Anna Wolfe Mississippi Clarion Ledger
Published 10:00 p.m. UTC Jul 8, 2018
Despite the bright Mississippi May afternoon, little sunlight penetrates the small room where Marty Jean Pettit is living temporarily.
A blue blanket drapes the doorway, and inside, her son’s girlfriend is sleeping on a twin mattress on the floor with the curtains drawn. On either side of the door, boxes, laundry baskets and luggage are stacked to the ceiling.
Pettit, a 47-year-old Mantachie native, sits at a kitchen table covered in ash trays, dirty dishes, medicines, coffee creamer and sweetener, a box of plastic straws, a cup with a toothbrush in it. The smell of cigarette butts wafts through the air while a toddler plays with his young uncle in the living room, under a ceiling that’s caving in.
The chaotic surroundings, Pettit said, are an extension of her state of mind.
“It’s this mental carnage that is so unnecessary,” Pettit said.
Pettit is a short, stout woman with thick jet black hair and smudged blue eyeliner on her lower lids. Her face is tense, her mouth pulls to the left side of her face, and her nose and eyes twitch.
Pettit is bipolar — just like her 23-year-old son Gunner — but she’s never received consistent treatment for the disorder. She severely injured her foot two years ago, had skin cancer removed from her hand last year, and now, her feet are covered in similar-looking thick callouses that crack and make walking on them extremely painful.
Without health insurance or money to pay a specialist, Pettit has no way of knowing what it is or how serious.
And she’s been homeless for more than a year.
To understand how Pettit got here is to explore each area of a life virtually untouched by any of the safety nets constructed for people in poverty like herself.
“I feel like I just want to go home. I feel like that’s my remedy for any brokenness,” Pettit said. “There’s not a pill, I don’t think, I could take that would necessarily fix me. If there would (be), we’d eat them like M&Ms.”
It’s hard to know where Pettit’s story starts. To hear her tell it, her problems began two years ago when she fell off a ladder while trying to replace a sign outside her consignment store, ExZibet South, on Mississippi 371 in Mantachie.
Standing a few steps from the top of the collapsible ladder, Pettit held the drill to the sign and when she applied pressure, she lost her balance. She landed in the gravel on her heel and her leg bone jammed into her foot.
Pettit dropped from about 14 feet, but metaphorically, she didn’t have that far to fall to get where she is now.
Like so many of her neighbors, the single mother of two had been one injury, illness or accident away from homelessness long before she fell off a ladder and shattered her heel.
In the United States, four out of 10 adults do not have a reserve of $400, and could not afford that kind of unexpected expense — a medical emergency, for example — without selling something or borrowing money.
Mississippi also has the highest rate of medical bankruptcy of any state, according to a 2017 Urban Institute study, which showed that 37 percent of Mississippians had past-due medical debt in 2015.
A report issued by the United Nations in May found the United States has the highest rate of income inequality of all Western countries. People here live shorter and sicker lives.
The report criticized the country’s ”neglectful” policy response to poverty in the last five decades, but said that the policy direction in the last year in particular — large tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy, reducing public assistance for the poor, and deregulation — “seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned.”
And nowhere is this better illustrated than in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country and where many lawmakers regard tax cuts above all other policy. In 2016, months before President Donald Trump was elected, Gov. Phil Bryant signed the largest tax cut in state history.
Meanwhile, nearly one in five people in Pettit’s county, Itawamba, live in poverty. Itawamba is also overwhelmingly white — 91 percent — for a county in a state with the highest African-American population in the country.
Itawamba’s unemployment rate in May was 4.4 percent, lower than the state rate of 5.1 percent.
Pettit left her last “stable” job — a furniture factory where she was making $9 an hour, a poverty wage according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s wage calculator — years ago to open her thrift store.
In Itawamba County, a living wage for a single person is $10.25 an hour, which shoots up to $22.62 for a single mom with two kids. Minimum wage in Mississippi mirrors the federal $7.25 minimum wage, set nearly a decade ago.
