Close this search box.

Jackson Councilman Vows Crack Down on Homeless Panhandlers to Prioritize Businesses, Homeowners

Several people seated for a community meeting
Ward 6 Jackson City Councilman Vernon Hartley told the Mississippi Free Press on Nov. 29, 2023, that he is drafting proposals to fight back against the growing visibility of homeless people in Jackson. He is seen speaking here at a community meeting on Nov. 6, 2023, where he joined Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes to discuss homelessness in Jackson, Miss. Photo by Shaunicy Muhammad

Jackson City Councilman Vernon Hartley says he’s drafting new homelessness-related ordinances that will prioritize the needs of business owners and homeowners in Mississippi’s capital city.

In an interview with the Mississippi Free Press on Nov. 29, the Ward 5 councilman said he does not want to ban homelessness, but that the ordinances he’s drafting would “give local government more control” to handle issues related to the city’s population. Without going into detail, he said the ordinances will be related to panhandling, homeless people settling on vacant property and feeding homeless people. He also said he wants to require businesses to install surveillance cameras connected to the Jackson Police Department’s rapid response center.

“The reality is that in my neighborhood, those are the folks keeping the lights on. And if they’re saying, ‘Hey, we got these squatters burning down houses,’ I have to pay attention to that,” he said on Nov. 29. “One of the problems is (the City doesn’t) have a roadmap of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”

“What we have been doing is relegating the responsibility of homelessness and other things to nonprofits without any city oversight,” Hartley added. “The City has to have some type of structure there to guide this.”

The Jackson City Council unanimously voted to repeal the City’s former panhandling ordinance in October 2020 after the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the National Homelessness Law Center campaigned against panhandling bans in the state, arguing that the activity was covered under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Exterior photo of the Stewpot Opportunity Center through the chain link fence
The Stewpot Opportunity Center in Jackson, Miss., serves as a respite for unhoused people who need a place to hang out and drink coffee, look for work, do laundry or just rest their feet after a long day of walking in the city. The Bezos Day One Fund awarded Stewpot Community Services a $1.25-million grant on Nov. 21, 2023, to support homeless families with children. Photo by Shaunicy Muhammad

ACLU of Mississippi Staff Attorney Landon Thames said at the time that such ordinances criminalize the homeless. “Being homeless and asking for help are not crimes, but anti-panhandling ordinances essentially punish both,” Thames said in 2019.

Councilman Hartley shared his plans with the Mississippi Free Press days after The Bezos Day One Fund awarded Stewpot Community Services in Jackson a $1.25-million grant from the Day One Families Fund to support homeless families.

In early November, he and Ward 3 City Councilman Kenneth Stokes hosted a community meeting at St. Luther’s Missionary Baptist Church urging business owners, city leaders and nonprofit agencies to join forces to create a homelessness task force to manage the unhoused community in Jackson.

“This is not about exaggeration. We’re solution-oriented and unity-oriented,” Hartley said at the meeting on Nov. 6. He named Terry Road, McDowell Road and Raymond Road as three of the thoroughfares where he sees homelessness as a concern. Although Hartley expressed a desire to see city leaders and the public unified in tackling the issues, Councilman Kenneth Stokes abruptly ended the meeting before members of the audience could participate in a planned Q&A session on the topic.

A man standing in front of a curved staircase. He is wearing a blue suit, maroon tie, and black glasses
Ward Six Councilman Vernon Hartley said on Nov. 29, 2023, that the local government does not have enough oversight of the homeless population in Jackson, Miss. He would like to see business owners, city leaders and nonprofit agencies collaborate to create a homelessness task force to support the unhoused population. Photo courtesy City of Jackson

Stokes credited Hartley at a city council meeting on Nov. 20 for teaching him a lot about the realities of homelessness in recent weeks. “I support (Stewpot). They have a lot of understanding. It’s not perfect, but think about where we would be if we didn’t have them at all,” he said.

Hartley said on Nov. 29 that while he sees the benefit of nonprofit organizations like the Jackson Resource Center and Stewpot, he believes community members and business owners are being left out of plans to expand homeless services in Jackson, particularly the Jackson Resource Center’s plan to open a new facility in 2025.

“We have a problem and I don’t want people in west Jackson, people who are poor and powerless, to be mowed over with changes to their community that they didn’t ask for,” he said.

“Once they start building that, what’s going to happen to the rest of the community? Spread the wealth. Don’t just put it in the poorest and blackest part of town. Put it over there in northeast Jackson,” he said.

‘Our Community Is Where The Need Is’

Stewpot Community Services comprises two emergency shelters for men, women and children needing a place to stay overnight; a community kitchen; a clothing closet; a food pantry; and the Opportunity Center. Stewpot offers legal services, assistance with acquiring lost identification, health services and lunch daily to those in need. They offer homework assistance, specialized tutoring, field trips and college-prep services to homeless children and teens.

The Stewpot Opportunity Center, which sits near vacant lots on West Amite Street in Jackson, is a day shelter and resource hub for those suffering from homelessness. It serves as a respite for those who need a place to hang out and drink coffee, search for work, do laundry or just rest their feet after a long day of walking the city.

Stewpot Opportunity Center Director Javonda Stanton calls the organization’s unhoused visitors her guests and treats them like family, she said. “That’s my brother; that’s my aunt. That’s how I look at my guests.”

