RiverBend Tire Center owner Don Duncan stood behind a red vehicle packed at the premises of Hotel OYO on 209 S. Gallatin St. in Jackson on Feb. 20, handing out food items to homeless Jacksonians hosted in the hotel rooms paid for through public donations.
He was providing food at night after the Salvation Army provided lunch in the days after the brutal February 2021 freeze that swept the South, he explained to the Mississippi Free Press.
As the temperature began to dip in mid-February, leading to days of ice and snow that Mississippi had seldom known, some groups of people were thinking of those who might be the most vulnerable at that time—homeless people.
Duncan volunteers with Shower Power, a nonprofit that helped the homeless population get into hotels during the winter storm. “A lot of places are closed that they would normally get food from, so just trying to make sure that they’ve got some food,” he said. “We go around, and we bring lunch to everybody, but then tonight they still need more food; tomorrow morning they need something.”
“So we’ll try to give them cans of food to warm up tonight, pop and snacks for the morning and stuff like that just to make sure they’ve got something to get them by, because they’re trapped in the hotels right now with the weather the way it is.”
Free Showers and Hot Tea
Realtor and Flowood resident Teresa Renkenberger founded Shower Power and has been courting homeless Mississippians since 2019, offering free showers and hot tea to them once a week. But, when the temperature began to drop in Jackson first in January and then a major freeze hit in February, she was full of concern that some of the people she has developed relationships with might die out there in the cold from hypothermia.
Renkenberger came up with the plan of hosting them in various hotels. In order to convince people used to being on their own to go into hotels, she decided that she would drive around and call out to them.
“We have scoped the streets and like gone in vacant buildings screaming for them because we know they’re in there, and they’re hunkered down, and they wouldn’t see us, so we’d just been riding up and down the streets looking for people,” Renkenberger said on Feb. 20 standing outside Hotel OYO, one of the hotels where her group helped house homeless people.
It was the 11th day of the operation as the Salvation Army supplied food for lunch. She said they put others in hotels “throughout downtown, northeast Jackson, Pearl, south Jackson, (getting them) out of the weather.”
The same day, Shower Power Operations Manager Mary Ann Kirby explained the importance of partnership to help move homeless people into hotels.
“Just what we accomplished in this crisis alone shows that we’re better together than we are separately,” she said. “We have proven that we have collaborated with Stewpot (1100 W. Capitol St.), Salvation Army (110 Presto Lane), the Opportunity Center. We’ve collaborated with all these people, and we’ve shown that together we’re strong.”
“So today, for example, we have 137 people put up in hotels. (If) we had had to feed all of them by ourselves, we would have run out of energy before we ran out of time,” she added. “So we’ve collaborated with the Salvation Army, and they have brought their emergency canteen truck.”
Kirby suggested that the City of Jackson should repurpose abandoned buildings to provide housing and that churches and social services groups to do more.
“I would love to see some of the abandoned buildings in downtown Jackson be turned into shelters,” Kirby said.
“There are a lot of buildings that can be turned into additional living facilities, and that’s not happening,” she added. “It takes a lot of money, (so) I understand why it’s not happening, but it’s not.”
Grant to Help the Homeless Population
On Feb. 17, amid the winter storm, the Jackson City Council approved $77,880 from the CARES Act Fund as an emergency solutions grant for Stewpot to expand its services to the city’s homeless population.
Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote challenged city leaders to cede some buildings to the organization at the meeting. “We’ve got a lot of buildings, more buildings than we can use, and maybe there are some buildings in our inventory (city-owned) that we could contribute to the Stewpot effort,” he said.
Stewpot Community Services Executive Director Jill Barnes-Buckley explained to the council that her organization will use the approved money to help homeless people transition into rental spaces. “[P]art of the money allows (us to) send representatives out to other parts of the city to connect them to resources,” she said. “So the primary goal is to connect them with housing. But of course, not everyone who is outside wants to be housed, but our ultimate goal is to build those relationships so that when they are ready for housing, we are ready to get them into housing.”
Buckley explained that the fund will provide short-term rental subsidies for those experiencing homelessness and who want to be in safe houses. “Our goal is to use this influx of money to get as many people off the street as possible,” she said, mentioning the collaboration with other organizations to help the homeless population wade through the winter storm.
“We have, in the past several days, just established a network of communication between Stewpot, city of Jackson shelter at Champions Gym (1355 Hattiesburg St.), Shower Power and Gateway Rescue Mission (328 S. Gallatin St.),” she said. “We are all working from the same playbook, reaching out and finding all the people we know that are living outside and need to come in, and we’re checking on people (having) real-time updates between just those partners.”