Pettit’s representative in the state Senate, Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, said his district actually has a labor shortage, with many employers struggling to fill positions because of the low wages they offer. McMahan said $12.50 is the floor, and that companies will have trouble retaining employees for less than that.
“They’ve got to pay a wage where a man or a woman, the head of a household, can afford to raise their children,” McMahan said.
McMahan said he would entertain raising the minimum wage to a living wage — in exchange for the elimination of public assistance programs.
Running the thrift store did not provide Pettit with enough income to support herself, so she rented a three-bedroom house with three other families. She worked odd jobs, such as lawn mowing and painting, to make ends meet.
After her injury, and a surgery involving having a metal plate and screws placed in her foot, Pettit was bedridden for four months.
She tried to keep operating the store while in a wheelchair — sweeping, setting up her displays and greeting customers. Pettit couldn’t do the manual labor that was paying her bills, so she left her apartment and sold all her belongings.
She moved into a room at the back of the store — a musty concrete studio with no windows, where Pettit used to do art projects. No shower. No kitchen. No heat or air conditioning.
“It broke my heart,” said Pettit’s daughter Sky, a 19-year-old student at Mississippi State University.
Pettit has hyperthyroidism, which can cause changes in mood similar to bipolar disorder. Along with everything else, she had lost access to her thyroid medication.
That’s when Sky said she first recognized her mom was really struggling.
“She was just crying and crying and crying about how she wasn’t going to be able to get back on her feet again, literally, almost, in a sense,” Sky said. “Seeing her cry and cry about how she wants to help herself but she just knew she wasn’t going to get back up … it was kind of strange considering that was my momma and she’s such a powerful woman.”
Eventually running the store became too much, and Pettit gave up the building to a new store owner. She continued to live in the back of the building through last winter.
Pettit said dozens of locals have witnessed her recent decline financially, physically, mentally. Many have offered their support — a place to stay, money for a doctor’s visit, free health care services — where the system has failed her.
She’s been visited by the local mental health crisis team, a sheriff’s officer and agents from Mississippi United to End Homelessness in recent weeks. None of them could provide meaningful assistance — either because the supports don’t exist or she doesn’t qualify for them.
Pettit has applied for disability — the last safety net available to her — and was denied twice. Her last chance is at a hearing before the federal administrative law judge in August.
‘Slapped in the face’
Pettit finally accepted the offer from a former customer of her store, Jeannine Franks, to come stay in her house just blocks away. In the last three months, Franks has supported Pettit and driven her to appointments — to see a doctor, counselor, lawmaker or the attorney working on her so far unsuccessful disability case.
Franks, who has psoriatic arthritis, is on disability. She said she can’t remember the initial ailment she listed to qualify, but she, like Pettit, also suffers from thyroid problems that can prompt bouts of depression if poorly managed.
It’s one of the reasons the two women relate.
“It’s the feeling of the world falling down around you,” Franks said of the emotions the thyroid imbalance creates. “It’s like nobody likes you and you might as well eat worms.”
Franks said she’s offered help to many people through the years. The inclination to assist others, she said, might come from her nursing background.
“In some cases, they just wanted what they can get out of me and not wanting to do any better,” Franks said. “Marty’s not like that. She works. She works around here. It’s just like they’ve done her wrong. When you work all these years, putting money back, and then the government says you have to fight for what is yours … She’s been slapped in the face.”
Pettit started her first job sewing Levis — 501 blues — when she was 16. For most of her adult life, she worked on production lines in factories. She worked in furniture manufacturing. She sprayed weed killer for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grounds-keeping contractor. She did odd jobs: painting, landscaping, cleaning, interior design and event planning for people in her neighborhood.
Before her injury, Pettit said she used work to stave off bad feelings.
“I never had two weeks to take off and go crazy in my life, ’cause I had two kids that I had to feed and I always had to go to work,” Pettit said. “As I’ve become cripple now and I’m not physically able, I can see a shift in my own mentality. Because you can’t take a high-strung, creative mind … and put that in a body that won’t go. That disrupts the universe, is what I say. It’s been horrible on me mentally.”
