Crisis PR: Memphis Homeless People Swept Up

Memphis Homeless Public Relations

Not long ago we ran a story about Detroit becoming a virtual ghost town. Today in news from Memphis police are reportedly sweeping the streets of homeless people, literally. In what is being termed as a “crackdown” on the numbers of homeless camping the streets of the city, Memphis police have come under some fire from residents over their methods, and maybe even their intentions with regard to the growing number of homeless people living on their streets.

America has millions of people with essentially no other alternative than to seek shelter where they can find it – Memphis is on a course for the worst PR Goof of the year.

Memphis does not have the worst unemployment rate, though 9.9 percent according to last month’s estimates do put the city in the bottom half of large metropolitan areas rated by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The news today, and a .6 percent loss in employment in the last year do not equal good news for Memphis obviously. The really bad news Memphis started last year when Memphis’ biggest employers started their cutbacks after the bubble burst. International Paper cut somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 jobs, and Servicemaster Co. laid off 225. Worse still, FedEx cut salaries for something on the order of 14,000 employees, while managing not to lay anyone off.

The really hard hitting layoffs though took place at local manufacturing and service business which had to cut back. All in all, over 4,000 jobs went down to the busted economy. But these numbers do not reveal the ugliness of the homeless situation in America or Memphis.

Swept Up Like the Trash

Local residents of Memphis are up in arms of the city’s initiative to, so to speak “clean up the city’s streets”, as word spread first among the homeless that police would be arresting everyone in the sweep. Police content their intentions were to help rather than punish homeless people. But just how they intended to accomplish these two divergent tasks has not been explained. But homeless people were notified to gather at a central “hospitality hub” where they were supposed to be connected with organizations who might help, it was then police lowered the boom and told them of the ensuing sweep.

The plan, if anyone can call it that, sweep certain areas of the city week after week to see if the homeless have stopped camping out. Those who are found can be arrested for trespassing. Memphis does not have any free shelters where people down on their luck can seek refuge, and even MPD Col. Billy Garrett’s contention that these methods are in the best interest of the homeless ring very hollow given the limited choices these people have. Nowhere to go, not food, and cold weather coming on – what a time to say; “leave town for your own good.”

The whole thing stinks of a Rambo First Blood type scenario where the big dog sheriff runs the undesirable out of town. But worse because of the fact that many of the homeless are life long Memphis citizens – men, women, children and yes, veterans too. It is difficult to believe that Mayor A. C. Wharton would diverge from his own thinking and campaign dogma, where on his own campaign website he suggests:

It’s time for our city to invest as much energy, time, and money in its own people and their futures as it does in big projects, new roads, and expensive infrastructure.

There are something over 3.5 million homeless people in America as I write this. Even if cities like Memphis do create shelters, the lesson of larger cities is that almost half the homeless seeking shelter are turned away because of overcrowding. Mayor Wharton has been on the leading edge of economic, civic, and civil rights initiatives from New York City down to the Bayou, he is not just some career politician with zero know how in these matters. I actually find it extraordinary this is taking place under his watch as mayor. There is a better and more transparent solution than expecting people to believe a weak PR pitch about wanting to help, when this is about throwing the baby out with the bathwater (sweeping criminal elements as well as the needy). Pointing to the city limits sign and shouting “get” would at least be honest.

What a sad state of affairs, Detroit cannot even sweep up their dead, but Memphis wants to sweep out the living. Write Mayor Wharton and other officials via the city website. Remember the campaigns always.

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