“Without the sleeping bag I'm just somebody up early in the morning, sitting under a tree. With the sleeping bag I'm nobody up early, sitting under a tree: a slight, but important difference in how I’ll be perceived. … I want to avoid people, because there’s only one thing worse than being homeless, and that’s people who are not, knowing that you are.” -- Craig Stone, 'The Squirrel that Dreamt of Madness'
Do you remember the good times tent camping in the summer, perhaps at McLeod Park, Buccaneer Park or on a creek on private property? After a couple of days of heat, bugs, and dirt or sand you pack the truck looking forward to a shower, air conditioning and a full kitchen stocked with food.
Living the homeless life is like that, if you take away the truck and the surety of a shower, air conditioning, kitchen appliances and plentiful food. Throw in the absence of a toilet and you’ve got the discomfort and challenges of living full-time in the woods.
There has been enough news of homeless camps in the county through the years that the existence of them is common knowledge. It’s well known a camp adjacent to Wal-Mart comes and goes, and some years back a camp next to the fire station on Highway 90 in Waveland was shut down. The biggest news coming out of a local camp was when one homeless man killed another homeless man in apparent self-defense.
What do these camps look like? How do they get established? How large are they?
For details about the inner workings of these camps, Todd Wimbish, the “Mayor of the Homeless,” lends his insight.
“One person finds a place where they’re not disturbed and within 6 or 7 months they’ve allowed one other person there and then one other and one other, so they just go to where they aren’t disturbed and they just found that spot where nobody messes with them,” he said. “Camps start off with one or two people and end up with 20, 30, 40 and then you get that one in there that just causes a big ruckus and shuts it down for everybody.
“But the one in the Kiln and the one in Gulfport, those have been there for years. They’re such massive camps that, to be honest with you, if they rallied up all their law enforcement and they went in there together, I don’t think they have enough to get them out.”
Wimbish says the “camp” label doesn’t adequately describe the dynamics in the woods.
“An actual community, I call it,” he said. “Everybody gets to know everybody and a natural order follows, just like in the animal kingdom world. You’re going to have somebody who keeps peace; you’re going to have somebody who causes problems. And as long as somebody is there to remind everybody you don’t have to put hands on each other to settle disputes, it will actually function well.”
He was sharing the woods with the two men whose fight ended in murder. After that incident, Wimbish became more selective of who lived near him.
“After that I was regulating who was allowed to move into my woods because I didn’t want any problems. I had rules: You couldn’t panhandle the (Wal-Mart) parking lot, couldn’t harass customers, no fighting, no loud music or big fires. It was real simple – we just don’t want attention. And so that’s where the ‘Mayor of the Homeless’ comes from. It was because I was policing everybody in those woods and then others saw how good it was in my camp and they asked me if I would move to their camps.
“I didn’t agree to, but I told them I would help them bring peace to their spots. So, I went from camp to camp helping them to appoint who’s over what in each camp and showing them that even in homelessness you have to have a system set up.”
Kenney Washington, the director of client services at the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, has seen how creative some homeless can be.
“One guy had plastic bins with all of his canned goods in, he had a metal rod that he had put between two trees, and he had all his clothes on hangers on that, had a mirror on the tree, had a tarp over his tent.”
He went on to describe the most elaborate shelter he’s seen.
“He is an army veteran who basically cleared a lot, found an opening between two trees, found some French doors, started building a little house out there around those doors, put pallets on the floor, carpet over that, some tarp siding, had a sofa, he had a love seat, a dresser and mirror in there and he had a deadbolt and chain lock on his door so when he left he was able to lock up.”
Dangers of the woods
As nice as that shelter may be on the scale of homeless camps, hazards of living outdoors abound. Jack (not his real name) has lived in a tent for about a year and he describes the perils that have challenged him.
“You have to deal with animals and ants constantly trying to mess with your food supply or you. And nothing is totally waterproof. It’s so hard to get things to dry. I’ve had to throw away a lot of clothes that mold up because you don’t get it dry.”
And then there are the storms such as the one he recently endured.
“I’ve never seen lightning like that. I kissed my butt goodbye and put my head underneath my sleeping bag and hoped for the best and if I woke up in the morning, I woke up in the morning, but I was afraid of the trees falling on me, getting hit by lightning because it was just constantly light like it was daytime. It was bad.”
