Homeless find fresh start with helping hand

Published 8:16 pm Friday, December 20, 2019

(AP) — It was after dark on an evening in late September. Anna Sheffield was settling in for the night at the property of the Lee County Public Library, where she’d been sleeping for months. Then a police officer approached her.
“The cops came up to the library and said this is the last night you are allowed to stay up here. You cannot sleep here any longer,” Sheffield said.
After a year of homelessness spent sleeping in tents and under bridges, this warning might have have meant hardship for Sheffield.
Instead, she moved into an apartment the next day, with the assistance of Mississippi United to End Homelessness, which has been active in Tupelo for several years now.
Sitting in a salvaged rocking chair in the place she now calls home, Sheffield remembered the first few days with a roof over her head. Little things most people count as necessities seemed like luxuries.
“All I wanted to do was stay in the shower,” Sheffield said.
Since the night in September that the library barred overnight activity at its property, at least three other people who routinely slept there have moved into apartments.
Through the summer, Belinda Sweet spent much of her days and nights at the library, usually in a wheelchair. She broke her leg in an accident earlier this year, and continued to struggle with at least some limited mobility.
Now, she lives in a duplex in Verona, with her boyfriend Claude “Peanut” Lee.
On a mattress behind a locked door, rest came easier than laying under the open sky on the hard ground.
“I slept like a baby,” Sweet said. “Didn’t have to worry about every little noise. I know here I’m safe.”
The locked door also brought relief to Justin Hickman. After more than eight years on the streets of Tupelo, Hickman moved into the same apartment complex as Sheffield.
He admits: The quiet of four walls to call his own has been an adjustment. But he’s learning new daily rhythms most people could not live without.
“It just feels more safe than out there,” Hickman said.
The city of Tupelo first partnered with Mississippi United to End Homelessness in April 2017. The organization calls itself MUTEH, pronounced like “mute.”
Tupelo pays MUTEH to offset the cost of a full time employee based in or visiting the city. In the most recent budget, the city set aside $51,000 for its partnership with the organization.
Staffers with MUTEH routinely conduct outreach in the city, finding the homeless where they are, even if that’s hidden away somewhere in a patch of woods most people pass by every day without a second thought.
Outreach teams offer to connect the homeless with any assistance programs for which they may be eligible and provide ongoing case management. That can often take the form of help cutting through the red tape that can entangle someone trying to replace a driver’s license, birth certificate or Social Security card.
Sheffield’s most recent experience with homelessness was not her first. She’s acquainted with the struggles that afflict those who live on the borders of insecurity. The people found there are often fraught with personal struggles, addictions, fiscal challenges and absolutely no margin for error.
Escape can be difficult. And alone, it can be impossible.
“You get broken down, and you stay down,” Sheffield said. “It’s hard to get back up.”
The upward path can be slow, and the future uncertain.
Sweet and Lee are scraping by with assistance. Lee is working to get a job, but he’s hobbled by missing identification papers. Replacing those missing papers has been arduous.
The couple also has no car, limiting job prospects. They are looking to buy a vehicle soon.
“Without a ride, you really don’t have much,” Sweet said.
Reliable phone service is also an obstacle. Many of Tupelo’s homeless have phones of some sort, but use free public wifi to make voice calls. This mean inconsistent and unpredictable availability.
“Sometimes just not having cell service can keep you from getting a job,” Sheffield said.
Amid the sometimes long days and tedious obstacles, hope is powerful when it’s found. At Christmas last year, Sheffield remembers that she ate almost nothing.
But this year, she has a small Christmas tree in her bedroom. In her kitchen, a decorative statue of a family singing carols sits on the kitchen counter. Feathers collected by her boyfriend adorn it. She found it on the side of the road a few months ago, still in its box.
Much has changed in the span of a year.
“I’m smiling more,” Sheffield said.
Hickman earns a little money picking up trash around his apartment complex. Sometimes, something strikes him as full of promise.
A box fan with a long-since broken motor? Hickman took out the plastic fan blade, painted it and hung it on his wall.
After a long time living on the margins, the idea of saving something that seems lost is an idea that resonates with Hickman, who has struggled with infrequent access to the medicines he needs.
“It’s a struggle,” Hickman said. “You got your bad days and your good days. I guess everyone has those.”

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