When Ursula Thomas recently approached a homeless person curled up under the arched stone entrance of St.Mary’s Cathedral in Downtown Memphis, she coaxed him out of his slumber with practiced ease.
“Good morning! May we talk to you? Come on now and let me see that beautiful face,” Thomas cooed.
It was just after 4 a.m., and Thomas and a small team of volunteers were spending predawn hours scouring Poplar Avenue for unsheltered homeless people as part of the Community Alliance for the Homeless Point-in-Time count, a census for Memphis’ homeless that works to bring in federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD).
Though Thomas talks to homeless people every day as a case worker for Case Management Inc., she wasn’t quite prepared when the sleeping bundle of a person sat upright and presented his face to her.
“You’re just a baby,” Thomas noted, her tone sliding from cheerful to dismayed, “How old are you?”
William, who has been homeless and living on the streets for the past five months, is 25. He has no immediate family or financial support.
On the morning William (who did not give his last name) was found huddled in a church entrance, the temperature was 27 F — below freezing but still roughly 20 degrees warmer than the icy morning when Sheley Thompson was found dead, possibly from exposure in front of City Hall on Jan. 17. She was a resident of a Lucy Street home care facility she had left the night before. Critics say the official reaction to her death lacked empathy or a realization of the problem with lack of shelter in Memphis.
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Twelve hours before the count began, dozens gathered to pay tribute to Thompson at the presumed bench where she went to sleep for a final time. Among those gathered, several called for awareness around the larger problem of inadequate shelter space in Memphis.
“Budgets are moral documents,” said Edie Love, the recently appointed clergy chairwoman for the New Poor People’s Campaign. “This city spends zero dollars on homelessness.”
The City of Memphis actually does spend some money on homelessness, like keeping warming centers open for the homeless overnight at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library at 3030 Poplar Ave. But even during winter months, the warming center is not always made available to those seeking shelter overnight. During one of those nights where the warming center was closed, alliance volunteers find several cars in the library parking lot accumulating frost, while otherwise shelterless individuals sleep inside of them on the morning of the count.
“There are no free shelters in the city of Memphis,” said Tamara Hendrix, an organizer with Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality (H.O.P.E.). “There are 40 beds for women with children and there are no shelters for LGBTQ individuals, who make up a disproportionate number of the homeless.”
Nationally, youth identifying as LGBTQ comprise 40 percent of homeless youth, according to the Williams Institute, a research institution that advances sexual orientation- and gender identity law and policy.
This disproportionate number stems from many LGBTQ youths being kicked out of their homes after they come out to their families.
H.O.P.E. organizers, a grassroots group comprised exclusively of homeless people, have experienced the city’s shelter shortage firsthand. They are intimately familiar with how different circumstances sometimes require special shelters.
For example, in Memphis, where faith-based shelters predominate, religious doctrine has the potential to conflict with unmarried couples who don’t want to be separated or transgender people who need to be housed in a shelter that corresponds with their gender identity.
In spite of the lack of city-run shelters and services for the homeless, alliance leaders say progress is being made toward reducing the homeless population. Executive Director D. Chere’ Bradshaw points to the unsheltered population’s steady decline since 2012, by 76 percent. “Unsheltered” is defined as homeless individuals who do not have temporary housing.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Bradshaw said. “There’s still a lot of work left, but we’re encouraged by these numbers dropping.”
The alliance acts as homelessness triage, connecting folks with resources available through state and federally funded programs. Their HUD-required Point-in-Time count serves as a snapshot of Memphis’ homeless population.
In spite of the hundreds of volunteers that scour Memphis streets every year looking for unsheltered persons, some will not be counted. William might not have been counted had Thomas not spotted his sleeping form tucked away in a dark entryway.
In 2014, the U.S. Federal Reserve released findings from survey that highlighted grim findings. Just 39 percent of Americans report having enough savings to survive on should they lose their income. Many Americans are one paycheck away from homelessness if they have no safety network such as family.
With a 19.4 percent poverty rate, Memphis is one of the poorest metro areas in the U.S., with large portions of its population flirting with homelessness.
It’s a reality that keeps Community Alliance for the Homeless volunteers counting unsheltered individuals year after year, and case workers like Thomas on their feet and on the streets every day, trying to document the severity of the problem.
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At Sheley Thompson’s vigil, local organizers took the opportunity to remind those gathered of the reality of homelessness.
“This could happen to anyone,” said Webster, gesturing the bench where Thompson died, now covered with flowers and a poster of her image. “You are five minutes away from someone who has to sleep on a bench.”
Note: Police and media reports initially spelled Sheley Thompson’s name with two “ls.” We have corrected the spelling in this report.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.