(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely)
It was a little after 9 a.m. Monday when Shelbyville codes official David Langford roused the man from his slumber outside John Norton's law offices on the public square.
The slender man called himself Mustoff and said he was from Ethiopia, in town to work for Tyson Foods, which was evident from the rubber boots he wore.
But Mustoff was sleeping on a piece of cardboard with nothing but the clothes on his back, a coat, pillow and part of a sleeping bag. He had no cash and no one in town he knew to call.
In broken, yet understandable English, Mustoff said that he was working at the poultry processing plant, but had not received his first paycheck and was planning to rent an apartment. But until that money was in his hands, the streets were his home.
Langford explained to Mustoff that he couldn't sleep on the public square, but a number of homeless people were already camped underneath the Duck River bridge, which is where the codes official ended up driving him.
"I hated to do that, but there's no other place for him," Langford told the T-G. "He can't stay on the square, that's for sure."
There wasn't much of a choice. Shelbyville has no homeless shelter, with the nearest one being in Tullahoma. Had Mustoff been sent there, he would have had no way to get to work.
But before Langford took Mustoff to the bridge, he bought him a hot dog and soft drink. Langford also returned to his house briefly to retrieve some sweat clothes and other winter items he wasn't wearing to give to the homeless man. Langford also gave Mustoff an unused fishing pole to help him pass the time by the Duck River.
However, while there are no shelters available in Shelbyville or Bedford County, authorities and local agencies are doing what they can to help those who find themselves in this desperate situation.
Fire inspector Brian Nicholson said organizations like the Red Cross are always ready with help for people who have lost their homes due to fire, but as far as shelter for someone that is simply homeless, Bedford County has no resources.
Dr. Carl Bailey, who has been examining the homeless problem in Shelbyville, says there are 28 to 35 people that have no place to go. Some have been sheltering themselves in abandoned buildings while others have been found sleeping in box cars on Railroad Avenue, he said.
Bailey said that several churches are working together to come up with a shelter solution similar to the one he proposed to the Shelbyville City Council and the County Commission some months ago.
Shelbyville Police Chief Austin Swing said that his department has a procedure for dealing with the homeless, although unique circumstances with a person may steer them in other directions.
Swing says most of the homeless his officers encounter are just passing through the area. Police have a form that the homeless are asked to fill out, requesting information such as their name, how many are in their party, their reason for being in Shelbyville, do they have a criminal record and if they are physically able to work.
If everything checks out with the person filing out the form, then the department will give him a voucher from Shelbyville's Good Samaritan Association, which are accepted by certain motels and restaurants in Shelbyville.
"We will get them something to eat, give them a voucher and put them up for the night," Swing said. From there, officers let them know the location of Good Samaritan, which is at 201 E. Highland St.
Another situation that police frequently encounter is someone who has simply run out of money and gasoline and is stranded in town. An allowance of $20 for fuel gets them back on the road, Swing said. Various churches donate money to this fund to help people get to their destination.
Swing said that Shelbyville doesn't have the homeless problem that it used to, and added that night shift officers say it is a rarity to have to deal with them. But Swing also said it may be due to the fact the "old-timers ... and regulars have all died."
"But we do occasionally have it," Swing said. "And that's what these vouchers are for."
Last spring, Swing and another officer were searching for a young man and thought he might be where many homeless people congregate, under the Duck River bridge. They discovered a maze of trails near the river, with encampments scattered deep in the wood.
"But these are the people that want to be there ... it was kind of like a little community," Swing said of the camp.
Help is limited
Those who find themselves without a roof over their heads are directed to Shelbyville's Good Samaritan, but director Kathy Miller says their resources are very limited.
"Right now, we're about out of food," she said. Until a new supply comes in around December, the menu is limited to corn, peas and green beans, Miller said. Donations to the organization are down and this is the lowest she's seen the supply in years.
Clothing is available for those who need it. All a person would need is a voucher from the police, and the clothing is free. Another option for free clothing is the Community Closet at 1745 U.S. 41-A North, Miller said.
But as far as monetary help to find a room, Good Samaritan is now limited to $40 per person, due to a severe lack of funding. Good Samaritan spent $10,000 more in the last fiscal year than it brought in, Miller explained. The organization has a backup fund, "but that's not going to last long."
Miller also said a person can only be helped maybe twice a year or every four to six months, due to the funding shortage.
Mustoff's situation is common, she said, with new workers having to wait two weeks before their first check. Another problem is that some more prideful people will give an address and refuse to admit they are homeless. But even if they are, they might not want help.
"We know there's people living under the (Duck River) bridge, but the thing is, they don't want anything else," Miller said. "It's what they want to do." But in years past, the tents had to be moved due to spring flooding on the Duck, she said.
However, those who are without a place to stay are helped as much as possible by Good Samaritan, Miller said. The organization can't find the homeless a place to stay -- that's up to them. But Good Sam can work with landlords and others to provide a deposit for an apartment and even help with a week's worth of rent.
But the limited funding curtails what Good Samaritan can do, and the charity writes over 1,000 checks a month, Miller said. The money is just not for shelter. Sometimes transportation is needed for medical reasons and money is also used for providing utilities.
More and more, Miller is seeing people come to Shelbyville with their families, but with no job and no one to contact for shelter -- they just show up wanting help. And with the economy in its current state, Miller highly doubts someone is going to be hired within days of moving into town.
Miller added that authorities have people fill out the questionnaires because "they have to be very careful about who they put in hotels," mentioning there had been "bad situations" in the past, and that's why they work with the police department in that regard.
"We don't turn anybody away unless it's a good, good reason," Miller said.
No one at campsite
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely)
After taking a stroll though the labyrinth of trails near the water, I found his small campsite about 30 feet from the river bank. A piece of old cardboard was there, for use as a mattress.
His pillow was there, along with a small candle, a milk jug of brown liquid, a bag from a convenience store, paper towels and toilet paper -- items given to the homeless man by Langford's wife. Some of the toilet paper found further up the trail had already been used.
Aging planks of lumber were piled nearby, presumably for firewood. Tucked up under the dirty pillow, but clearly visible, was a rusty filet knife.
Langford had returned to the river earlier to bring Mustoff some more food and to also give him the good news that there were now two offers for shelter.
But he was nowhere to be found.
Was Mustoff at work? Was he trying to find a place to stay? And when he gets his first paycheck, will he be able to support himself?
There was no way to know.