A conversation with Parker on combatting homelessness

Ledger Parker is executive director of MUTEH, Mississippians United to End Homelessness. He received his undergraduate degree in English from Jackson State University and is currently in his third year at the Mississippi College School of Law. He and his wife Alicia have three sons. Parker recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about MUTEH and its efforts to combat homelessness across Mississippi. Since he came on in 2010, the group has grown from three employees to 40, with offices around the state.

What does MUTEH do?

“We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency. Our mission is to help vulnerable populations in Mississippi with housing-related issues. We do that by identifying (the homeless) where they are and connecting them to the most appropriate resources where they are. We say we provide ‘tenant-based assistance,’ because we get them into an apartment, put the lease under their names and help them pay the rent with the plan of them eventually taking it over. We are also working on some housing developments in the state, in Meridian, but we haven’t done that anywhere else thus far.”

When you say, “vulnerable people,” who do you mean?

“Our focus is on homeless individuals, disabled homeless individuals – those sleeping in emergency shelters or outside. The more technical definition is individuals who are sleeping in places that are not suitable for human habitation. We have a veteran focus – a lot of people we serve are veterans. The other portion of the population we serve are individuals with HIV/AIDS. Then, we serve people living with a serious mental illness, which see both in the homeless and the housing vulnerable.”

What is “housing vulnerable?”

It’s people who may go into an emergency shelter or stay with someone who is letting them sleep on their couch for a while.

How many people does MUTEH serve in a year?

In the last calendar year, we re-housed 401 households across Mississippi. If you’re a single man and you’re homeless, you’d count as a household. If you’re a woman with five children, you would be counted as a household.

How exactly does MUTEH serve these individuals?

“We do actual outreach. If you see a homeless person on the side of the road and you call us, we’ll go find them. We have teams that go into communities all across the state of Mississippi. In Jackson, we focus on the downtown area but have also gone into south Jackson. Once we find them, we conduct an assessment with them. What we look for in the assessment is two-fold: we look at their vulnerability. Who is likely to die of homelessness? We’re trying to find those people and prioritize them for services. If someone is out there and they have some kind of health issue or mental health issue, we can see that they’re more likely to die of homelessness.

“We also ask them questions to see if they’re eligible for any grants that are available in Mississippi. If they’re a veteran, we see if they’re eligible for VA (Veterans’ Affairs) benefits. If they’re citizens that have been in a state psychiatric institution, we can connect them with the Department of Mental Health. We also try to find out if they’re eligible for resources that could be used right then. If you’re a homeless veteran, we can connect you with housing almost immediately. If you’re homeless with HIV, there is money in the state to get you housed.”

Where are some of the encampments in Jackson?

“I don’t want to say exactly where they are because the homeless are sometimes targeted, but we have found them in abandoned buildings and housing. We have found them under bridges as well. I was driving down Gallatin Street from the Pilot (gas station) and I see this one-armed man using his foot to sweep together tin cans in the dirt. I call our outreach guys and tell them we need to find this guy. We go to meet him that day. He has disability income, he’s a veteran, so he could’ve been getting veterans benefits. We had a grant from the city of Jackson that we used to put him in an apartment. Once we put him in an apartment, we gave him someone to help him manage his money. (His benefits were being stolen.) It’s been a year and three months and he’s not entered back into homelessness, he’s pretty healthy, he goes to church most Sundays and he’s not under a bridge anymore.”

Is Jackson’s homeless population growing?

“I’m a big data person. I don’t have data for it, but I look around and would say it’s either has been maintained or it’s growing. It definitely has not been reduced.” 

Why is there such a prevalence of it?

“What do I have to offer someone if I’m in Jackson? I can send them to a shelter, as good as they are, and they can keep someone alive, get them clean and give them food, but in a system that’s only built on shelters, what is the person supposed to do? What is their pathway out of homelessness? In Jackson, I don’t know of too many programs that are trying to (provide a pathway).”  

MUTEH has grown from three employees to 40 in less than a decade. How have you been able to grow so much?

“I came from a church that worked with homeless people. With the programs we were working with, homeless people would come in and sit across the desk from you to get housing. I never knew a homeless person to do that. The person who could get to the desk got assistance, and others never got it. I realized that no one took the resources to the homeless population. We started applying for grants with the mission that we were going to take the resources to the homeless population. We got grants from the VA to help with homeless veterans, and other state agencies came to us and asked if we’d apply for grants to help other portions of the homeless population. That’s how we grew. None of this work would happen if it wasn’t for how awesome (our employees) are.”

What is your annual budget?

“It is $3.45 million. Most of that comes from public grants out there, from the VA, Housing and Urban Development, the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, the Mississippi Home Corporation, the city of Jackson and the city of Tupelo. We have a contract with them as well.”

What percentage of people living with HIV have you helped?

“It’s minimal with HIV. We haven’t seen a huge HIV population in homelessness. There’s not much testing associated with the homeless population right now. We’re working with the Mississippi Department of Health to provide HIV testing as part of our homeless outreach. What we want to do are health screenings, and that would be one of the things (included).”

What about individuals with mental health concerns?

“I don’t know the exact numbers on that, but my guess would be it’s 15 to 20 percent of those that are homeless would have diagnosable, severe mental illness.”

And veterans. What percentage of people you serve have veteran status? 

“In areas outside of the Jackson metro area, our organization and a lot of other organizations have worked to what is effectively an end to veteran homelessness. That does not include Jackson and the surrounding four counties. The effective end means we’ve identified every homeless veteran and offer them housing every 14 days. In Jackson, that has not happened yet.”

Why?

“MUTEH’s veterans grant, from the VA, doesn’t cover Jackson.”

Are you going to apply for a grant to help in Jackson?

“I hadn’t thought about applying for additional grants to serve Jackson veterans. That’s definitely a possibility.”

Finally, the Christmas and holiday season are here. Does MUTEH have any needs?

“A lot of government grants pay for housing but not for housing items – sheets for beds, towels for bathrooms, silverware for kitchens. Getting those items that make a house feel like a home is very important. We’re not asking for money, but we’re always looking for mattresses, couches and household items to help make a house a home. But if you want to give money, we’re a 501(c)(3) and donations are tax-deductible.”

For more information, log onto MUTEH’s website, at www.muteh.org.

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1. He drove a blue ‘77 Chevy Nova in high school. 2. He played on Jackson Prep’s 1985 and 1986 state championship basketball teams.