Kim Townsend: A Voice To, and For, Hattiesburg’s Homeless

Kim Townsend never intended to spend quite so much time in the woods.

But every few days, especially on Friday afternoons, that’s where she ends up: Pulling into store parking lots, maybe a car wash or two, or sometimes down what is apparently a road to nowhere, then walking down near-hidden paths to tents or tarps, looking for people who may or may not be expecting her.

Frequently, they’re not home. Technically, they’re never at home, but when someone has grown accustomed to living in a tent in the woods or an abandoned motel room, that becomes home to them. There’s merely no door upon which to knock.

That’s where a call of “Outreach! Anybody here?” comes in.

As homeless coordinator for the Hattiesburg Planning and Development Office, and as originator of that office’s homeless outreach program, Townsend wanders through known homeless camps in the Hattiesburg area, keeping an eye out for people she has known for years, with another eye out for newcomers and for changes in the scene.

Townsend has been in her current position for about four years. Shortly after she started, maybe six months later, she formed a street outreach team.

There had been a rudimentary effort, statewide, she said, but “there were only two men covering 71 counties” out of the 82 counties in the Mississippi. “I started asking, ‘What’s being done at the street level, right here in Hattiesburg?’”

The answer was not much. And thus was born what Townsend refers to as The Hub City Homeless Street Outreach Team.

When I joined her on a Friday morning this fall, there were seven or eight of us. Three vehicles, with trunks full of water, food, sanitary supplies. And every camp we visited was either deserted, or the occupants didn’t want to talk and didn’t respond.

“Outreach! Anybody here?”

There were a bunch of us that time. More than usual, Townsend said. One thing members of the outreach team never do, never ever, is visit the camps alone.

“Oh, yeah. We always go with somebody else,” Townsend said.

They also don’t go out after dark.

“We haven’t really done any nighttime outreach,” she said. “We’ve thrown around that idea, because we might find more people at their camps,” but the safety of outreach workers has to be considered.

In many ways, approaching people in their camps is akin to walking up to (or into) someone’s home, Townsend said. “That’s where they live.”

“My biggest job when we go out, I guess, is to establish trust. My job is to go in and try to build trusting relationships.”

No, Townsend isn’t law enforcement. Her job isn’t to make people move, or to report them to other authorities. It is sometimes difficult to convince the homeless of that, however.

She works with other city officials, with the police department, with non-profit groups, and with the homeless population. But, really, what does a homeless coordinator do?

“The title should probably be more like ‘homeless liaison,’” she laughs. “I’ve wondered about that name a lot, too. It’s not like I coordinate the homeless to do something, anything.

“I wear a lot of different hats, but mostly I’m here to work on problems that arise because of homelessness in the city. Whether that’s legal issues, problems with crime, safety issues. It’s a way for me to intervene before homeless people go to jail or get hurt.”

ABANDONED

When Townsend and I got back together a few weeks later, I didn’t want to waste her team’s time during the semi-official Outreach Team time. We went back down to one of the camps near one of Hattiesburg’s creeks, off Broadway Drive.

The camp had apparently been abandoned – what bedding remained was waterlogged, despite being under a service-

able tarpaulin. What footwear and clothing remained was similarly sodden, left on or near rocks at the side of the creek.

As camping spots go, it seemed fairly ideal. Close to (but hidden from) Broadway Drive, near a gas station and a couple of restaurants, and close to the old Courtesy Ford dealership that will soon be a resource (or drop-in) center for the homeless.

When we climbed out of the creek, over the roughly shotcrete-sprayed rip-rap, through the surrounding weeds, we encountered a young man carrying a small backpack, standing next to my motorcycle.

His name is Steven, he said. Seeing Townsend interact with him gave me far more insight into how she does her job.

So, do you have anywhere to stay, or are you outside?

Outside.

For about how long?

A few days, this time. Sometimes I find someplace.

Like with friends or family, or something like that?

Something like that.

Where do you stay, most of the time, when you have to stay outside?

Down by the high school, or over there (gestures vaguely in a southerly direction), or up there (generally westerly direction).

Do you have any form of identification?

I don’t. I’m having some trouble with getting that.

Was it lost, or stolen, or do you think it expired?

