NO SHELTER is a regular series from MLK50 housing reporter Jacob Steimer, interviewing Memphians who are unhoused. 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 regular 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. They are written with the belief that all people are created equal — whether or not they’re treated that way.
When Tommie Lee Collins speaks to people, they frequently ignore him or yell at him.
Some will offer cash, but even they seem to view him as subhuman, he said. And when he brings that cash to restaurants, many won’t accept it.
Collins, who grew up in South Memphis, hasn’t had a home for about 10 years. To him, the degrading interactions with his fellow Memphians are worse than a March rain or a July heatwave.
“The hardest part of living outside is this: … When you meet people of all aspects of life, they treat homeless people like dirt,” said Collins, 60.
Roger Wolcott, founder of local homelessness nonprofit Constance Abbey, says treating unhoused people with respect is perhaps the most important thing an average person can do for them. People experiencing homelessness are used to everyone else being afraid of them and avoiding eye contact.
“I try to look somebody (experiencing homelessness) in the eye long enough to … see that person as a true human being and child of God,” Wolcott said.
While living outside, Collins said he has worked at numerous warehouses. But because of poor blood circulation in his legs, he has to sit down every 30 minutes. His bosses, he said, have never understood this and therefore fired him.
He hasn’t found a job that will allow him to sit.
Collins used to receive federal disability payments, but he’s been unable to renew these for a few years. He says this is because of identity theft.
What keeps you going?
The grace of God and the grace of God only. That’s what keeps me energized. And, knowing that my mom is somewhere in heaven, looking down on me.
I know some churches don’t always treat people who look like they’re homeless well. Are you able to go to church?
Oh yes, I got a church I go to. It’s a nice church. And they feed me, pick me up and bring me back, wherever I want to go.
What do you do for fun?
I just walk and sing.
What do you like to sing?
Gospel: “Jesus Is Love,” “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus” and “Walk With Me, Lord.”
Are you hoping to find stable housing?
Whatever God sees fit. … If I have to keep outside for the rest of my entire life, one thing I do know: When I pass away from here, I’m going to have a better home.
How could the city be more helpful?
The city has a lot of avenues for men. They could be more helpful to the women. The women have only one good shelter here in Memphis, The Hospitality Hub.
The city should help the women. Because it’s easier for a man to live out here in the street than it is for a woman. Because they’ll be taken advantage of. A lot of them are taken advantage of.
Which nonprofits have been the most helpful for you?
The Calvary Rescue Mission and Catholic Charities. They really, really work hard.
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.