About 30 homeless people — many underdressed for the chilly weather — snaked down Jefferson Avenue last Wednesday, all of them waiting to attend a housing fair at the Hospitality Hub, a community center for the indigent. But it wasn't only winter temperatures they were trying to avoid; it was jail time.
The Memphis Police Department's Midtown precinct recently began informing the area's homeless that a sweep was planned for Wednesday, December 9th. They also let them know about the housing fair at the Hospitality Hub.
According to Colonel Billy Garrett from the Midtown precinct, officers will arrest homeless people they find violating any laws, such as public intoxication or trespassing, but he is hoping many will find shelter prior to the crackdown.
"I get concerns from citizens about homeless people sleeping on sidewalks or defecating or urinating on property. They've asked us to do something to help," Garrett said.
However, there's a fear in the homeless community that they may be arrested without cause. Peter Gathje runs the Manna House, a hospitality house for homeless people on Jefferson. He said he heard concerns from homeless people gathered there last week that they'd be arrested simply for being homeless.
"We were hearing from people that the police said they would arrest anyone they found sleeping outside, and that they were going to throw all of their belongings away," Gathje said. "If they do that, there will be quite a response."
Garrett said those concerns are simply rumors: "We're not going to arrest people who aren't breaking laws."
As for concerns about personal effects, Garrett said he'd look into laws to determine what can and cannot be thrown away. Officers will allow homeless who are arrested to keep their coats, medicine, and sleeping bags. But he said they'd likely throw away cardboard boxes and return stolen shopping carts.
Though he agrees with efforts to provide housing, Brad Watkins with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center is concerned that threats of arrest will simply push Midtown's homeless into other neighborhoods.
"If you push people out of Midtown, where do you expect them to go? They'll end up in neighborhoods to the north and south, both of which have high rates of vacant homes [for squatting]," Watkins said.
June Averyt, who provides housing options through Door of Hope, Inc., helped the officers spread the word about the housing fair and sweep.
"They're trying to get [homeless] people out of the biomedical district," Averyt said. "Since I'm not a big fan of people sleeping on the streets, I don't see that as the worst thing in the world."
For ongoing reporting about the sweep, visit memphisflyer.com.