- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Troy Thigpen was 15 years old when he bought a dirt bike in secret. The son of a former Hell’s Angels biker, Thigpen had always been drawn to the idea of life on the road. His mother, however, was strongly opposed to the idea. So, Thigpen kept his bike hidden for months, sneaking off to ride the open road.

After a particularly bad accident where the teenager injured his leg, his newfound love was forced into the open, and his parents “were furious, of course,” he said. His freedom was gone.

At 16, Thigpen hopped on his forbidden bike, leaving his hometown of Waveland, and headed for Louisiana. He ended up in Texas and stayed for a year and a half. Now 35, he’s lived on the road ever since. Sitting at a bus station in downtown Jackson in late September, Thigpen’s calm demeanor belied the turmoil underneath.

His words are poetic, thoughtful. Bracelets adorn his wrists; trinkets he’s found and made into jewelry. A feather is in his hat. He proudly shows off a weathered photo of his children he keeps in his wallet next to a card that certifies he has a mental illness. Thigpen has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression, delusions, suicidal with homicidal tendencies and obsessive compulsive disorder.

He mostly keeps to himself because of his paranoia but can be every bit the gentleman to strangers. Cross him, however, and you’ll encounter one of the weapons he keeps on him. He’s been in countless fights. He had a “freak-out” on a Jackson bus and pulled the cord to stop in order to avoid “turning violent.” He tells the story of the time he stabbed a man in New Orleans with a matter-of-fact ease. Then his eyes light up when he starts talking about his son who was born on Christmas Day. He has four biological children with three different women. He’s married but hasn’t seen his wife in years; they’re legally separated, and he doesn’t know where she is. Citing “bad stuff with the court” and allegations of drug use and abuse toward his wife, Thigpen said his mother has custody of two of his children. He looks back on the times he’s tried to settle down but said he’s better suited for the life of a drifter.

Thigpen is one of more than 200 people who live on the streets of Jackson. You see them at the intersection of Interstate 55 and County Line Road, holding signs asking for help. They sleep on park benches, at the bus station, abandoned buildings, under bridges. They fight the summer heat, rain falling in sheets and the freezing cold. They hold their few worldly possessions close. Many carry weapons they’ve found or stolen. All have a story about being robbed as they slept. They lost their job, lost their home, lost their family. They’re diagnosed with mental illnesses, some on their meds, some off. They’re on parole. They’re alcoholics, drug addicts. They’re mothers, fathers, children, sisters and brothers. And they’re alone.

Jeffrey Dobbs keeps to himself. A muscular man, Dobbs has a gruff exterior. He rarely smiles, but when he does, his entire face breaks into a wide grin, his cheeks wrinkling in response. Dobbs, who says he’s in his “late 30s,” has lived on the streets more than 15 years. He lives in a tent tucked away off the highway, but it was robbed last month.

Dobbs is vague about his past but says he is a native of Mobile and has family in Pearl and Madison. He doesn’t see them, saying, “I don’t want to bother them.” He’s never been married and doesn’t have children.

John Brown, 49, sees his family but doesn’t see them as often as he would like because he’s embarrassed about his circumstances.

“I don’t want them to see me like this, you know what I’m saying,” Brown said.

An admitted alcoholic and drug user, Brown said his addictions led him to the streets. He has been homeless three years. Years ago, he was in a committed relationship and held a steady job in sanitation. But he lost his job, then lost his home and, eventually, lost his family. A father of three and a grandfather, Brown said it hurts him to admit to his grandson that he doesn’t have a place to lay his head at night.

“The thing that hurts the most is when he asks me, ‘Granddaddy can I come over and stay with you? Then I have to tell him, ‘Naw,’” Brown said. “Then, he asks why. Then I got to say, ‘I ain’t got nowhere to stay myself.’ I can’t walk around the street all night with him. It hurts me ‘cause I put myself through this situation. I want to be spending time with them, but I got to get myself straight first. I’m going to get myself straight one day.”

He talks of joining a rehabilitation program. The grandson of a Rankin County moonshiner, Brown had his first drink when he was 15. He and his uncles sneaked into his grandfather’s supply. Brown was still drinking after his relatives stopped.

“Everybody else quit drinking, but I kept continuing drinking,” he said.

He’ll do odd jobs to get cash but Brown said all of his money goes toward his addiction. His drink of choice is gin. Occasionally, he said, he’ll also smoke marijuana or use cocaine.

“I ain’t got no really favorite choice of alcohol,” he said. “The cheap kind is the best kind, to get high, to get in that mood, you know? If I ain’t got no money to get that then I get a cheap bottle of whiskey.”

Dobbs will also do odd jobs around town, but work isn’t steady.

“I used to pick up cans, but there ain’t much to that no more,” he said. He carries a backpack and a plastic grocery bag. His backpack contains his “government phone,” a change of clothes, a charger and a radio. He also carries a newspaper and a 2-liter drink. Each morning, he goes to the bus station to “put soap on my hands” and wet his hair. He’ll walk the streets of Jackson, mostly the Terry Road area, he says, and then goes to Gateway for lunch. He’ll eat a few bites of the hot lunch before pulling a Tupperware container from his bag and packing up the rest of his meal for later. He attends a local church on Wednesday night, but most days he says he “goes in early.” He says he normally doesn’t carry a weapon but will if he finds one on the street.

Thigpen said he’ll have a beer every now and then but avoids drugs and drug users because of his paranoia. In a life of uncertainty, comfort can be found in the routine of the day.

For some, it’s rising after sleeping at the bus stop, eating breakfast at Galloway United Methodist Church and hanging out at Smith Park off Capitol Street until lunch at Gateway. They’ll tell you there used to be a water source at the park but there’s not anymore. There’s no bathroom either, but it’s still a place to hide from the sun on a hot day or take a nap. The library however, offers a bathroom and air conditioning, and you can read to pass the time.

Each of the three men has a different story, different circumstances, and different reasons for living on the streets. Yet each of them says he longs for a home of his own.

“I kind of choose it I guess,” Dobbs said. “I’d like to change it.”

For Brown, having a place to stay first means getting his addiction under control, he said.

“I’ll be off of it and I’ll get to worrying about something or something happens to somebody and you know, I just slide back and start back drinking,” he said. “Really, I know I can get off of it and get back straight because I have sat up in about two or three days and gone without drinking anything. It was kind of hard, but I wanted to kind of break myself and see if I can do it on my own but that’s kind of hard and I think I’m going to need a little help. I think I can get my life back though.”

For those who pass him on the street and look the other way, Brown doesn’t feel anger but understanding.

“They probably look at me and say, ‘He used to do drugs, he’s a crack head, he’s an alcoholic’ but I don’t even let it bother me ‘cause, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, he right.’ Then it makes me start thinking to do right. He ain’t said nothing bad or nothing wrong about me. I kind of wake up and know I was that.

“I used to let it worry me, but people are going to talk about people regardless. If you ain’t doing drugs or alcohol, they’re still going to look down on you, they’re still going to talk about you, but I don’t even let it bother me no more.”

Thigpen said the stability of a home would be a welcome change but a part of him would still long for life on the streets.

“I like the outdoors,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind having an apartment, but you’d probably find me in a park taking a nap somewhere instead of my apartment. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always had these fantasies, dreams about living on the street and just roaming place to place and backpacking and whatnot. I guess it’s just built into me.”

___

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

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