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Arresting Homelessness In Memphis

By Eleanor Boudreau

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wkno/local-wkno-876317.mp3

Memphis, TN – Police in cities across the country routinely ask homeless people to move from the places where they sleep--from sidewalks, storefronts, and under bridges. This happens both in organized "neighborhood clean-ups;" and less co-ordinatedly, in the course of everyday patrol. Often the police are responding to complaints from housed residents.

That's why--when the Memphis City Police decided to pair an organized neighborhood clean-up with an effort to link homeless people up with shelter--the public outcry that followed came as a bit of a surprise.

Members of the Memphis Police went to the homeless handing out cards that read: "Ready to get help?" And directed people to come to the Hospitality Hub on 146 Jefferson Avenue between nine and noon on the morning of December 3rd.

"That part of it we applauded," said Brad Watkins the Organizing Coordinator for the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, which advocates for the homeless.

But the police also told the people they handed cards to that they would be coming back a little more than a week later--and if the same people were still camped out, they could be arrested for trespassing.

After 77 complaints to the Mayor's office, the Memphis Police Department backed down on that part of their plan. When the police went out for the second time, instead of arresting people they again tried to link them with shelter and service providers.

But Mid-South Peace & Justice is not satisfied.

The organization is criticizing the city for not providing a free city-funded shelter. Dave Adams is a long-time volunteer for Peace & Justice. We spoke outside the organization's Manna House. In his frustration he referenced the city's recent decision to improve the animal shelter.

"I don't understand how it is that we can say that we cannot find the funds to provide a shelter for people, yet we can find extra funds to improve the shelter for animals." Adams said.

Homeless men can sleep free of charge at the Union Mission four nights a month, and when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. Outside those limited nights at the Mission, there's very little free shelter in Memphis, none of it provided by the city. Still, not everyone thinks more free services are the way to go.

"I don't want to be quoted as saying I equate it to building more prisons," said Mary Hamlett, who heads up the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association's rapid re-housing program, "But in a sense it is. It says it is a problem that cannot be solved, because shelters don't actually address homelessness, they provide temporary shelter."

The rapid re-housing program helps families facing homelessness. The city of Memphis is pouring effort and stimulus money into Hamlett's program.

"And it's not a band-aid on a bullet wound," Hamlett said.

Most of the families Hamlett works with are facing homelessness because of a job loss. The program helps by fixing them up with housing they can afford, and maybe chipping in on the first few months rent.

Still it leaves most of Memphis's homeless out in the cold, because it doesn't offer any help for single people, or the chronically homeless.

That's what June Averyt does. Averyt runs an organization called Door of Hope.

"Oh! We get a lot from the city," Averyt said. "The city is incredibly generous with us."

Almost right after I arrived at Door of Hope, Averyt asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. Two of the men Averyt is working to link with housing had places to be, and she had promised to drop them off. It was pouring rain, and as she drove the wipers of her car worked furiously.

Averyt sees homelessness as a social problem. "Our society accepts housing as sort of optional for people," Averyt said. "We assume clothing is not optional," she continued. "So you have to sort of think that it's a decision that we as a community have made that it is okay if people don't have housing. And I don't think that's right."

Averyt says homelessness is solvable. Just find out what people need to stay housed, and give it to them. There are resources, she says. For example, a special program to apply for social security benefits for disability, geared towards people who are homeless.

The program fast tracks applicants but, "The person who helps you apply then has to do a whole lot of the leg work for it," Averyt said.

Averyt works on what is called a housing first model, which means she'll put people into housing before they are clean and sober. That's a bit controversial. But Averyt said, as the rain pelted the ground, "I don't have any desire for people to be out sleeping in this kind of weather, regardless."

Averyt's organization is one of the many small, independent groups that make-up Memphis's complicated web of services for the homeless. A free city-funded shelter might help centralize things. As it is now, they're difficult to navigate.

Stephen Acosta has been living on Memphis's streets for 10 years. "Every time I talk to them to help me out to get me somewhere," he said, "They always send me somewhere else. And when I get to that somewhere else they want to send me somewhere else."

Acosta is sitting outside Mid-South Peace and Justice's Manna House as people clear coffee mugs from the front porch. His teeth are brown and his skin is weathered. The police missed Acosta when they went out both last week and the week before.

"After it gets dark, I just lay down," he said. Wherever he is.

As it gets colder the plight of homeless people living on the street gets more and more dire. There is hope that the attention, kicked off by the police's planned neighborhood clean-up, will bring government help. But Acosta is doubtful.

"In all these years they are talking about this is or that for the homeless, and I don't see nothing, according to my eyes," he said. "Because out here it is not fun, it is not fun. And I don't want to be out here no more."

Mayor Wharton has made a formal promise to build a free city-funded shelter for the homeless. But it won't be up this winter. The Mayor's Office says that's a long-term promise.