I haven’t been able to find it. I had a driver’s license, but haven’t needed it, and I just don’t have it anymore. I don’t know if it’s expired or not. That’s been a while back.

Do you remember the address that was on it, and would you be able to get it there, if they sent a replacement to that address?

I do remember the address and, yes, I could probably get it there.

She offers him a Coke, or a bottle of water. He accepts one of each and walks away.

“Sometimes,” Townsend tells me, “you know, people can’t remember their old address, or they’ve been gone so long that they just don’t know who might be living there now, or they know who does live there now, but don’t know if they’ll be able to pick up mail there.”

I wondered whether Townsend would ever see Steven again.

She might. She might not. She may encounter him again in coming weeks or months.

If so, she’ll likely remember him, the name he gave, and his circumstances when they spoke. All over town, she spoke to (or simply pointed out) people she routinely sees in the area.

The outreach team can give some support to homeless people they encounter, but the idea is to eventually help people find permanent housing, Townsend said. And that is something they simply cannot do unless people are willing to volunteer enough information to be entered into the HMIS – Homeless Management Information System. That’s how people and their information are entered into the system.

They can’t get housing assistance without being in that system. Simple as that.

“We try to serve people who don’t enter into the other different services,” she said. “We have to say, ‘we have to get you into the system.’ Some people don’t want to be in the system, and that’s all there is to it. Some say, ‘no, I’m good,’ and there’s nothing more we can really do about that.”

It’s different if there are minors in the mix. If there are children around, a report must be filed. Part of the outreach team’s mission is to do a vulnerability survey, which includes questions about health, personal history, and mental health.

PRIMARY CONCERN

Her primary concern, Townsend said, is for the safety of both the homeless and the general public.

“How can we encourage people to get the help they need?” she asked, and I felt it wasn’t a rhetorical question. “They need to know where to go for help, where they can go, but then they also need encouragement to actually seek it out. That’s not something you can force.

“People who have lived on the streets, who have been homeless for some period of time, they become acclimated to their surroundings.”

It becomes the new normal.

Hattiesburg’s new panhandling ordinance, which went into effect September 6, is one step toward keeping people safe, Townsend said.

“The idea behind that is to get people out of the middle of the street,” she said, laughing lightly, but with emotion.

And that, I know, she means quite literally.

“We have people getting hit by vehicles. It’s just too dangerous,” she said.

Specifically, on August 20, a homeless female named Angela Rigney was struck by a vehicle on Broadway Drive in Hattiesburg at about 11:30 p.m. It was a hit-and-run. A few days later, 19-year-old Bernaldo Loftin was charged with one felony count of leaving the scene of an accident causing death.

Earlier that day, Townsend had spoken briefly with Rigney at the McDonald’s on Broadway Drive.

“I was there talking to another client, another homeless man, when she came in,” Townsend said. “We spoke for a few minutes. Then later that night, she was gone.

“Yes, she was a patient at Pine Belt Mental Health. She was on prescription medication, which apparently she was taking properly. But she also had a substance abuse problem, and a lot of other factors that made her Angela.

“But sometimes the decisions people make in life are a direct result of what’s been done to them over a period of many years, sometimes over the course of their entire lives.”

Shortly before Rigney’s death, Townsend said, Rigney had spoken with a case worker at Pine Belt Mental Health regarding end-of-life plans, specifically about cremation.

“She said not to waste any money on burying her, that we should just give whatever she had left to the animal shelter here in Hattiesburg,” Townsend said. “There wasn’t going to be much of anything, but her first thought was to put it to good use.

“That’s one thing people forget. Yes, Angela was very, um, special. She was loud, and sometimes people saw her as in the way, annoying. Yes, she did some pretty wild things. But there was still a human being in there, a person who really wanted to be seen, who needed to be heard.”

NEW ORDINANCE

Before the new panhandling ordinance went into effect, there was already an ordinance regarding soliciting.

What happened last year to encourage the updated vagrancy/panhandling/solicitation ordinances? Basically, it was a matter of “trying to get people off of other people’s private property,” Townsend said.

It was also about keeping people out of other people’s personal space: The ordinance specifically lists aggressive panhandling, panhandling in a group of two or more, using abusive language while panhandling, panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM or bank, and numerous other restrictions.

