Oxford is regarded as one of the most charming cities in the South. Its idyllic, Mayberry appearance, however, doesn’t exempt it from issues like homelessness, hunger and poverty. Timber Heard, a 25-year-old Oxford resident, has experienced these problems firsthand. Since moving here in 2010, she has been without a residence three times.
“I was homeless in the wintertime mostly, and it was biting cold. I had one jacket that I kept with me everywhere,” Heard said. “I, actually, one night, got arrested for trespassing in the girls’ dorm at Ole Miss because I wasn’t a student. But they had a couch, and I just needed a place to stay. People who don’t think homelessness exists in Oxford are thoroughly blind, ignorant or stupid. It’s here. I lived it, and it’s growing.”
Statistics compiled by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, however, show slight improvement. In 2014, over 578,000 individuals in the United States were homeless.
That figure is a 2.3 percent decrease from the previous year.
From 2013-2014, a period of economic recovery from the recession, Mississippi alone experienced a 7.4 percent decrease in the rate of homelessness, falling in the middle when compared to other southern states. Alabama decreased by 2.7 percent. Louisiana decreased by 11.9 percent.
Oxford Police Chief Joey East agreed there has been a decline in the rate of homelessness in Oxford. In his experience, most homeless individuals are “transients” – people temporarily without a home.
“When I first started in ‘90, ’91, I feel like we had more (homeless) people then than we do now,” East said. “I think the reason for that is we had a bus stop here. We had a lot of homeless people that would come through and stay.”
Although the rate of homelessness appears to be decreasing, the stigma that surrounds those without shelter remains. Heard said more often than not, when she walks around the Square, she would be reported to the police. She said she assumed it was because she was carrying all of her possessions on her back.
“You hear people say, ‘Well, homeless people should get off the street,’” Heard said. “It’s not like we chose to be there. This is not our daily agenda. Trust me, if we had some place to go, we would go.”
Heard said thanks to her friends and a few kind strangers, she rarely went hungry. The UM Food Bank, located on campus in Kinard 213, assists students who aren’t as fortunate.
Savannah Thomas, director of the food bank, said she believes hunger is an issue on campus, but doesn’t think it’s a consistent one.
“We have regulars (that come to the Food Bank),” Thomas said. “That’s why our No. 1 thing is to keep everything anonymous and for there to be no stigma behind it.”
The food bank provides canned goods, frozen goods and other non-perishable items for around 35 students a month. Donations are always accepted.
“We’re all in the Ole Miss family,” Thomas said. “If one person on this campus looked after one more person, then none of us would need anything.”
Though she said her faith faltered at times, Heard believes a divine power was looking after her through her experience. She currently has a home and a part-time job. She’s an aspiring author and is working on a novel titled “Sons of the Widow.”
When she reflects back on the hardships she has faced – living in her car, sleeping on a wooden picnic table with only a coat as a blanket, roaming the streets until 5 a.m. with no place to go, she said she is saddened, but inspired. She survived.
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Heard said. “In my talks with God, sometimes it’s just like, ‘okay God, we’ve done this together. You’ve brought me through that, so I can probably handle what’s next.’”