Emails obtained by the Northside Sun show that the state not only kept its plans to install fences at Adkins Boulevard a secret, but that the structures were installed because the city of Jackson had not been able to keep the homeless away from the area.
Meanwhile, the same emails reveal a callous attitude toward the homeless on the part of some state transportation employees, with one going as far as saying, “we are kicking the homeless people at Adkins Blvd. to the curb.”
This summer, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) installed fences under the overpasses at the I-55 North/Adkins underpass.
The structures were needed to prevent the homeless population from setting up camp there, MDOT claimed. Since December, the agency had received several complaints from one business owner in the area.
MDOT had been looking into the idea for months but would refuse to share details with the public, emails reveal.
The Sun only learned of the plans after Jackson City Attorney Tim Howard announced it at a council meeting in April.
At that meeting, the council was considering an ordinance to ban camping on public property. Howard told members that if the city didn’t address the problem, MDOT “would have to erect fencing with razors and they said (it) would be quite unsightly.”
Even after Howard’s announcement, state transportation officials refused to say if they were building a fence, and that they were only looking into it as an option to address homelessness at the underpasses.
In a May 21 email, for instance, Public Information Officer Michael Flood told the Sun that he was “not able to share any details” on plans because he was not aware of them himself.
The Sun had contacted Flood a few days prior asking whether MDOT had plans to install the devices.
Although Flood said he was not aware of any plans, a May 18 email shows otherwise.
In that correspondence, Flood tells MDOT Director of Public Affairs Chris Turner and Deputy Director of Public Affairs Jas N. Smith that he had no idea where the Sun Staff Writer Anthony Warren “had heard about the fence as we held off on mentioning it to him.”
And on May 20, a day before Flood told the Sun he was unaware of plans to build a fence, correspondence revealed that MDOT official Randall Copeland had ordered the transfer of $100,000 into the District Five maintenance account to construct the fence.
In that same email thread, Copeland told Assistant Maintenance Engineer Steve Grantham to “get JW a time frame from the contactor (for) when they will be able to get started and when ... they think they will finish depending on the weather.
“Also, if they need law enforcement to clear out folks when they start work, then we will help with that.”
It was not clear Copeland’s title or who JW was. However, the email was sent to Justin W. Chapman. His position with MDOT also is unclear.
Meanwhile, emails expose MDOT’s attitude toward the vagrants.
Agency Budget Director Byron Flood said “Tell Allee we are kicking the homeless people at Adkins Blvd. to the curb. This is for a fence to keep them from camping under the bridge,” and that “I have to give the homeless credit. At least they want to be homeless under a nice bridge.” A smiley face emoji was included.
The state began installing the fences in late July. A-1 Kendrick Fence company was brought on for the work and was paid approximately $84,000.
A fence was installed on the north and south sides of the underpass.
Plans were signed off on by the Mississippi Transportation Commission, the elected body that governs MDOT, according to Central District Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons.
Simmons said the fences were needed because he and the agency had received numerous complaints about vagrancy in the area.
Simmons couldn’t recall the number of calls he had received.
Since December, Cathy Harkins, broker and owner of C.H. & Company Real Estate, at 5760 I-55 North, emailed the agency numerous times about the homeless problem there.
In one email, she asked the state if she and other business owners there could clean it up. MDOT said they could not authorize her to do so.
Correspondence shows the agency had been in talks with Jackson about cleaning up the area, and indicate MDOT had pushed Jackson to pass an ordinance to prohibit vagrants from camping there.
When asked about the fence this summer, transportation officials said they were unaware of the city’s plans to pass an ordinance.
However, in April 1 email, MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath asks if the city’s ordinance had passed.
She goes on to say that the state needed to monitor the underpasses, and if they got worse, to move forward with building the fences.
The Lumumba administration introduced its no camping ordinance at the council’s March 31 meeting. Ordinances are typically introduced at a meeting, sent to a committee for review, and then voted out of committee and put on the schedule for a full vote by the council.
The council acted fast, approving the measure at its April 14 meeting.
After the ordinance was passed, the new rules were given little time to take effect, with emails showing MDOT was speeding up the process to get the fences installed.
In an April 14 exchange between Ratliff and District Five Construction Engineer Neil Patterson, Ratliff noted that the ordinance had passed, and then asked, Patterson if he had gotten a price on a fence.
He followed up saying he would like to have a price by the following Friday.
In May, MDOT officials noted that they would be moving forward with the Canton Mart underpass next, but no funding had been set aside for the work at that time.