Other than traffic safety concerns, the changes in the panhandling ordinance occurred because “there has been some aggression” on both sides – both by people panhandling and by people who are tired of being approached, Townsend said. “Things can escalate quickly. Nobody really wants that.”

Any person found guilty of the misdemeanor of panhandling will be fined not less than $100 and not more than $250, imprisoned in the county jail for not more than six months, or both fined and imprisoned.

Just to be clear, Townsend said, the ordinance doesn’t apply only to homeless people.

Panhandling is defined as “any solicitation made in person, verbally or in writing, requesting an immediate donation or other thing of value.” The homeless (or those pretending to be) are merely the most visible (or annoying) to some people. However, the ordinance and soliciting ordinance also applies to a variety of other groups or individuals actively involved in fundraising.

The ordinance specifies that such solicitation cannot be done on the roadway, within 20 feet of any occupied vehicle on the street, in public parks and buildings, or on private property without permission from the owner or occupants.

In a September press conference regarding the issue of homelessness in Hattiesburg, Mayor Toby Barker pointed out that “we never really know what’s going on with an individual who may be panhandling.”

Specifically, he noted, “In many cases that we have found, many of these individuals are not even homeless. I can also tell you that when you give cash to someone – not in all cases, but in many – you are perpetuating and enabling a habit, so be mindful of that when you’re out on the roadways.”

In other words, the fact that a person is panhandling does not necessarily mean they’re homeless. By the same token, not all homeless people beg.

While there is certainly an issue with homelessness in and around Hattiesburg – you can’t sit at the hub of numerous railroad lines, an Interstate highway, and a few other highways, and not expect people to travel through with no money or particular plans – the problem may not be as bad as it sometimes appears.

NUMBERS ARE LOW

In recent years, Hattiesburg officials have discovered that while the homelessness problem is significant, “the numbers are actually really low,” Townsend said. “We aren’t in a crisis situation, like some cities in California, or in New York City, or in Portland, Oregon.”

Every year, in January, people who work with the homeless around the nation “spend five days getting a snapshot of the homeless population,” she said, “snapshot” meaning “trying to get as accurate a count as we can of the homeless in our area.”

This is called the “point in time” count. One of the difficulties in the count is verification of where the homeless population lives. They are, by necessity and inclination, a highly mobile population.

Each city that expects to receive federal funding to help alleviate homelessness must “try to keep tabs on the shifting population,” Townsend said.

One question that is difficult to answer is, which people are, in fact, homeless? To answer that, you have to know how homelessness is defined.

And that, Townsend said, “depends on where you are. Specifically, the definition depends on which agency you’re working with, or where any funding is coming from.

“The state department of mental health and the school systems have different definitions, for example. The school system considers children to be homeless if they are living in a combined household.

“HUD [the federal department of Housing and Urban Development] defines homelessness as living in a place not meant for human habitation,” she continued. “That could mean living in the woods, or in an abandoned building with no electricity or plumbing. Any number of things.

“It depends on how you look at the problem. Let’s face it. We live in a state with an awful lot of poverty. There are many households here where people double up. One house with up to six families. That kind of thing. But people want to throw a blanket over the whole issue. Homelessness isn’t one single problem. Individuals are exactly that: individuals. No blanket can cover the whole issue.”

One example:

Townsend had told me that one place she routinely visits with her outreach team is a fenced-off, abandoned, seemingly vacant, motel on Highway 49 as you head north out of Hattiesburg.

When I went by to check it out one afternoon, every door in the motel, on both floors, was open. During the 30 minutes or so I was there, about 15 curious heads poked out of various doorways.

One man bummed a cigarette and agreed to talk, as long as I didn’t take any pictures of him. He stays at the motel, he said, for a few very basic reasons: It’s dry in the rooms that don’t have roof damage, the mattresses were left behind when the place was abandoned, and the chain-link fence surrounding it provides some semblance of security, making it obvious to the outside world that the space is off-limits. When the place is finally demolished, or if the owners (previous or new) decide to clear it out once and for all, he’ll move along.

In the meantime, he said, he doesn’t consider himself homeless. Occasionally hungry, but not homeless. Roof overhead, and all that.

