William Jeffrey Crane, known among homeless people as Turtle, wasn’t always homeless.
Though his memory is faulty, he remembers living with his mom in Meridian, going to Crestwood Elementary School and learning to be a journeyman from his dad.
Now, Crane, 54, is one of at least 67 homeless people living in Lauderdale County, according to Mississippi Continuum of Care Balance of State, a federally-funded coalition of local groups working to curb homelessness in Mississippi.
The actual number of homeless people in and around Meridian is possibly higher than 67, though. The data comes from Continuum’s Homeless Management Information System wait list, which accounts only for people it has identified and logged.
About five years ago, Crane had a stroke that damaged a leg, an arm and much of his memory.
A year later, a seizure landed him back at square one.
Family around him died, one by one, some from age and one from a car wreck.
“My daddy’s deceased now,” he said. “So is my mom, both of my sisters. And I keep praying: ‘Why did y’all leave me behind? Why didn’t you take me with you?’”
“Suicide is the unforgivable sin, so I ain’t doing nothing like that ... It’s tough.”
He used to be only partly homeless, sometimes staying with family. Now he has a small camp and blanket behind an abandoned store, complete with a “big stick” to keep intruders out.
With his limp, the homeless population in Meridian knows him as Turtle. He prefers Jeff, but it hasn’t stuck the same.
Many homeless people prefer not to be identified, organizers and volunteers said in interviews with The Meridian Star. Whether it’s because they distrust an organization after one bad interaction, prefer the nomadic lifestyle, or have simply not been found, they can go undetected.
Of the 67 people identified in Lauderdale County as of Wednesday, 28 are unsheltered, 16 are chronically homeless and eight are U.S. service veterans.
Hannah Maharrey, the director of Mississippi Continuum of Care Balance of State, said those veterans have been connected to resources.
In a January Point in Time report, Continuum listed the Meridian-Lauderdale County area as having the second-highest homeless population in its coverage area, behind only the Hattiesburg-Forrest County area.
The agency does not cover Jackson or the Gulf Coast, meaning those areas are excluded from the ranking. They have their own organizations, Maharrey said.
Homeless or working poor
Crane sometimes stops by L.O.V.E's Kitchen for a meal.
As a homeless person, he’s not in the majority there. Most of the free soup kitchen’s clients are working poor, said Executive Director Fannie Johnson, who also serves Ward 3 on the Meridian City Council.
Her plan to cut down homelessness has been prevention, she said.
“My concentration is the working poor and making sure they don’t become homeless,” she said.
Years ago, one client had a broken-down car, Johnson said. The problem escalated from not being able to drive to work to not being able to pay bills to living on the streets.
“I always say, that’s the difference between us and Boys and Girls Club,” Johnson said. “They give a choice with all their activities — ’What do you want to be when you grow up?’ We take away a choice. ‘Do I buy my medicine? Do I buy gas for my car? Do I fix the oil pump in my car so I can keep going to work? Or do I eat?’”
“We take that choice away. You’re going to eat,” she said.
Government assistance can help low-income people, Johnson said, but its margins are thin enough that just $10 can make the difference between receiving benefits and not.
The average 12-month per capita income in the Queen City is just more than $22,000, according to 2017 data from the federal Census Bureau. The average household income is $31,664.
About 30% of Meridianites live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.
Over the last few years, individuals and charities in Meridian have offered more food to the working poor and homeless in the area, so L.O.V.E's Kitchen has been flexible, Johnson said.
“We have people in Meridian who have such a good heart,” she said. “They just want to give, give, give, so they give the most basic thing, which is food. It ends up downhill, because by the time they get to me, they need more than food.”
Instead of upping the plates it gives out, the kitchen washes about 10 to 20 loads of laundry a week, gives “blessing bags” and shares with other organizations when there’s an excess.
When the local Salvation Army offers dinner again, L.O.V.E's Kitchen will stop serving it full-time and simply be a back-up, Johnson said. It will still serve lunch.
“It’s started to balance out,” she said. “This community donates a lot, and I think we should be good stewards of their money.”
Johnson and workers at the Multi-County Community Service Agency have helped clients get identification, find housing or land a job.
Some work at the kitchen itself, she said, gesturing to a man wiping down a table.
'They’re not coming back'
At this point in his life, Crane isn’t sure what could get him back on his feet permanently, he said.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “Is that bad?”