Cold weather can be more than scary. Wimbish described the danger of freezing weather to transients.
“Usually they wait until the very last frost because on the road that’s when it catches some people. They get caught in the middle of A and B without proper shelter and that’s how you find homeless people dead because while you’re sleeping you don’t realize how cold you’re getting and you just freeze in your sleep. So, we try not to get caught in a transition.”
Pastor Zach Cooper has opened the Old Spanish Trail Baptist Church as a cold weather shelter for four years. He says the number of people seeking shelter goes up as the temperature goes down.
“When it gets really cold that’s when we have a lot of people and that just makes sense because a lot of people can probably rough it for a little while but when it gets really cold it’s a choice of life or death. You don’t want to be out there sleeping in that type of weather because you’ll freeze to death.”
For those who won’t leave the woods in time of bad weather, Wimbish leads a small team who answer the call to care for their brethren.
“When the weather gets real bad we go out looking for them. We make sure they’re not out in it. If it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, there are a few of us that are actively out there in the woods, on the trails, and we are looking for them and if they don’t want to come back with us, well, we brought supplies with us. We definitely take care of as many people as we can.”
As if Mother Nature doesn’t throw enough challenges to the homeless, they also have to deal with human nature, as Waveland Police Officer John Nelson explained.
“Almost all of them carry weapons to protect themselves from other homeless trying to rob them. They definitely do set up different traps to try to protect their property. A lot of them leave their site during the day and then they’ll come back to find other people have raided their campsite.”
Jack was a victim of theft when he first became homeless.
“I’ve already had everything stolen from me twice. The first time was in town and my bag went missing while I was eating. I lost a lot of my sentimental stuff from when my daughter was born.
“And then the second time, someone found my campsite and rummaged through it and took what they wanted to take which was pretty much everything. So, it’s been rough. Once you’ve been around here for a little while though, people start to know you and then they get used to you and they don’t mess with you anymore. So, I guess that was a beginning thing.”
A common complaint, and an issue that impacts the physical and mental health of homeless, is the lack of local public shower facilities.
As Jack explains, “They had the bathrooms over here at the park (soccer fields on Longfellow) but those aren’t public according to the county. They lock them and if they find you in there they’ll call the cops on you. There really is no place to go for anybody.”
In lieu of shower facilities, homeless people like Jack have to innovate.
“What I do is fill up empty water jugs and use those. It’s cold. You don’t feel like you’re getting the soap off of you and everything. You have to be worrying about disease and all that stuff too if you don’t shower correctly. The number one thing that would make life better is access to showers. It’s just basic hygiene that people take for granted. I’m lucky I got used to cold water.”
Dwayne (not his real name) is not so lucky. “The hardest thing is not having a hot shower. I’ve done went three, four weeks without a shower and when you haven’t had a hot shower in that long, you forget how good it feels.”
Hygiene is more than a physical feeling. Except for a few, most homeless are very aware of their appearance. They know when they look dirty and smell bad and their self-respect keeps them from interacting with the public.
Connie Lyons noticed when certain individuals were no longer coming to King’s Kitchen.
“I asked a couple of them, ‘Why won’t y’all come here?’ They said they didn’t feel good. They felt like they smelled and nobody wanted to be around them. So I talked to Pastor Mike and said, ‘Can we get some products together and give it to them so they can take care of themselves to the point they didn’t feel like they would be rejected because of their odor?’ ”
“We developed a program to where people started donating toothpaste, soap, washrags, so they can carry in their back packs, and we would try to make sure they have a back pack, to give them some dignity. And we’ll let them come to the clothesline (donated clothes). If they come in dirty and they want to change, they can throw those clothes away and get fresh clothes.”
For everyday hygiene health, Connie says the King’s Kitchen gives out bags with items such as wet wipes, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.
“There’s a group out of Diamondhead that sends blue bags for the men and pink bags for the women. They had a member of the family that was homeless and they decided when this person died they would do a special thing in honor of this homeless person. Every month they bring us between 20 and 30 packages.”
When illness sets in
Living alone in the woods without a phone carries many risks. One persistent danger is not being able to get medical help quickly. Lyons tells of helping to get a homeless man to the emergency room just in time.