When I was there, one of the owners pulled in. He asked me not to take any more photos. The motel had recently been acquired by a different real estate group, but as of then (late September) he was unsure what their plans for the property were. He believes the whole thing will eventually be bulldozed.

Housing the homeless is, of course, the crux of the issue.

GAINING GROUND

There are people who simply aren’t interested in settling down, who aren’t concerned with stability, who don’t fit the norm. Those who aren’t interested in a more permanent home. But there are others who are interested in such things and simply don’t know how to achieve them.

Townsend works with those individuals. There are multiple programs for people who are homeless and are interested in – or can be convinced to be interested in – finding a home.

One major question is, who counts as homeless under the qualifications listed by each funding body? Funding for each of the various programs “varies from grant year to grant year,” Townsend said, and each grant or government entity has different guidelines.

Under one program, Rapid Rehousing, some landlords – whether it’s at a freestanding house or trailer, or at an apartment complex – are more willing than others to allow low-income people.

One emerging development, Townsend said, is to encourage the individual landlords to allow the residences to be in the name of the formerly homeless client, “to give them a sense of ownership, of autonomy.”

Some state and federal grants don’t provide for that option. But more and more landlords are becoming willing to lease directly to the client, not requiring that one of the various government entities be listed on the lease, she continued. Then, depending on the grant that initiated the lease, the client and landlord “can continue the lease or rental agreement without an interruption in service.”

In other situations, the landlord isn’t willing or able to take the risk of renting to a recently homeless, and/or jobless, individual or family. In those cases, the agency involved can continue to hold the master lease, and the clients rent from the agency instead of the landlord.

One way or another, Townsend said, “we do need more options for safe, affordable, long-term housing” in Hattiesburg. “There are very few programs that can offer even housing assistance, so there are a lot of people who just can’t be helped.”

That doesn’t even take into account the complete lack of more urgent, immediate, housing needs: There is currently no emergency overnight shelter here, she said, since the Salvation Army shelter on Highway 49, south of Hattiesburg, was destroyed by a tornado several years ago.

ARRIVING AT DESTINATION

Exactly how did Townsend get to her position?

As most stories can become, that’s a long story.

She got an Associate of Arts degree from Jones County Junior College. Then she went to The University of Southern Mississippi “for a couple of years, as an art education major” before stopping. “It’s not that I didn’t like USM. I just didn’t like college. A few years later, seven years later, I loved college.”

Toward the end of those interim years, Kim married to Chris Townsend. “He had been in campus ministry at USM. Then he decided he wanted to go to law school,” she said. “So we moved to Oxford and lived there while he went to Ole Miss. We had been married for eight months. I decided since we were there I should go ahead and finish my degree.”

While at the University of Mississippi, Kim Townsend studied the liberal arts, achieving her BA in art, sociology, and history.

Art? Because she started out studying art education.

Sociology? “I was interested in the idea of why things happen, and how they’ve changed over time.”

And the rest is history.

On July 4 weekend, 2011, after both of them graduated from Ole Miss in May, they moved back to Hattiesburg.

She worked at Parkway Heights United Methodist Church for three years, mostly as a receptionist.

In that position, Townsend said, she was frequently approached by homeless people who wandered in, as well as other people, transients and locals alike, who were looking for help. The church is near the intersection of Hardy Street and Hwy. 49, cattycorner from USM, so it’s one of the busiest intersections in town.

“I got to know what we could help with, and what the other resources in town were. It really intrigued me to sit down and work through people’s stories. To see where there were holes in the story. ‘What doesn’t make sense here.’ I wasn’t born with the gift of discernment. My natural tendency is to try to give people what they ask for, what they say they need. During that time, I was learning discernment while also learning what was already available in the community.”

She left the church job to work for the American Cancer Society, citing “a passion for raising money for cancer, specifically breast cancer.” A family member with cancer prompted that move.

Eventually, Townsend said, she had numerous discussions with a city councilwoman, who was trying to convince her to work for the city. “Then it came down to one decision: Do I keep doing what I’m doing right now, do I find another safe thing to do, or do I go do the scary thing?”

She chose the scary thing, the unknown thing.

“I don’t think they anticipated me going out in the woods,” she said. “Six months later, I started the outreach team. And here we are.”

And now she goes out in the woods.

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