Leland Wells sits for a portrait at Manna House. He’s been living on the streets for two years. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

NO SHELTER is a regular series from MLK50 housing reporter Jacob Steimer, interviewing Memphians who have no access to housing. Although the numbers are difficult to track, the Community Alliance for the Homeless estimates that on a given night in 2021, about 200 people were unsheltered in Memphis/Shelby County. The monthly Q&As will introduce readers to neighbors they may not talk to otherwise and, perhaps, create a path to improving the way the city cares for these vulnerable people. It is written with the belief that all people are created equal — whether or not they’re treated that way. The conversations are edited for brevity and clarity.

A few years ago, Leland Wells didn’t have any reason to worry about housing.

He held a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs that paid plenty for him to afford his apartment. 

But in 2020, a “goof” cost him his job, he lost his rental and someone stole his backpack.

In the backpack was all of his government paperwork — the proof of who he is that’s necessary to apply for most jobs. 

“It was like an avalanche of b.s.,” said Wells, 55.

To dig his way out, Wells knows he’ll need to be able to concentrate. But that seems impossible when anxiety is his most constant emotion. 

To rent an apartment, he needs a job. To get a job, he needs identification. To get identification, he needs help, but the nonprofit he turned to failed him: They told him he’d have his ID in a matter of weeks, but he never received it and lost confidence in them.   

He’s sure he could sort all of this out if he just had a stable place to stay for a while — if he could just relax and think. 

Peter Gathje, co-founder of the homelessness hospitality ministry Manna House, says the key to helping unhoused Memphians such as Wells is getting them into housing. Addressing addictions, mental illnesses, joblessness and other challenges becomes much easier once someone is housed.

While the federal government now adopts a “Housing First” approach, Gathje wants the State of Tennessee, Shelby County, the City of Memphis and every Memphian to buy into it as well. 

“It should be an all-hands-on-deck kind of imperative. The people who are on the streets are citizens of this city, of this county,” Gathje said. “Every human being should have their basic needs addressed.”

Without housing stability, Gathje said he’s seen people lose their emotional, spiritual and intellectual stability. When they regain a home, he’s seen lives rebuilt. 

The other basic human need unhoused Memphians often lack is community, said Gathje, whose ministry provides this by offering coffee, clothing and hospitality to people living in poverty. 

Often, people become homeless because their relationships with family or other loved ones have been broken in some traumatic way. And then, once they are homeless, they enter a survival mode that’s at odds with building or repairing those relationships. To Gathje, the key to help people such as Wells is to both give them an apartment and surround them with people who care about them.

“(People experiencing homelessness ) are under that double bind of no community, no housing,” Gathje said. “It’s very tough to crawl out of that whirlpool of chaos … without someone reaching into the whirlpool and helping you get out … through housing and community.”

Wells, a Marine Corps veteran, lived most of his life in California, but moved to Memphis in 2017 to be closer to his mother. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in a place called Mount Pleasant, Mississippi. That’s where I was born and raised, but I lived most of my life in Southern California, from 1994 to 2017.

Why did you move back to the region?

To be closer to my mother.

Where do you stay now?

Outside, near Mississippi Boulevard.

What do you do in bad weather?

Try to get in the closest corner I can, to keep from getting wet.

It’s been a hard two years. What part of it has been the most frustrating?

The housing. I don’t want to live with anyone. I don’t trust anybody here. A couple people have asked me, do you want to come hang out with me? But no. 

If you had housing, do you think you would be able to get the other parts of your life back together?

Yes, I do. If I had a stable place to be, everything else would fall into place. Because I wouldn’t be stressed out. Right now I’m stressed. I’m stressed. I mean, everyday is stress. Stress, stress, stress. Because I don’t know what the next day is going to bring. But if I was in a stable situation, I could gather my thoughts and make a plan to do something. 

I can’t imagine. Could you describe the stress a little bit more for me?

Where I am, there’s people moving around all day long. No matter what time of day, there’s somebody moving around. And they’re up to no good. That’s a real big stress factor for me. The weather I can deal with unless it’s cold and wet together. That’s another stress factor. 

That totally makes sense — how stressful that would be. On the most stressful, hardest days, what keeps you going? 

At this point in the conversation, Wells pulled back his sleeve and raised his hand to reveal a bracelet which says, “He came. He died. He arose. He ascended. He’s coming again.” 

That’s what keeps me going. I pray. I pray. I pray. That’s what keeps me going. I’ve never thought about suicide and never will, but if it wasn’t for that…

Amen. Do you go to church?

Yes. I haven’t been in a while because I haven’t had a vehicle to get there. But I used to go to Boulevard Church of Christ on Elvis Presley Boulevard. 

And there’s not a regular bus you can take, right?

No. 

I can’t imagine the level of stress you’re describing. Are you still able to do some stuff to relax?

Nope. Because of the pandemic, they took down all of the basketball hoops, so I can’t go do that. I’m not able to run anymore, so I can’t do that. I used to run like five or 10 miles a day. 

Do you hope to be able to find housing in the next year or two?

I hope to find a job that gives me enough money, so I can go back home to California. That’s my hope.

What do you miss about home?

In San Diego, 24 hours a day you could find something to do or you could drive two hours in any direction and find something different. And the people that I met all the years I lived out there were nice people. I miss the weather too — three seasons: spring, summer and fall. 

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com


This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.