“There was a gentleman who didn’t show up at the (King’s) Kitchen to eat for several days so Todd (Wimbish) started looking for him.”
Wimbish continued the story, “Somebody that I had asked said that he sent them a message they didn’t understand but in the message it said ‘heart attack.’ That’s when I went and got Momma (Lyons) and she brought me there.”
Lyons described the rescue. “It was about 2 a.m. and it was deep in the woods. I mean, I couldn’t even cross that ditch but Todd got him and we took him to the hospital. He was full of lesions and when I visited him in the hospital the doctor said he would have died if he had not gotten to the hospital when he did.”
The duo also rescued another person, this one living under tragic circumstances.
“There was a young girl, I think she was 16 years old,” Lyons said. “She met a young guy on a dating site who showed her pictures of a house he said was his but it wasn’t. She left her hometown and came here and they were living in the woods across the street from his mother’s house. She got raped and became pregnant.
“Somebody contacted Todd and he got her to come to the King’s Kitchen and I took her to Coastal Family Health. They said she had an infection so bad to where it was going into her blood system. She could have died in those woods because she didn’t know where to go, she wasn’t from here, and he just kind of left her when she got pregnant. She was a very nice young lady. I ended up contacting her parents and Back Bay Mission helped me get a ticket to get her home.”
Lyons emphasizes how important Coastal Family Health is to the homeless. “They wouldn’t have a place to get medical care if Coastal Family didn’t have a program for the homeless. That’s a big issue in the homeless community needing medical help. They can’t get the help because they don’t have money.”
Interaction with police
Local arrests for vagrancy are now rare. Gary Ponthieux, the chief of police in Bay St. Louis, explains why they may stop and question a homeless person.
“Well, typically we only contact people who we deem suspicious. A lot of times people will call us in reference to a suspicious person in a neighborhood that they haven’t seen before and our job is to investigate that. Once we get out and start talking to somebody, it’s pretty quick and the officer can determine, ‘Hey, is this person local? Is this person up to a criminal activity or is this person just homeless passing through?’
I mean, just with a little bit of conversation and investigation we can make that determination pretty quickly.”
The Waveland and Bay St. Louis Police Departments are active supporters of King’s Kitchen, giving rides to there and volunteering to feed the homeless on their off days. Pastor Mike Ramsey is appreciative of what law enforcement does for people on our streets.
“Our police departments have been really good at supporting us about bringing folks here to eat. The Hancock County Sheriff Department has done an extremely good job about finding single mothers walking down the road, others have been homeless and just bringing them here to see what we could do to help them.”
A description of the homeless life would fall short if it didn’t include consideration of a condition that can significantly impact our successes and failures in daily life. Numerous studies have shown that our self-confidence and self-esteem determines how we deal with challenges.
Of the daily struggle to stay confident, Jack says, “We’re people just like them. Made the wrong choices or were pushed into our situations that were out of our hands but we are people and we bleed just like them. We cry just like them. They shouldn’t look down upon us just because we’re in this position. You don’t know why we’re in this position. Stop and ask. You may learn something.
“Some of the best people I know have gone through hardships and they understand and they know. Definitely. Some of the sweetest, nicest people you’ll ever meet are homeless people willing to give you the shirt off their back. A lot of people hide that they’re homeless. You don’t know who’s homeless and who’s not – because it is embarrassing. You don’t want anybody to know that.”
Washington, of Back Bay Mission, stresses the importance of treating the homeless with respect.
“A lot of people see homelessness, they see what I call ‘The Faceless.’ You see them but you don’t. And that’s the sad thing about it.”
“These are human beings so we don’t call them clients. We call them guests like they’re guests in our house. We treat them as human beings because a lot of people look at them like they’re aliens. A lot of people look at the homeless population as if they’re not human beings. It’s up to people like myself to humanize the homeless population and say that these are human beings, all these people were productive members of society at one time, and a lot of these people don’t want to be in the situation they’re in.”
“How can we as a civilized society turn our backs on needy people? Every time there’s a disaster everybody comes together but they don’t see the disaster that’s been going on for so long before their eyes every day.”
Readers are encouraged to e-mail comments and suggestions to help the homeless to Publisher Rob Langrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. A compilation of e-mails may be published after the series to share the community’s ideas.