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Tim Pratt: What we learned from a hitchhiker named John

 

Tim Pratt

 

When I picked up a hitchhiker named John last Friday on Highway 82, I never dreamed what a stir he and I would cause in the community. 

 

Unfortunately, we did. 

 

In a column I wrote last Friday afternoon, which began as a hasty e-mail to Dispatch publisher Birney Imes and morphed into what you saw printed last Sunday ("The hitchhiker''s guide to Starkville," Feb. 14), I quoted a church secretary in Starkville who said, "Don''t send him over here," when I asked if the church could do anything to get John out of the cold for the night. It was 30 degrees and snowing outside, and John told me he was hitchhiking home from Alabama to Arizona with less than $20 in his pocket. 

 

The church secretary said her boss was out to lunch and she couldn''t do anything for John until later that afternoon. In the meantime, she wasn''t comfortable having a stranger hang around the church with just her and another woman there. You can''t blame her. 

 

When I told John what the secretary said, he was appalled, even though I explained the secretary''s safety concerns. I have to admit, even though I understood where she was coming from, I also was surprised to hear a church employee say, "Don''t send him over here," in reference to a person in need, regardless the circumstances. 

 

John and I both made sarcastic comments about the situation, which I included in last week''s column. In the week since, I have been bashed unmercifully in e-mails, phone calls, letters to the editor and by anonymous posters on Dispatch comment boards. 

 

It was never my intention to call out a church employee or question her Christianity. For that, I offer my sincere apology. And it wasn''t an indictment against organized religion, as some have asserted. 

 

I merely hoped writing about John''s plight would bring attention to how difficult it is for a homeless or transient person to get help in Starkville. Maybe, I thought, if I could show what a person who has fallen on hard times has to go through, it might spur a local church or organization into action, to develop some provision for those like John. 

 

Apparently I failed miserably. 

 

I''ve talked to quite a few people about John''s situation since the first column ran. Nearly everyone I''ve spoken with says there is no homeless population in Starkville. Apparently, some churches and organizations do pay for motel rooms for transient people from time to time. 

 

Since my last column, it''s hard to get anyone to return phone calls or talk on the record about options for people like John. 

 

The Oktibbeha County chapter of the United Way gives financial support to several organizations to help the less fortunate, including the Red Cross of Oktibbeha County, the Salvation Army and other non-profits, but no shelters are set up in Starkville. United Way Director Nikki Rives refused to comment for this report. 

 

Maybe Starkville doesn''t need a shelter. Even Starkville Police Chief David Lindley, who keeps close tabs on goings-on in the city, says he doesn''t know of any homeless people in Starkville.  

 

I also drove around this week, looking under bridges, scanning tree lines for encampments in the woods, and searching for my new friend John to see if he was still in the area. I had no luck. 

 

From what I''ve gathered, nobody really knows whether John was just a hitchhiker on his way home to Arizona, or if he really was homeless. According to Jennifer Garrard, project coordinator for Community Resource Connection in Columbus, John spent the Thursday night before I met him at the Gilmer Inn in downtown Columbus. Community Resource Connection paid for him to stay there and provided him with food, Garrard said. 

 

And last week wasn''t the first time John had been to the Golden Triangle. Records at Community Resource Connection indicate he also was in Columbus on March 7, 2007, on his way east from Arizona, Garrard said. 

 

The exact sequence of events surrounding John''s time in the Golden Triangle last week, however, is fuzzy at best. He told me he had been in Alabama to visit his old Army sergeant and was on his way back home to Arizona. He didn''t say exactly how long he had been in the area, but made it seem like he was just passing through. This week, however, I received phone calls from at least two other people who helped John last week. One caller had a friend who picked John up in the Clayton Village area and took him to West Point, she said. Another woman gave John food as he hung out in her shop last week in Columbus. 

 

Maybe I misunderstood John''s timeline. Maybe John was homeless and has been hanging around the Golden Triangle longer than anyone realizes. Who knows? 

 

What I do know is John''s situation has at least started a dialogue. And that was my goal, even though I might have gone about it in the wrong way. 