When Pettit divorced her children’s father, she was forced out of their house and found herself on a long path of financial instability, despite her constant employment.
While women earn roughly 80 cents on the dollar to men nationally, women in Itawamba earn 64 cents on the dollar compared to men. Women age 35 to 44 make up the largest population in the county living in poverty.
Pettit does recall one time when things were really going well, when she was working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractor between 2004 and 2011 and earning a decent wage. She was also going to Itawamba Community College, where she studied her passion, interior design. She never finished a degree, but the time she spent studying there is a point of pride for Pettit.
She even bought her own double-wide mobile home. The owner said Pettit could keep it on her property, but then changed her mind.
Pettit couldn’t find any equipped land she could afford to rent, so she moved the home to a temporary lot. She made payments on the home for three years without ever getting to live in it, until it sustained a leak and she had to sell, ultimately losing her investment. She hasn’t owned a home — the primary key to building wealth — since then.
“It’s like every time I work myself to death just to lose, or for somebody else to just take it,” Pettit said.
Mental illness another setback
Then there’s the stress of taking care of her son Gunner, who was diagnosed with bipolar and intermittent explosive disorder when he was 8 years old.
Pettit said her son turns into a “monster” during his episodes, but she still sees him as her little boy, who will cry and apologize afterward. He has been arrested several times and each time, it’s just another setback for Pettit.
She thinks, “What if I still had all the money I spent on bail or getting my car out of the impound?”
At the time of the interview, Gunner said he and his girlfriend were living in the workshop behind the store, but they would often hang out at Franks’ house during the day.
He recently started receiving outpatient treatment, including counseling and medication, from the local community mental health center, Region 3 or LIFECORE Health Group. The clinic is 20 miles away in Tupelo.
Gunner finds a ride and scrounges up $25, usually from mowing people’s lawns, to pay for an appointment every other week. He found a coupon for his medication, but he said he didn’t know how long it would last.
“It isn’t a broken system, in my opinion,” Gunner said. ”You can legitimately be rehabilitated. You can be treated. You can be counseled. It’s not an unrealistic thing. The problem is … I don’t have Medicaid. I don’t have no medical coverage. Well, I can’t go back to the LIFECORE program in Tupelo, for instance, until I find a medical or some kind of charitable thing that’s going to help me pay for my medications because I can’t pay out of my pocket.”
He demonstrates a keen sense of self-awareness and says he takes responsibility for the times his poor temper has gotten him in trouble — an attitude he’s adopted with the help of counseling.
Gunner has since gone back to Itawamba County jail on charges of kidnapping and aggravated domestic violence, derailing Pettit’s effort to get herself help as she tries to find money for bail — or at least a phone call.
LIFECORE crisis staff said they can’t do anything for Gunner but assured the Clarion Ledger that doctors in the jail would continue his scheduled medication.
After an outbreak — in which he called 911 from inside the jail — officers put Gunner in a “perfectly legal” restraint chair “until he cooled down,” said jail administrator Vicky Russell.
Russell also said Gunner is receiving his medication but has not seen a counselor.
She said the jail and sheriff’s officers have been overburdened with folks with mental illnesses since the state began closing beds at the state hospital. Though Itawamba is served by Region 3, or LIFECORE, in Tupelo, Russell said her area does not have a community mental health center.
“Anywhere you send a mentally ill person, within 21 days they are released,” Russell said. “There’s no where to put them.”
When he was younger, Gunner received health insurance through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, part of the Medicaid program. As soon as he turned 18, he was cut off from coverage.
“Here you got this mentally ill person who’s been that way since they were 8 years old and all these years of treatment and trying different things and all of a sudden it’s gone. The medicine’s gone and everything’s gone,” Pettit said. “My situation with Gunner has probably, in the last five years, beat me to the ground mentally more than anything.”
