On Thanksgiving, at about the time most of the country was moving from turkey and filling to football and pie, Jeff was doing what he’s done every cold night for the past decade.
Trying to stay warm.
The 59-year old former electrician, who physically cannot work and cannot stop drinking, is about to spend his 10th, or 11th — he is not sure — winter living homeless on the streets of Franklin. He has spent his entire life living and working in Franklin, one of the richest small cities in the world.
For the past few years, he has had somewhat of a shelter set up in the back of an abandoned property, a stone’s throw from the shops, restaurants and tourist stops of downtown.
Going to meet with him on Thanksgiving Day, you can’t see his spot from the street— it is behind a line of houses and brush—but you can see some blue smoke rising from the fire he uses so as not to slip into hypothermia.
His eyes are faded blue, like the sky when the clouds are so far up you can’t see them, and his voice is low and gravely. He sounds, and looks, like he has been outside in the wind, cold and smoke for years.
“I don’t worry about me,” Jeff said. “I get food from the Catholic church downtown. I worry about the rest.”
Jeff, who has so little, gives much of what he has to homebound, old and poor people that he knows of in the neighborhood, especially on holidays like today. He takes them food and plates from St. Phillips. He also never forgets to set out cans of tuna for a few cats he also takes care of.
The churches, he said, are the only ones who really do anything. He has a special place in his heart for Pastor Kevin Riggs, of the Franklin Community Church. Riggs, along with Steve Murray of the Community Housing Partnership, who are working to build a home for disabled men in the Natchez neighborhood. Riggs, also, opens up the community center in the winter for those in need of a warm place to sleep.
On the coldest of nights, the Franklin Community Center will open its doors to the dozen or so men or women who live the roughest kind of homeless lives here. It is a bit of a hike for Jeff, who has a variety of health issues, but it is better than dying of exposure. Beyond that, there is not a single homeless shelter or transitional house in the county, nor a real push, outside of a few dedicated souls, for there to be one. So Jeff does his best with wood, pilfered from construction sites or found in the brush, or with an ancient kerosene heater he was given. But at nearly five dollars per gallon, kerosene is expensive, and it never lasts through the night.
“People don’t want to believe there are homeless folk in Franklin, so they just pretend there aren’t any,” he said. “The local politicians will talk about a shelter but never take action. Most people, they can go throughout their lives and unless they want to see it or hear about it, they will never ever know how many people are just barely getting by.”
He is not sure how much longer what he has will even last. His shelter is an abandoned garage with plywood windows and door. He sleeps on a moldy old mattress set on the concrete, with as many blankets as he has. Another homeless man, Fuzzy, lives in an impromptu shed adjacent. The whole set up is literally across the fence, partly shielded from view, of a construction site where $800,000 homes are being built.
“When people start to move in over there, I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “They won’t want anything reminding them of those who have less, so I’ll be run out of here.”
He said the police know about him, but there is little they can do to help him or hold him accountable. He has been arrested for vagrancy and other petty crimes that are a matter of survival for him, as his shelter is technically trespassing. But after a night or two in jail, he ends up back at his spot. An uneasy armistice exists.
He has no family, either, that could help him or take him in.
“I have a son, down in Columbia,” he said. “He would be 38 this year. We haven’t spoken since 1998. One of those father-son things, where something happens and someone says something that gets harder to get over the longer it goes on.”
Asked why not migrate north to Nashville, where shelters exist and he could get into a program, he said Nashville is not his home. Franklin is.
“I heard on the radio a little bit ago about a $289 million jackpot,” he said. “I say if I won that, if I had even a million dollars, the first thing I would do was build a homeless shelter here. Not for me but for the people who need it the most.”