We only deal with a few transients here and there,” said Waveland police officer John Nelson. “Most of them go through Bay St. Louis up near the interstate. Mostly what we deal with are local homeless that just ended up here which is where they stay,”

Washington said Back Bay Mission deals with a larger number of transients. “Maybe 25 or 30 percent. They’re here for a couple of weeks and then they go.”

Mitchell confirmed the transient nature of homelessness he sees at Seashore Mission. “The population is very transient, especially here in Harrison County. Some people are just passing through, some for a little while until they find there are not enough resources here and they move on to other places.”

Health, substance abuse issues

The Gulf Coast Mental Health Center categorizes patients as either insured or uninsured. In 2018, the Center treated 567 uninsured patients in Hancock County, the highest per capita rate of the four counties it serves. The center doesn’t collect metrics on the housing status of their patients but the mental health issues they treat have been proven to be inducers of homelessness.

“The primary mental health issues in Hancock County that we’ve been serving are substance abuse,” said Vicky Taylor, the Hancock County clinical director for the center. “That is a major issue in Hancock County. After that there are situational stressors like lack of income, lack of resources and lack of transportation, but we serve a lot of clients with serious mental illness like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder which are neurological and chemical imbalances. They aren’t necessarily caused by any stressors. We have a lot of seriously mentally ill adults that live in Hancock County.”

Mental health grants for the homeless, or indigent, are not enough to meet the demand, according to Taylor.

“Our grant funding will only provide treatment for someone who has a history of hospitalizations, so it has to be a very serious person. It won’t just provide it for anyone on the street. We do also get some grant money from the Department of Mental Health to provide indigent care but that money usually doesn’t last but a few months into each fiscal year. It’s not a huge grant but it does provide some free services.”

What does last throughout the fiscal year is assistance from pharmaceutical companies.

“One of the things we do in our entire region for any of our clients who are indigent is we try to get them set up with prescription assistance programs through the various pharmaceutical companies that will provide medications for free,” Taylor said.

The Gulf Coast Mental Health Center has solid metrics on the prevalence of mental health issues in South Mississippi, but the question of how common are mental disorders among the homeless remains.

“A lot of people’s perception is that most of the people who are on the streets have drug and alcohol, mental health or physical disability,” Washington said. “Not everybody who actually is homeless is in one of those categories. If you lived on the street for any extended period of time you may have some kind of mental disorder. If you hit the streets normal, there’s a possibility you could experience some form of depression. So I wouldn’t say that actually everyone who came into homelessness had a mental or physical illness but the longer you stay in homelessness those things can happen.”

Anita Caldwell is the Salvation Army Area Commander of South Mississippi and has worked with the homeless throughout her 25-year career.

“When I casework a homeless person, I am very honest with them. My first question is ‘What is your drug of choice and when was the last time you used it?’ And then you start with that conversation and go forward. We have options that help people who want help with addictions.”

Caldwell explains the effect closing mental institutions has had on the homeless. “We don’t have a good program for the mentally ill and that’s one of our greatest problems. A large percent of the homeless population are mentally ill and we closed down those institutions. Well, now they’re on the street and a few get stabilized and then they destabilize very quickly and those are tougher ones.”

Lyons attests to the impact untreated mental illness has on the homeless she feeds at King’s Kitchen.

“We have a situation here with a young man and he’s bipolar, schizophrenic and manic depressive but because he doesn’t have the $20 or $30 to go to the mental health clinic to get his medicine, he just walks around. When he gets off his medicine he can be dangerous.”

Lyons is frustrated that there are a few homeless who can’t be helped.

“You still have a group, their mindset has not changed for whatever reason, whether it’s drugs, alcohol or just being out there so long, to where Hancock Resource Center, the King’s Kitchen, several people tried to help them but they won’t get the help.”

The trauma of homelessness may be best captured by Waveland Mayor Smith. “I would certainly have some mental health issues if I was homeless.”

Crime and homelessness

Waveland police officer Nelson explains the department’s policy.

“We don’t arrest for vagrancy. It was an old law, one that’s still on there, what vagrancy is. It’s a law but now the courts are getting away from prosecuting people for vagrancy.”

So if the homeless are no longer being arrested for vagrancy, are they being arrested for other crimes at a higher rate than non-homeless? Washington doesn’t believe so.

“Do they make their share of mistakes? Of course they do but we all do and I told one of the city council persons, I said, ‘Look at the arrest records in your ward. I bet you have more people that are housed that were arrested than homeless.’ Most of the homeless are loitering, trespassing, public intoxication, things of that sort. They’re not robbing, stealing, and killing people.”

Rhonda Rhodes has a similar view.

“Many homeless are people that could stand next to you in the grocery store and you would otherwise not know they are sleeping outside, so they’re really not that scary. And so, conquer the fear. Not that there aren’t people that are living outside who have not done good things but there are people next to you driving a nice car and they haven’t done good things so don’t assume that homelessness creates criminals or homeless people are always criminals.”

And then there are those who have become homeless because of the crimes they committed. Pastor Zach Cooper of Old Spanish Trail Baptist Church tells of someone trapped in a jail and homelessness loop.

“I know a guy who made mistakes in his past and did stuff he shouldn’t have done. He committed a felony and he served time and then he got out and he has to be on probation and he couldn’t get a job because he was a felon. Well, because he couldn’t get a job he couldn’t pay his probation fees, and because he couldn’t pay his probation fees eventually they put a warrant out for his arrest and arrested him and he’s just stuck in that cycle.”

Panhandling

For almost every panhandler genuinely asking for money for food another tale abounds of fraudulent beggars who are given abundant cash by unsuspecting, good-willed donors.

Caldwell has gotten to know how panhandlers operate after dealing with them around the world during her career with the Salvation Army.

“One type of panhandler is the addicted who’s not ready to get any assistance yet. Another is the career panhandler, and we actually have one here in Biloxi that makes $500 a day, so we’re talking over $100,000 a year. It’s big money. You can go online, you can watch a video and be taught how to go about the task. Location, location, location. Sign, clothing, wheelchair, dog. Those people aren’t homeless. They have homes and cars. It’s their career.”

“When we see the [panhandler’s] sign we think, ‘Oh, my. That just happened. They’re without food. They’re hungry.’ No. Four and a half years is the average time people have been panhandling and they make pretty good money at it. Because they have money for food maybe only 5 percent or 10 percent of the panhandlers who need help will seek help. So, it’s something to really be informed and consider. We don’t say you shouldn’t give, but give with the understanding of who you might be giving to.”

Waveland Chief of Police Mike Pendergrast related a story of deceit that initially tugged his heartstrings.

“I ran into a guy, a girl and a baby at Walmart. They wanted them off the property because they were out there holding a sign. He had a gas jug, she was holding a little baby, and I’ll be the first to admit I fell for it. I always run the person to see who they are, if they’re wanted, and he told me he was out of gas. When he opened his wallet to hand me his driver’s license I saw hundred-dollar bills. He had over $800 in his wallet. I said, ‘Sir, you need to get your baby and your wife and your gas jug and leave.’ He got in a van with a California tag on it and left. You just don’t know what you’re falling for with these people. Are they really homeless or are they running a scam?”

Nelson had a similar experience while on patrol.

“I saw one get into a brand new Corvette after sitting there dressed like a homeless person begging for money.”

Mayor Smith says those experiences make a lasting impression.

“It’s easy to stereotype certain individuals because of instances we’ve all gone through.”

Readers are encouraged to e-mail comments and suggestions to help the homeless to Publisher Rob Langrell at rlangrell@seacoastecho.com. A compilation of e-mails may be published after the series to share the community’s ideas.

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