 

Many have asked why I didn''t offer my own home to John last Friday evening. However, he said to me, "I don''t want to impose on anybody. I''d be more than happy just to find a church or a shelter." So that''s what I tried to do. I called around and tried to find a church or shelter to take in John, but had no luck. Maybe, with the clarity of hindsight, I should have offered to let him stay at my apartment. 

 

The truth about John''s situation is still unclear. He told me he had a home, cars and other possessions, but I''ll never know if any of his statements were true. And I''m not sure at this point if that''s so important. Maybe, just maybe, his story will inspire someone to address the lack of facilities for the homeless and transient passing through the Golden Triangle.  

 

And if that happens, all the bashing I''ve endured will be well worth it. 

 

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment TM commented at 2/21/2010 7:02:00 PM:

From reading your column I conclude Starkville doesn't have a homeless problem and already has many generous citizens willing to help transients in need. Your friend John was served twice. Therefore, I don't agree that someone needs "to address the lack of facilities for the homeless and transient passing through the Golden Triangle."

Furthermore, instead of "inspiring someone" else, why don't you take action?

 

Article Comment Bubba Gump commented at 2/22/2010 7:45:00 AM:

Let's get something corrected here. Starkville/Columbus don't have a homeless problem "that shows up on your over-passes and your curbs."

There are homeless people in both towns... you just don't see them. The city doesn't either. And that is the problem.

 

Article Comment Susan Michael commented at 2/22/2010 11:55:00 AM:

Your story is indeed an inspiration for people to care for people, as we are here to do exactly that, physically and mentally. Ususally contraversy has to be present in order to get others to realize the importance of taking action insead of being passive. I am from Los Angeles, CA. where it is common to see dozens of homeless individuals from one corner to another. Some of these humans are incredibly intelligent and simply need psychological medication and some compassion from others. I believe it becomes an aversion to be involved in church/religion when some of the leaders in those kind of orgonizations seem to be self-rightous. I personally think the church secretary could have taken action by finding another location for John to be while the church represenatives made a decision. I think you really did not owe an apology. Unfortunately, we live in the "Bible Belt" where many kick someone who is already down, rather than reaching out to assist in lifting up. I have picked up many homeless/travelers in severely cold or hot weather over the past 18 years and we could not find shelter for them. Females went home with my children and me, while the males had to fend for themselves. So sad that these folks have to turn to illegal acts to survive when simple structured programs could produce brilliant pillars for our community. This has been one of the best articles I have ever read in the Commercial Dispatch. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr., President Aberham Lincoln, JFK, and many other leaders did not get us to where we are today by trying to please everybody. THANKS FOR YOU BOLDNESS!!! This is exactly what Christians are expected to do. Please note: Starkville and the Golden Triangle may not have a obvious "homeless problem" yet, time will justify the lack of organizaiton in assisting those with needs....

 

Article Comment Hitchhiker commented at 2/22/2010 1:33:00 PM:

Who is "we" in the title of this column?

 

Article Comment Homeless commented at 2/22/2010 11:22:00 PM:

"We" may be those who cared enough to make a difference and act on the problems...For those who are not apart of "We," you may need a refill on your coffee...

 

Article Comment Denise Cranford commented at 2/24/2010 1:50:00 PM:

In recent weeks, there has been concern in Starkville for those who come through our area that have limited or no resources in finding shelter. I am the Intake Counselor for Helping Hands Ministries of Oktibbeha County. One of our ministries is to help assistance those who find themselves in this situation in our area. Since most people who come through the area are not aware of our ministry, we rely heavily on our churches, the police departments and various agencies to alert us to those who need our help. Most of these agencies simply refer them to our office. Once the individual or family is brought to our attention, we run a check of our vast database system to see if they have utilized our services before. This lets us know if the individual has been in our area before and under what circumstances. We work closely with Salvation Army in determining if they have seen the individual as well.
After an interview with the client, we determine if there are relatives in the area that could house them. We discuss a plan of action for the individual since we cannot financially afford to put them in a hotel indefinitely. If they are stranded here, we can make arrangements for them to get to their destinations. We can buy them a bus ticket, sometimes working with area churches to provide transportation to Tupelo to the bus station. At times we have even assisted in finding parts for their cars so they can return on their journey. Working with area churches and businesses, we have even provided arrangements for gas in their car. We can provide meals through Starkville Café, who graciously allows us to do so. We can also refer them to the Casserole Kitchen on the days they are serving.
Since a majority of our funding is provided by area churches and their donations, we gladly accept their referrals to assist those who come to them for help.
Other resources we receive are through United Way. The organizations within United Way all work together to make our area a more self-sufficient place to live. We deeply appreciate their efforts in helping us so that we can provide emergency assistance to all in our area that meet the criteria.
By working closely with Salvation Army, clothing and other food items can be provided. We have, at times, together housed someone for an extended amount of time by working together.
Working at Helping Hands, we have had threatening situations at times. We completely understand why the ladies working alone would be leery of seeing someone while they are alone.
Starkville is a giving and loving city. We work hard to provide for our own, not just through handouts, but by encouraging people to help themselves. Not just Helping Hands, but other organizations in the area, working together, to show people how to help themselves. We help them locate other resources so that the quality of their lives will improve.
Give someone a fish and he can eat for a day; teach them to fish and they can eat for a lifetime.

 

Article Comment JC commented at 2/24/2010 2:29:00 PM:

Ms. Cranford's thorough and well-written comment merits publication as a Letter to the Editor, or maybe even a guest editorial. (In my opinion.)

 

Article Comment MORE CONCERNED commented at 2/24/2010 6:42:00 PM:

While Ms. Cranford made various valid statements regarding her experiences working as an intake counselor for "Helping Hands" organization in Starkville, those comments did not deduct a problem existing for emergency shelter and/or transportation needs. I am extremely familiar with the screening and exhausting intake format that Helping Hands requires. The assistance is definately a blessing!!!However, when an individual has reached his or her whits end, how can all of those necessary documents be easily accessed. As a woman, I too would have been aprehensive about allowing a possible threat into the church; however, another choice or place must have existed. When one is down they may need much more than simply a ride or parts for a vehicle. Needs for ongoing counseling and rehabilitation may be necessary. In Lowndes county, one in need must have a stable home in order to recieve assistance. Therefore, those experiencing more than one need are basically thown out to the Lions.. Having a B.S. degree and working towards a M.A. in Counseling and Psychology does not grant me all of the knowledge regarding our communities needs. I think the main concern is having a structured plan for emergency needs and then catering to those who are somewhat established. In my opinion, we are only throwing a fish out there and saying good luck on getting a bite while you fish. I have been on both sides of the table-major giver and major reciever. Therefore, I have a personal testimony through living in Lowndes, Oktibbiha, Monroe, and many other MS counties about the unstructured system of assistance offered in MS. This presents some significantly valid reasoning for our high rate of high school drop-outs, teenage pregnanies, sexually transmitted dieses, violence, crime, overcrouded prisons, and reduction of church attendences. While with a well thought plan of writing, I too could produce a competitive article. This has not become a trumping contest, again its a voice asking us to come together for the better good. I am not here to focus on my merits but to pray for and give to others while I am here. It appears ironic that the person who worte the compliment about Ms. Cranford's comments has the same initial. Does this person have anything to add to the content and not the accuracy of her words? Lets all come together with a holistic view to reach a point of homeostasis for our community, state, and country....

 

Article Comment Denise Cranford commented at 2/25/2010 4:39:00 PM:

Dear More Concerned:

Helping Hands does provide emergency shelter and does make arrangements for transportation, if possible. Each case is taken on an individual basis. This is also true for Salvation Army. There is not an exhausting amount of paper work involved in receiving assistance. There is some inquiries made and some background work done. So, I would think you are not fully aware of what it takes to receive assistance with Helping Hands in Starkville.

Organizations working together can make many things happen for those in need.

If we had a higher rate of homeless here, then we would definitely look into a shelter. Most churches and other organizations do not want to do this since there is a high cost for insurance, meals must be prepared daily and it must be manned 24 hours a day. Why should we have this cost when there are probably less tan 2 or 3 people a month who have absolutely no other resource. There are shelters in neigboring communities that we can make arrangements with should it be a long term need.

 

Article Comment Denise Cranford commented at 2/25/2010 4:40:00 PM:

Thank you JC.

 

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