Pettit has had little success herself with counseling from LIFECORE. One day, she got Franks to agree to take her an hour away to a LIFECORE counselor in Houston in Chickasaw County, where Gunner was living at the time. When Pettit arrived at the time of her appointment, she learned she couldn’t be seen because her counselor had “gotten behind schedule.”
The state’s 14 community mental health centers are not state-operated, so the quality, delivery and range of services can vary greatly from region to region.
The U.S. Department of Justice has for years told the state’s primary mental health agency, Department of Mental Health, to divert funds from mental institutions to the community, where experts agree most folks with mental illnesses are best served. The state saw its first real diversion of funds, $10 million, to community centers in the 2019 budget.
Pettit said she saw a counselor at LIFECORE in Tupelo a couple months ago and was told she would need to be assigned a case worker, considering her all-encompassing needs.
“I didn’t hear nothing from her the next week so I called and they acted like they didn’t know what I was talking about,” Pettit said.
She got so mad, she vowed never to go back.
“I like to think that it is a rare case; unfortunately people do (fall through the cracks),” said LIFECORE director Rita Berthay, who could not comment on Pettit’s case specifically. “We do everything in our power to prevent that.”
‘Workhorse is down’
It’s hard for Pettit to see others receiving the assistance she seeks, such as disability and Social Security benefits, and not feel cheated.
As she talks, her top lip starts to curl up over her front teeth, and her focus shifts from the unhelpful receptionist at the community mental health center to immigrants.
(Itawamba’s population is less than 2 percent Hispanic and 99 percent of residents are U.S. citizens, according to census data).
Her attention turns from the “hoops” she has to jump through to prove her disability to the people she says have been “drawing a check” and have “never worked their whole lives.”
“Not that human beings don’t need help. I’m all for helping people that need help,” Pettit said.
Though Pettit has never voted, her ideas about some welfare recipients are similar to that of GOP leaders on state and national levels, whose plans to dramatically cut welfare “will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes,” wrote Philip Alston, United Nations’ special reporter on extreme poverty and human rights.
Pettit’s “drawing a check” rhetoric is inconsistent with the reality she herself has experienced: Disability benefits are difficult to achieve.
Just four out of 10 applicants are successful after a rigorous eligibility determination that takes years and often constrains a person from ever working again. Ten thousand people in the United States died while waiting for a ruling on their disability case in 2017, according to the Washington Post.
Another Washington Post analysis painted a picture of rural Americans, desperate from diminishing job prospects, turning to disability as a last resort.
The percentage of people under 65 receiving disability in Itawamba County has increased from 9.4 to 13.1 percent from 2004 and 2015.
Every system faces some level of abuse, said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, and disability is not always granted on a consistent basis, meaning sometimes, a person with higher capability is granted assistance over someone with more severe ailments.
Still, Holland, an undertaker, said, “I’ve buried people while helping them through the appeals process.”
In Tupelo, which has nine administrative law judges, the average wait time for a disability hearing is 16 months and processing on a case takes an average of 579 days.
If applicants work during the two or so years while waiting for a judgment, it’s likely to hurt their case, so they’re often left with no income — just waiting.
Not that finding a job in rural Mississippi as a former manual laborer with her feet cracking open is much easier.
Itawamba touts Fulton-based companies JESCO construction, Mueller Copper Tube Co. and MAX HOME furniture manufacturer among its largest employers. Listings on the Gov. Bryant-touted MississippiWorks website in the Mantachie area are for a mix of nursing, construction, fast food and convenience store jobs.
Nearly 20 percent of the labor force in Itawamba is made up of jobs in production and transportation, such as commercial trucking, vehicle manufacturing or grocery stores. The Blue Springs Toyota plant is a half-hour drive from Mantachie, but there are just two grocery stores in town.
People commute, on average, 25 minutes to get to work. Pettit does not have a vehicle and public transportation is nonexistent in rural Mantachie.
“The workhorse is down. I’m not a benefit to society anymore, so I’m not important? My child’s life is not important? And that’s what it feels like,” Pettit said.
