Meridian Star

Local News

July 11, 2010


No address is a choice for some

MERIDIAN — The worn, yellow tent in which Carl Lockhart sits is faded and full of holes.

    The slipshod body of the tent provides more than shade from the sun; for Lockhart, it is home.

    Lockhart, 48, has been homeless for 19 years. Originally from Quitman, he has been living in his tent on and off for about two years. About a year ago, he says he realized he would never rise out of homelessness.

    "There's people who won't never be anything anyway," Lockhart says. "I guess I fell into one of those categories, brother."

    Lockhart draws about $600 a month from disability checks and another $60 for food stamps. Without an address, he says the money goes directly to his card. At the beginning of each month, he says he sometimes rents a cheap hotel room for a week, but never for very long.

    The drone of cicadas competes with the thundering 18-wheelers and automobiles on nearby Interstate 20/59 as Lockhart describes his daily routine. 

    "I go to Love's Kitchen and get something to eat in the morning," he says. "I come back and cool off.

    "I go back to Love's Kitchen and I come back and I cool off. I go to McDonald's and get a couple of hamburgers and maybe drink two or three quarts of beer."

    Love's Kitchen is a nonprofit organization at 801 18th Ave. that gives free meals to anyone who walks in. Lockhart says he relies on it for most of his food.

    The pile of empty 32-ounce Miller High Life cans near his tent evidences Lockhart's drinking habit, though he hopes others reserve judgment of him, the same as he does for others.

    "I don't persecute anybody," he says. "It's in the Bible."

    A retired Marine Corps reservist, Lockhart started working as an off-shore oil driller near Golden Meadows, La., in the 1980s.

    From Louisiana, he became a door-to-door salesman for 10 years until a car accident (the same one that gives him his disability payment each month) and the death of his father changed his life. He began to grow distant from his family, wife and friends. Since then, he has lived in and out of Housing and Urban Development residences, friends' apartments, hotel rooms and his tent.

The problem of homelessness is one that anyone with a car has likely seen in Meridian.

You see them on the street corner, in front of businesses and behind buildings. It’s hard to give an accurate count of the number of homeless drifters who end up in Meridian due to the intersecting highways and railroads, officials say.

But homelessness is not a new phenomenon. Its roots are deeply ingrained in nearly all the world's cities, including Meridian.

Corp. A.J. Johnson has been working with the Meridian Police Department since 1990. In that time, he says that the homeless population hasn't grown significantly, but that the visibility of these individuals has somewhat increased.  

"Most of the officers, we know who the homeless are because we deal with them on a day-to-day basis," Johnson said.

Johnson said that based on the location and description of a reported homeless individual, he, and other officers, are able to give the person's name before ever arriving at the scene. He also said that most of them aren't trying to cause trouble or make a scene, just doing what they have to do to survive.  

"Our homeless problem is a problem, but it's not a major problem," said MPD Chief Lee Shelbourn. "We don't have thousands of people that are homeless. We're not talking about hundreds."

Shelbourn and Johnson estimated there are fewer than 20 individuals who are chronically homeless, but this doesn't include "transits," or homeless drifters who come through Meridian for a few weeks and then move on to another city or state.

Those who are looking for permanent housing in Meridian have options, though these options may or may not be viable based on an individual's situation.

The lowest income bracket that a single-person family must make before being approved for a home with the Meridian Housing Authority is $16,350 before taxes, said Jill Walker, manager of admissions and tenant selection with the MHA. Potential tenants also face multiple background checks, and are judged on a case-by-case basis.

Lockhart, whose annual income from disability and food stamps would total $7,920, does not qualify. Even if he did, how long would he have to wait, considering the waiting list for the single-family category is 131 people long?

"That's almost impossible to answer because the way we house a person is, when somebody moves out... we get a vacant apartment," Walker said. "Until people move out, it's hard to say how long these... people will have to wait."

Excluding tenants who can't pay or break the lease agreement, someone living with the MHA could theoretically stay indefinitely.

"As long as they're a tenant and pay their rent and go by the lease, then they can stay," Walker said.

At South Harbor Shelter, shelter manager Linda Grace Jones deals with individuals who are without housing and are trying to find employment. She estimates the number of chronically homeless in Meridian to be closer to 50, but most of them don't come to her for shelter.

"During the time that they are here, they are required to seek employment within 15 days," Jones says. "They can stay here up to three months."

Additionally, shelter residents must save 80 percent of what they earn.

The Salvation Army on B Street offers shelter specifically for men who are without housing, up to seven days for free. In that time, shelter residents there are required to bring back at least five job applications each day to prove they are actively seeking employment, said shelter manager Steve Welch.

"Some of these people can't work because of disability," Welch said, adding the 7-day limit can be flexible. "We work with them."

The Salvation Army has 20 beds, 16 of which are currently filled, Welch said.

Jones said that her shelter can house up to 32 individuals, though currently only 16 people stay there. She said during the winter months, it tends to fill up.

But Lockhart doesn't want to seek work or try to find a permanent place to live. He also doesn't want to live in government housing because he "doesn't want to get robbed."

"There's a lot of difference between people that cannot help themselves and those that choose to be that way because they've got a drug addiction or a psychological problem or whatever," Shelbourn said. "There are very few people really that can't, through our help or other people, get some kind of help."

Lockhart says while he isn't satisfied with his life, he doesn't plan to do anything to change his lifestyle. He doesn't like the way he's living, but he doesn't care to change it.

"Because they've lived like that for so long, it's their way of living," Jones said. "They choose not to come in out of the weather.

"They don't want responsibility; they're comfortable with the way they're living now."

Back at Lockhart's tent, the mosquitoes become almost unbearable. He is not bothered by the insects, and giving a closer look, he is not as estranged as at first glance.

His clothes are not particularly dirty. He smells faintly of beer. He has shaving cream and a disposable Bic razor in his tent, and it looks like he shaved earlier in the day.  

What others might consider an anomalous lifestyle is normalcy for Lockhart. He says he takes solace in his life, though he admits most people probably can't comprehend his complacency.

"Is it an issue? Yes, it's an issue," says chief of police Shelbourn. "Is it an issue that I think we got to set off alarms about? No.

"It's people that we've been dealing with for a while, been dealing with for years."


    Here are some places in operation in Meridian that assist the homeless:

South Harbor Shelter

2900 Saint Paul St.

Meridian, Miss. 39302

Phone: 601-482-9891

Salvation Army Shelter

710 B Street

Meridian, Miss. 39301

Phone: 601-483-6156

Love's Kitchen

801 18th Ave.

Meridian, Miss. 39302

Phone: 601-693-1409

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