On Feb. 20 at Hotel OYO, Salvation Army Major Robert Lyle and his wife, Karen Lyle, who have spent two and half years as local commanders of the philanthropic organization, gave out food items to homeless people in support of Shower Power’s efforts. Homeless people came from the hotel, and some from the street with sleeping bags in tow after standing by the road across the hotel and crossing over as the food distribution started.
Lyle said such a service is crucial because the people are not used to such weather.
“We’ve been partnering with them (Shower Power) to feed around the lunch hour for the last six days. One o’clock at the Red Roof (Inn) downtown,” Lyle said, as well as other places.
The initial plan was to put up homeless people in hotels for a few days because they did not expect the cold front to last so long. “We did a fundraiser to put them in hotels for just a few days. Well, the few days turned into, if I’m not mistaken, 12 days,” Renkenberger said.
Renkenberger said people have generously contributed to the effort. “The public has been very generous, and it’s in our hearts to do this, and we’re gonna find a way to make sure they stay out of the cold. And we can’t turn them back out with the weather like this. So that’s it,” she said on Feb. 20.
She mentioned some contributors to the feeding initiative, including Ridgeland-based Insurance agent Tina Clay who brought hamburgers. “There’s a (woman) from Madison, Mississippi (who) got like seven of her friends making (meals),” she said. “A local girl in Madison, her name is Sharon Silverman. She got on social media on a group email with her graduating class and got them to donate some Domino’s pizza gift cards. So I mean that the public has been so generous.”
Web of Services Needed
The first time Shower Power did the operation was in January during the first low temperature of the year when they arranged for “about 60” people to go into hotels for three days, Renkenberger said.
Apart from Shower Power’s private effort to call the homeless population into the hotels, she said that hospitals call them after learning about what they are offering. “And we’ve had multiple phone calls (from) the local hospitals (who) have been calling us with homeless patients that are getting out,” she said, before the final check-out day on Monday, Feb. 22, when the weather improved well enough.
Based on 2019 numbers, the latest available from Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, four out of 10,000 in Mississippi are homeless, which is the lowest in the country with an average of 17 out of 10,000.
“As the Alliance publishes this updated version of the State of Homelessness, COVID-19 is creating a health and economic crisis in America and throughout the world. It is too soon to determine its ultimate impacts,” the organization founded in 1983 said on its website. It lists solutions to homelessness including providing income opportunity, services, rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing.
“A reduction in work hours, a lost job, an illness or an unexpected expense can spiral into an inability to pay the rent, an eviction, reliance on extended family for a place to stay, and, sometimes, entry into a homeless shelter,” the organization said. “Helping people experiencing homelessness increase and stabilize their incomes is a primary goal of homeless assistance programs.”
United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which brings together 19 agencies to address the issue, said that “[e]mergency shelters, street outreach, and other crisis services are the critical front line of any community’s response to homelessness.” These are places where they can have food, clothing, personal hygiene, get help to resolve crises and secure housing opportunities.
National Alliance to End Homelessness Director of Communications Thomas Murphy in a statement said its homelessness solutions content “effectively maps out the most important elements of an effective homeless systems response.”
The organization said that having a crisis response system will make homelessness as short-term as possible by first reaching out to that demographic.
“An effective crisis response system is able to identify and quickly connect people who are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing homelessness to housing assistance and other services. It works because it aligns a community, its programs, and services around one common goal—to make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring,” it said.
Leveraging Social Media
Shower Power leveraged its social-media platform to generate the needed funds, and their followers responded. From an initial goal of renting 25 rooms, the operations grew to 90 rooms. “We’ve done all that we can do; we’ve spent about $55,000,” Kirby said. “These people are immensely grateful for everything that we’ve done.”
Normally, Shower Power operates a mobile shower unit from 8 a.m. until noon on Fridays at 836 S. Commerce Street in Jackson. “We’re a nonprofit, we’re a little ministry, and we give homeless people free showers and hygiene items, and we try to help them with resources,” Renkenberger explained.
Michael, who did not provide his last name, expressed appreciation for the gap Shower Power has filled, including calling out to the homeless on the streets and bringing them into hotels and providing food.
“(They search) the streets, up and down the boulevards and the streets looking for homeless people that need shelter from this freezing weather,” he told the Mississippi Free Press. “And then they’ll bring you hamburgers, pizzas. So just a really good blessing on that.”
“And they’ve got their regular thing every Friday; you’ll go and socialize and drink hot cocoa or coffee, and they’ll have snacks for you and pants and socks and deodorants, razors,” he added.