Someone with a bum foot might be capable of some kind of desk job, Holland said, but “there aren’t many jobs available to sit and answer a telephone.”
Plus, she can’t get hired doing that, he said. “She can’t maintain her train of thought 45 seconds,” Holland said.
Holland said he had Pettit fill out some paperwork in his office and she got incredibly flustered. At one point, she stormed out of the room, saying, “I’ll live in Jeannine’s barn. That’s where I’ll live.”
“That’s the mental illness,” Holland said.
‘It’s hell to be sick’
Holland, a longtime public health chairman, has a reputation for helping people navigate the red tape surrounding public assistance eligibility.
He spent five hours in his office with Pettit recently, studying the resources available, only to be disappointed. “There’s nothing available in Tupelo for the homeless,” he said.
Even federally subsidized housing for low-income folks requires a $200 down payment, Holland said — $200 more than she’s got. That’s if you can maneuver the notoriously long wait list.
Through his own advocacy, Holland was able to get one of Pettit’s LIFECORE visit fees waived. He also paid the $60 fee for a doctor’s visit at the local community health center, mainly so Pettit can have further documentation of her medical conditions to bolster her disability case.
One doctor, Dr. James Davidson at Family Medicine Residency Center in Tupelo, agreed to see Pettit for her thyroid problem for free and has gotten her back on her medication in recent months. Davidson referred her to the surgeon who removed the cancer from her hand last August, also for free.
Her streak of receiving free care stopped short of a podiatrist, who Pettit has been told she must see to have her pressing foot condition diagnosed. Most recently, she returned to the community health center to see a psychiatrist and was turned away because she didn’t have the $30 sliding scale fee.
Pettit doesn’t qualify for any traditional assistance programs for low-income adults without disability status.
You must have a dependent child and make less than $384 to get Medicaid, because Mississippi chose not to expand the program under the Affordable Care Act to 130,000 residents who fall into the coverage gap.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as “welfare,” provides a monthly check of $170 (compared to $442 nationally) to low-income families in Mississippi, but Pettit would have to have an underage child and meet work requirements to qualify.
In 2016, Mississippi approved the lowest number of new TANF applicants — just 1.4 percent — of any state in the country. Between 2013 and 2017, the state cut its TANF caseload in half, though the percentage of people living in poverty remained relatively unchanged.
Pettit can’t even get food stamps, or Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, which also requires proof of employment.
Bryant declined in 2016 to extend a work waiver to unemployed adults receiving SNAP, cutting assistance to roughly 50,000 across the state.
Both SNAP and TANF federal programs are block-granted to states, so they have broad authority to choose how to spend the money. After examining the way Mississippi administers the programs in 2017, researchers from D.C.-based policy research group New America determined the state has some of the ”most meager” and “least accessible” public assistance in the country.
“It’s hell for somebody to be sick in America and have no insurance, no health care plan, no family. It leaves them to the winds, and the winds are not blowing very strong in anyone’s favor right now,” Holland said.
A disability check is about $750 a month, less than someone working for minimum wage earns. But if the judge affirms her disability in the August hearing, Holland said, “she’s going to get a lot of help really quick.”
It could be December before she receives a ruling.
“I don’t know why two months seems like an eternity and I’ve been waiting two and a half years,” Pettit said.
She has many needs, but to Pettit, her homelessness is the underlying illness.
“You could never make a physically unstable person stable, no matter what medication you put them on,” Pettit said. “You’ve got two mentally unstable people right here that don’t know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next.”
Ledger Parker, director of Mississippi United to End Homelessness — which contracts with the state’s mental health agency to provide housing services to Mississippians with mental illness — visited Pettit recently.
Because she was living with Franks, she isn’t considered homeless and does not qualify for services, Parker said. Though Gunner was living in the uninhabitable room behind the thrift store, they couldn’t locate him. Plus, because he’s only been institutionalized in private mental hospitals, not the state hospitals, he won’t get priority for housing.
“I know this leaves this gap of people that are unstably housed,” Parker said. “There needs to be programming for the Marty Jeans of the world. They fall between these different grants but they still need assistance.”