If he has a plan to re-enter society, he did not share it.
Many of the long-time homeless in Meridian become complacent about or even happy with a nomadic lifestyle, Johnson said, not commenting on Crane specifically.
“If they want to get into the shelters, they can, most of them,” she said. “But a lot of those people have lived that lifestyle for so long that they’re not coming back.”
Without knowing how to balance a budget or care for themselves, they stay on the streets, she said.
Outreach has been a focus for Christie Rainer, the chief executive officer of Aslane’s Mission, a Marion-based nonprofit that works with homeless people in Lauderdale County.
Around Meridian, behind a mall, under bridges and in nearby woods, there are tent cities and smaller settlements where homeless people congregate and live. The chronically homeless — those who’ve been without a home repeatedly or for a longer amount of time — tend to be loners, Rainer said.
She, representatives from Mississippi United to End Homelessness and others will regularly trek out to the woods, build relationships and try to convince the camps’ residents to accept temporary housing.
They often turn down the offer.
Struggles with mental illness, fear of not being able to pay bills, or a need to avoid family or the law all keep some homeless people aloof, Rainer said.
“We perceive that they should go into housing, but it may be that they can’t do that,” she said.
City’s focus is combating vagrancy
Asked how the city is lowering the homeless population, Mayor Percy Bland said his administration supports local organizations.
“The mayor fully supports (their) resources and initiative,” said Julia Norman, who works in government affairs for the city. She said the city council has given charitable contributions to groups in past years.
The city’s main focus around homelessness is combating vagrancy — especially drugs, crime and prostitution — by communicating with law enforcement and business owners, she said.
“It’s a commitment to the business owners and people who shop there to keep it safe,” she said, referencing Frontage Road specifically.
“That’s what our citizens are loudest about, when businesses are broken into and property is being damaged.”
“Groups like the ACLU coming in makes (combating) that more difficult,” she added.
The city repealed an anti-panhandling ordinance last November after the ACLU challenged it and similar laws in 15 other Mississippi cities.
“In most panhandling cases, in general, they make it illegal to ask for money on the side of the road,” said Landon Thames, a staff attorney at the Mississippi ACLU. “Some are more specific. You can’t do it at night or in certain places. That chills free speech, especially after (Reed v. Town of Gilbert), where they said things like that are protected speech.”
In the ACLU’s letter to the mayor, it noted that the ordinance made it unlawful to ask for money on public streets or door-to-door unless related to religion or charity, which was a “presumptively unconstitutional” and “content-based” restriction.
Newly-enforced Southern Poverty Law Center guidelines say that citizens can not be jailed for failing to pay fines. Those also make vagrancy difficult to crack down on, Norman said.
“It limits our ability to enforce laws,” Norman said. “There’s just no consequences for people who don’t have the ability to pay.”
Rainer disputes the city's efforts.
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“The city is not doing anything to combat homelessness,” Rainer wrote in a text.
Rainer added that the administration should “create acceptable spaces for them” and named a trailer park it could buy and turn into a shelter. If police form a friendly relationship with the homeless population, they will share who is selling drugs, she said.
Johnson, who confronts the problem both as a councilwoman and director of L.O.V.E.'s Kitchen, said concerns around vagrancy are valid.
“We’ve had to really watch safety concerns lately (at L.O.V.E.'s Kitchen),” she said. “We’ve got an off-duty police officer because we’ve had to call the police so many times.”
For his part, Crane has never given Johnson any problems, she said.
“He’s a sweetheart,” she said.
He is mostly quiet, does not like to ask for favors, and is patient when waiting for them. It upsets him when he walks down the street, trying to get somewhere, only to hear a horn blown behind him.
Asked what problems he lives with that others don’t know about, he responded with one word: “Feelings.”
“People will blow their horn at you, just ‘cause you’re walking down the road,” he said. “Your nerves are bad already and they want to blow the horn at you. It makes you want to jump off the roof.”
He tries to stay out of the heat every day.
“I thank God every morning for another day above ground,” he said.
“I want to keep going and going like the rabbit. I don’t want to never stop. But, see, they’ve started calling me Turtle … because, since that stroke, I don’t walk that fast. I’ve tried telling them, my name is Jeff, not Turtle.”
A minute later, someone walked by his seat in L.O.V.E's Kitchen and greeted him.
“Hey, Turtle,” he said.