Tim Pratt: What we learned from a hitchhiker named John

February 20, 2010 9:03:00 PM

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.