JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Hinds County Supervisor David Archie said he’s gotten several calls from residents and business owners commending him on his efforts to crack down on panhandling in Jackson.
The District Two supervisor is chair of the county’s Operation Safe Corners Task Force.
The task force was formed in late September to help cut down on panhandling through the enforcement of the state’s loitering laws.
Initially the group targeted the city of Jackson’s major interchanges and overpasses, including Lakeland Drive at I-55, East Northside Drive at the I-55 frontage road and Canton Mart Road at the frontage Road.
Archie said no doubt panhandling has been reduced in those areas as a result of his group’s efforts. On top of that, several homeless encampments set up under those bridges have been cleared out.
But far from solving Jackson’s homeless crisis, Archie said the task force has only forced the vagrants to other areas.
He points to the fact that homeless camps have popped elsewhere in the city, including behind two vacant buildings along McWillie Drive and at the former Charles Tisdale Library on East Northside Drive.
At the supervisor’s November 16 meeting, District One Supervisor Robert Graham said vagrants had also moved in around the Luby’s and Fuddruckers restaurants at the corner of Briarwood Drive and the I-55 frontage road.
On McWillie, it was not clear that the homeless had moved in behind two vacant commercial buildings behind the Batte Furniture facility.
Behind the old Joker’s building, a shopping cart and sleeping pad had been set up. Behind the abandoned auto parts building next to it, the chain link fence had been rolled back and a camp had been set up there.
And on Northside, the city of Jackson sent in crews to secure the facility, because vagrants, in fact, had taken up residence inside it.
In downtown Jackson, the homeless have sought shelter at the old First Christian Church, a hollowed out Gothic cathedral at the corner of North State Street and High Street.
Nearby business owners said homeless have been living there for years.
That building was recently purchased by a Laurel congregation. That congregation, the Fifth Avenue Church of God In Christ, hopes to establish a new church, a church-planting headquarters and temporary homeless shelter there.
And at an empty commercial property at the corner of State and South Street, there are numerous signs that vagrants were also residing there.
During WLBT’s recent visit, for instance, a couch and a deflated air mattress were sat under an awning at the site.
A hole in boarded up window revealed a mattress and a pile of debris. At the same time, a side door had been left open, revealing a pile of crumpled up clothing.
Christie Burnett, director of the Opportunity Center, said there is simply nowhere for the homeless to go, and that many individuals look to abandoned buildings as a result.
“One popular spot in winter is behind the Clarion-Ledger building, because it has a heating grate there,” she said.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, there were 1,184 homeless people in the state in 2018.
A 2019 point-in-time count shows there were around 400 homeless people combined in Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties.
Burnett, though, estimates there are as many as 2,000 homeless in the capital city alone, and points to the 3,000 or so listed on Stewpot’s roster.
“I would say there are over 1,500 to 2,000 people definitely,” she said. “We have new clients come in daily. Some are here for a minute; some are here for days. Some are very transient. I’ve been at Stewpot for 13 years, and some of them are still here.”
Meanwhile, Jackson has a limited number of shelter beds available.
That limited number has been reduced further as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have 31 beds because were following COVID rules,” she said. “Prior to COVID, we could serve between 40 and 60 people. We tried not to turn anyone away.”
Fewer beds are available, in part, to ensure social distancing can be practiced, she said.
The Opportunity Center and Billy Brumfield House are both part of Stewpot Community Services. The Opportunity Center will provide evening emergency sheltering from November 1 to March 31.
Brumfield, which is open year-round, is currently taking in 11 men in its emergency shelter each night, down from the 24 to 27 it would house prior to the start of the pandemic, she said.
Matt’s House, a women’s and children’s shelter operated by Stewpot, currently has space for 16 individuals, down from the normal 18.
Shelters beds are also available at Gateway Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army. A few other shelters in the city also have space available, she said.
Salvation Army has 80 beds, but occupancy is being kept down somewhat as a result of the virus, according to Director of Community Relations Michelle Hartfield.
COVID-19 aside, other limitations also prohibit individuals from finding housing.
She knows of one couple that currently lives at the First Christian Church. They have opted to stay there because they don’t want to be separated.
“There’s no place for them to go together,” she said. “If you’re a couple and you don’t want to separate there are few options … You’re essentially screwed.”
She said some shelters will take in couples, but they’re separated upon entry. In other cases, shelters require couples to be married.
Adding to the city’s homeless challenge is the fact that more and more homeless are being brought to the capital city.
Hartfield recently spoke to a person in the Delta who wanted to bring a disabled homeless person to Jackson because they thought Jackson would be more suited to help them.
Burnett advised against it. “People bring the homeless to Jackson, because Jackson’s bigger and they think it has more resources,” she said. "Jackson doesn’t have what it needs to make a dent (in the problem).
“We need help and support from everywhere," she said. “Mental illness and homelessness has to be discussed at the state level.”
Burnett echoed similar calls made by Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba recently, when he called out the city of Ridgeland for bringing a homeless woman to Fondren.
On November 7, video surveillance captured a Ridgeland police officer dropping a woman off at a business in the 2700 block of Old Canton Road.
At a press conference two days later, Lumumba said the practice of dropping off vagrants in the city was unacceptable. He also used the press conference to say the city needs additional help in addressing its homeless crisis.
“This is not an issue that we can turn a blind eye to,” he said. “It’s not something that we can shuffle off on (to) Jackson. It’s an issue that exists for the entire Jackson region.”