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Many of town's displaced are McMinnville natives
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Nick and his dog Jupiter pass by a homeless camp near McMinnville on their way to panhandle on Friday. Nick doesn’t live in a homeless camp because he doesn’t like being around other people. Nick and Jupiter got to Middle Tennessee from Miami via hitchhiking, hoboing, and Uber. - photo by Chris Simones

It’s probably natural to wonder how the homeless people in McMinnville got here. 

Did their car break down as they were passing through town? Were they hitchhiking and this is where their ride ran out? Did they come here for work and the job never materialized?

As it turns out, the majority of the homeless population in McMinnville didn’t have to get here. They were already here.

“My best guess is that three out of four homeless people that we’ve worked with are from right here in McMinnville,” said Sheila Fann. 

Fann is co-director of HOME, the Homeless effort of McMinnville, a nonprofit organization she and co-director Tina Higgins started on Dec. 31, 2019 as an effort to aid the homeless population of Warren County.

Higgins’ interest in helping the homeless began when she met a young homeless woman in McMinnville a few years ago. “I found myself wondering if she was getting enough to eat or if she was warm at night,” said Higgins. “Then about a year ago I met a local policeman named Bill Davis who had been working with the homeless for many years. Bill introduced my husband and me to some of the local homeless and we started taking them meals every Thursday.”

Aside from Fann and Higgins, HOME has a corps of 40-50 dedicated volunteers who are critical to HOME’s success.

Rural homelessness can be difficult to detect because the homeless can live in places not easily seen.

“It’s difficult to know exactly how many homeless there are here, but we help 15-20 people on a regular basis,” said Fann.

HOME provides food, water, toiletries, sleeping bags, and tents to the homeless and attempts to steer them toward available financial assistance that can be used toward permanent housing.

Fann says many of the homeless are unemployable due to mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse. Others can’t work because of physical disabilities.

Johnny lives in a homeless camp near McMinnville. The camp is in a thick patch of woods where the ground gets muddy and the mosquitoes are relentless.

Johnny is a clean-cut, well-spoken man. He is 56 years old. He has primarily worked in construction and has suffered his share of injuries, but the main reason he can’t work right now is because of cataracts on both eyes.

Fann and Higgins have gotten Johnny a pair of glasses but his vision is still severely limited. Surgery could help but he doesn’t have insurance. They’ve reached out on Johnny’s behalf to a charitable organization that sometimes foots the bill for medical procedures but they haven’t heard back yet.

“You have to be able to see to do just about anything,” said Johnny laughing as he stood in front of his tent. “I’ve tried to work a couple of jobs but I just can’t see well enough to keep up.”

Johnny’s tent is in the woods among a cluster of others but the residents don’t really seem to interact. Johnny grew up in McMinnville. He said his family moved a lot when he was a child.

“My father would buy a run-down house and fix it up. We’d live in it while he was fixing it up,” said Johnny. “As soon as he was finished, he’d sell it and we’d move again. We never stayed anywhere more than a year or two. I never really had friends or got close to anybody because we were always moving.”

“I hate moving,” said Johnny. “If I can ever get into a real home I’m never moving again.”

Johnny has been back in McMinnville for about a year. Before that, he was living in Valparaiso, Fla., with his brother for nearly five years until his brother dropped him at a shelter there one afternoon. Johnny started missing McMinnville so he walked back home from Florida.

“I got three short rides. Other than that I walked the whole way,” said Johnny proudly.

One frigid night last February, Fann saw Johnny walking down North Chancery Street without a coat and she stopped to talk to him.

“Sheila gave me a coat and some food. I didn’t have any place to go or to even stop and rest so I was just walking around in the cold,” said Johnny. “HOME honestly saved my life. Without their help I don’t think I’d be alive today.”

A bearded guy with partial dreadlocks was also at the homeless camp. 

He was wearing dark sunglasses with bright yellow frames. He had a large knapsack strapped to his back and he had a medium-sized brown dog on a leash.

“Here comes Nick,” Fann said happily. “How’s it going today?”

Nick smiled broadly. “Doing great, Sheila. How are you guys?” The dog stretched the leash and growled lowly. “Cut that out,” Nick said to the dog. The dog cut it out.

“Don’t worry about Jupiter,” said Nick. “No need to worry about Jupiter.”

Nick isn’t one of the people HOME helps. He prefers to be on his own.

“Their food is real good and I like them and everything but I don’t like living around other people,” said Nick. “Other people always go through your stuff. I just like being on my own.”

Nick lived with his grandmother in Orlando, Fla., until 2012 when she threw him out because of his drug use. “I was really into opiates,” said Nick. “She threw me out once and I talked her into letting me come back. Then she threw me out for good on Nov. 16. I remember the date because it’s within a couple of days of my birthday. That was seven years ago and I’ve been traveling ever since.”

Nick drifted down to Miami where some people showed him how to jump trains. Then he made his way to Tennessee hoboing and hitchhiking, mostly. The last ride he hitched got him into Chattanooga and then they bought him an Uber to Manchester.

“I’d heard the panhandling was pretty good in Manchester,” said Nick.

Nick walked from Manchester to McMinnville and he thinks he’s been here about six or eight weeks. He’s not sure when he’ll be moving on.

“Every day I tell myself that I’ll leave tomorrow and then it’s two weeks later and I still haven’t gone,” said Nick. “I was thinking about heading up to Michigan next but it’s getting a little late in the year for that now. I’ll probably head south when I finally do head out.”

Theoretically, the homeless qualify to receive stimulus checks but applying for them and receiving them presents a problem. Aside from having no ID, no mailing address, and no bank account, homeless people usually don’t have laptops or smartphones and that makes it difficult for them to access the internet.

“Tina Higgins took her laptop and helped families living in motel rooms and she took it to the street to help those who are living there to help them receive their stimulus checks,” said Fann.

“It really wasn’t that complicated,” said Higgins. “I just sat down with each individual and entered their personal information into a web portal. Then one of our volunteers helped each of the people we worked with set up bank accounts at a local bank that only requires $5 to set up an account.”

Receiving the stimulus money completely changed life’s trajectory for one person HOME helped to register.

“One young man put his money to good use,” said Higgins. “He was trying so hard to find a job but in the midst of COVID-19 everything was being done online. So this young man bought a cellphone in order to apply for jobs and so he could be called for interviews. He also bought a bike to get about town and a new tent.”

“Today that young man is employed and no longer receives assistance from us,” said Higgins.

It can also be difficult to help the homeless apply for assistance because they rarely possess any sort of ID.

“Many times the homeless person has been living on the streets, in hotels, shelters, or wherever they can lay their head. Any form of identification he or she had is long since lost,” said Fann. “It can take days to get all of that together, maybe even weeks depending on the situation.”

“Once they have all the forms they need to apply for assistance, then it can take days or weeks from that point to begin receiving assistance. Even then, the organization may not have any money,” said Fann. “So that’s where HOME comes in. We try to bridge that gap between our people applying for assistance and receiving it.”

Donations to HOME can be mailed to 561 Old Rock Island Road, Rock Island, TN 38581.