Sheriff Tyree Jones and Javonda Stanton posed at side of Opportunity Center building
Stewpot Opportunity Center Director Javonda Stanton, pictured with Hinds County Sheriff Tyree Jones, said on Nov. 16, 2023, that the Opportunity Center is vital in keeping the unhoused community together near West Amite Street in Jackson. Photo courtesy Stewpot Opportunity Center

Stanton said she believes the Opportunity Center is the glue keeping the unhoused community in the area together. She prioritizes making sure her guests feel comfortable and safe, despite the occasional outburst from someone at the Center who may be struggling with their mental health.

“We know that no one wants a shelter in their community but it has to be somewhere,” she said, adding that some community members have expressed angst about the shelter and about seeing homeless people walking around the neighborhood.

Stanton said that while she supports the idea of a homelessness task force, she would like to see more communication between city officials and nonprofit organizations that work daily with the unhoused population. “A task force is a great idea, but you can’t have that without a conversation with the homeless and the people that work with the population on a day-to-day (basis),” she said.

A room full of people gathered to eat at a Stewpot holiday food giveaway
Stewpot Community Services hosts a food pantry and daily lunches year-round for those in need and offers hot meals during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Photo courtesy Stewpot Opportunity Center

Stanton said she would like more people to consider how homeless services like The Opportunity Center create a buffer between the unhoused community and the general public. She acknowledged that there are still areas where they can grow and that all the agencies serving Jackson can do a better job of working together.

“Are there some kinks to work out? Absolutely,” she said. “But would people rather a vacant building sitting there, or should we restore the building and house people? Our community is where the need is.”

‘The Worst I’ve Ever Seen It’

Dr. Melinda Todd attended the Nov. 6 community meeting on homelessness and said the visibility of homelessness in Jackson today is “the worst” she has ever seen. Todd works with the Urban Research Center at Jackson State University and is currently collecting data about homelessness in the capital city.

“I grew up here and attended Jackson State back in the early ’80s. You didn’t see homeless people walking around like you do now,” Todd told the Mississippi Free Press on Nov. 29.

She said she first noticed an influx of homeless people in Jackson during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Homelessness impacts the overall health of our city,” she said. Todd insisted that local and state leaders would need to work together to solve the issue.

HUD graphic showing states with highest and lowest homeless population unsheltered
In a 2022 report, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Mississippi ranks in the top 10 in the U.S. for having the highest population of homeless people who sleep unsheltered during a given night. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Earlier this year, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a Point-In-Time study showing that Mississippi is one of the top 10 states in the country where, on a given night, more than half of the homeless population is unsheltered. Of Mississippi’s 1,196 homeless people counted in one day, 761 of those people were found in unsheltered locations such as “on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation,” the study found.

Locally, some Jackson residents have blamed crime and several recent house fires on unhoused people in the area. Last December, some community members blamed people who were squatting for starting a fire that destroyed a historic home in Belhaven Heights. “We do have a huge homeless population in the areas, and it has migrated into the residential area of the neighborhood,” Vice President of the Belhaven Heights Community Association Anthony Scarbrough told WLBT on Dec. 14, 2022.

‘I Wouldn’t Wish Homelessness on Anybody’

Chris Davis, the front desk manager for Stewpot Opportunity Center, became homeless a decade ago after a medical emergency and month-long hospitalization left him without money to pay rent. He eventually found a job at the Stewpot after living in hotels and on the street for several years.

“I don’t think anything that I’ve lived through in my life has affected me more than being homeless,” Davis said. “From the death of family members, being divorced when I was younger, losing jobs, you know, things that normal people would go through—I wouldn’t wish homelessness on anybody.”

He believes the visibility of homelessness in Jackson would be worse if not for organizations like the Stewpot. “If this place wasn’t here and some of these other places weren’t here, the visibility of the homeless would be even worse, and the desperation of the homeless would be even worse,” Davis said. His experiences with homelessness allow him to empathize with people who are currently unhoused, he believes.

“One of the things people don’t realize is that when you’re out here (living on the streets), you have no sense of purpose at all. (Stewpot) gave me a sense of purpose,” Davis said. “I know guys that have been out here for years. They’re stuck in a mindset, sometimes because of drugs and mental illness. Some of them have come out of prison, and they’re stuck in a prison mindset. Some of them are just lazy; there’s that too,” Davis said.

World Homelessness Day as people stand in lines for food trucks
On Oct. 10, 2023, a day widely recognized as World Homelessness Day, Stewpot Opportunity Center hosted a block party where unhoused individuals and families enjoyed live music, a talent show, free food and were able to receive services from other local agencies. Photo courtesy Stewpot Opportunity Center

Davis said despite how people feel, there’s not one quick fix to solve homelessness.

“I deal with clients on an everyday basis that I wish I could figure out a magic fix for them, but it’s so complex,” he said. Davis still lives with the trauma of that time in his life, even though he has held a stable job and has had housing of his own for the past several years. “It had put such a mental toll on me that sometimes I fear becoming homeless again.”

Councilman Vernon Hartley acknowledged the complexities of homelessness and said that because of systemic issues, some homelessness is inevitable in every city. But he told the Mississippi Free Press he would like to get to a point where there’s a minimal effect on Jackson’s homeowners and business owners.

“We need to get a handle on it,” he said. “If these people are local then we need to direct help to keep them from being homeless, but the way we’re going, there isn’t any control. As a city, we need to come to grips with it.”

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

The Mississippi Free Press is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) focused on telling stories that center all Mississippians.

With your gift, we can do even more important stories like this one.