Berthay said she didn’t know about this crack in the system. She indicated it presents a real problem for folks in Pettit’s position, because ”you gotta have their basic needs met before you start counseling.”
“Food, clothing, shelter — those things have to be met,” Berthay said.
Then there’s the unique challenge of serving someone in a rural area. Parker said he referred Pettit to several resources, but they were all more than 20 miles away in Tupelo.
“Even if there were a grant that could help her, it’s not likely to meaningfully help her in Mantachie,” Parker said.
Grace of strangers
Recent news clips out of Mantachie, a town of 1,125, chronicle a series of car wrecks, house fires and shootings.
Last year, just three miles away from Pettit’s temporary home, a 28-year-old woman with no criminal record died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after attempting to rob a local bank.
Those events are contrasted mostly by stories of people overcoming tragedies: the Mantachie native who made it as a national fashion model after losing his mother; the Ole Miss student from Mantachie who graduated despite suffering a stroke; the Mantachie family who, after losing an infant, started a fund to provide apnea monitors to new parents.
The tragedy in Pettit’s story is each missed opportunity after the next — the countless times in her recent life when she could have benefited from public assistance: When her son lost his health insurance; when she broke her heel; when she first lost access to her thyroid medication; when she was forced to sell all of her possessions and give up her home.
Actually, she could’ve benefited from intervention long before that: When her husband kicked her out of their house after their divorce; when she bought a double-wide mobile home but couldn’t afford any land to put it on; or when she worked for 30 years mostly in jobs that didn’t pay a living wage.
Instead, she’s relied on neighbors who aren’t much better off. Pettit has received $125 through a GoFundMe page she created recently.
“I don’t have money, but I have friendship and I have food,” Franks said. “That’s all I’ve got to offer her right now. Until she possibly gets on disability, I’m just trying to keep her from going over the brink.”
Pettit has received help, but as a result of anomalies — the state lawmaker using his influence to advance her case, the doctor willing to deliver health care for free, and especially, the thrift store customer who opened her home.
These are the exception, not the rule.
And it’s a risky reliance — one on the grace of strangers — but it’s all she’s got.
Related: Surrounded by crops but lacking food in the Mississippi Delta
Related: Mississippi’s slow-moving transition of mental health services to the community
Related: Surviving ‘food apartheid’ in Mississippi’s capital
- Former Port Richey Councilman Receives Probation
- What happens when an abused woman fights back?
- People Reported the Florida Shooter, Like Trump Asked. He Still Got a Gun.
- The Harm of Solitary Confinement
- From renewables to Netflix: the 15 super-trends that defined the 2010s
- China’s Box Office Went Its Own Way in 2019, to Hollywood’s Detriment
- Christchurch mosque shooting: Accused gunman a ‘marked man’ in prison
- Opinion: The truth is under fire — and it concerns us all
- Trump’s North Korea gamble leaves U.S. back at square one. Where’d it go wrong?
- New Year, New Decade, New Struggle for Change – Be the Storm
- I am a volunteer firefighter. Yes, we 'want to be here', Scott Morrison – but there are limits
- After Midterm Elections, Can Donald Trump and Republicans Still Count on Young Evangelicals? White Christian Voting Bloc Is Shrinking
- How ‘A Ghost Story’ Became the Most Haunting Movie of 2017
- Equality in Japan: is this vision of a fairer society too good to be true?
- Your Life Needs A Mission Statement!
- Sadiq Khan urges PM work with him to end rough sleeping
- Austerity in Greece caused more than 500 male suicides, say researchers
- 5 Tips to Help You Live With Uncertainty
- Game of Thrones SPOILER ALERT: Battle of Winterfell breaks records as the longest battle scene in film HISTORY - that ends with a shocking conclusion
- The best books for summer 2016
'Mental carnage' awaits those who fall through safety net cracks in rural Mississippi have 4950 words, post on eu.clarionledger.com at July 8, 2018. This is cached page on Europe Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.