Johnell Thomas can walk and work today because Ted Hearn cared.
Finally sober, Michael W. Perkinson is off the streets and in an apartment, volunteering on a midnights shift at a severe-weather shelter because of Hearn’s help and example.
Men, women and children walk the streets, showered and wearing clean clothes, because Hearn saw they had no place to clean up.
Hearn has marveled since he was a young man over God’s grace, the love He extends to the undeserving. He tries to emulate this grace. Many of those he assists then do the same, their work cascading like a mountain stream through the community.
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And then there are the failures, the chronically homeless who fall again and again, like the man he has sent five times to rehab. He doesn’t give up on them, either.
Called to serve
The 84-year-old is not the author of the final chapters of his life. Five or so years ago, he said, God spoke to him in a dream, in a voice so emphatic Hearn woke up. He went to his desk. He tried to bargain with God. Hearn was busy. Wasn’t there someone else who could do what God was asking?
Among other things, he served on the board at Feed My Sheep, volunteering weekly to dish up meals behind the counter at the busy soup kitchen in Gulfport.
God told him in the dream, “I want you to get out from behind the counter and get into the lives of the homeless.”
The voice, he said, would not go away. That very week, he said, God brought a mentor into his life, a woman whose alcohol and drug abuse had cost her her children. She had turned her life around and was working with the homeless.
He started talking to the homeless and tried to help. Some seemed hopeless. But God also told Hearn, in another dream, once again startling in its clarity, “Ted, you have disappointed me many times and I have never given up on you. I don’t expect you to give up on anybody I love.”
And there it was, God’s grace.
Hearn brings to the task God set for him a unique set of skills.
He retired from Coast Transit Authority as executive director and from the Mississippi Army National Guard as a brigadier general. He knows how to get things done, and it’s no different when he is working with the homeless.
He has a network of contacts he relies on for their various talents, depending on the situation.
“There’s not another volunteer like him,” said Maj. Gary Sturdivant, commander of the Salvation Army Mississippi Gulf Coast and a 33-year veteran of the organization. “They don’t exist.”
Seeing the need
When the Salvation’s Army’s chapel moved from 22nd Street to the then-new Kroc Center in Biloxi, Hearn saw all the space and realized it would work as a cold-weather shelter. He arranged to have the pews removed.
With the Salvation Army’s support, the homeless now have place to sleep when it’s cold or tropical storms threaten. They are served meals, too.
“Then I started realizing,” Hearn said, “that there wasn’t a single place in the second-largest city in the state for a homeless person to take a shower.”
So, he started Fresh and Clean in the same building, where the Salvation Army allowed the addition of showers and a laundry room. Hearn coordinates volunteers for the shelter and Fresh and Clean, which operates three days a week.
Hearn never knows where a day will take him. He keeps an appointment calendar in his truck, making new notations as homeless people approach him at the Salvation Army or Feed My Sheep.
One may need a ride and money to secure an identification card, another a bicycle repair. He takes care of many of these needs from his own pocket.
Everyone calls him “Mr. Ted.”
Somehow, he sees the potential in people. That was the case with Howard Jenkins, a former Tulane basketball player who had moved to the Coast and was surviving on temporary jobs. Jenkins stopped by the Salvation Army for coffee and donuts. He and Hearn got to talking.
He wound up doing odd jobs for Hearn, his family and friends. Hearn has gotten Jenkins’ bicycle repaired three or four times, Jenkins said.
“He’s not going to let me walk,” he said. “He’s one of the most wonderful people I’ve met in my life.”
For the last seven months, Jenkins has been employed as a custodian for the Salvation Army, where volunteers with Fresh and Clean could not say enough about how hard he works and what an exceptional job he does.
Like father, like daughter
Hearn’s influence extends to Biloxi as well. His daughter, Judy Hearn Longo, used to volunteer with him behind the counter at Feed My Sheep. She, too was drawn into a homeless ministry.
She retired and spent more and more time volunteering to help the homeless in Biloxi. Today, she is a minister who heads Seashore Mission, a homeless day shelter on Division Street.
In 2014, Longo moved into a box behind the Seashore building to finish raising the funds needed to renovate it as a day shelter. Her work is in Biloxi, her father’s is in Gulfport.
But here’s what happens when father and daughter get together for a visit or a meal:
“It doesn’t matter where we are,” Longo said. “If we’re in Gulfport or Biloxi and we are together, he and I connect to homeless people or people that are down and out. We are drawn to them. Or they’re drawn to us. We’re not sure.”
“ . . . He’s been my rock, my inspiration for everything I do. Every day when I walk into Seashore Mission, I think, ‘How would my father handle this situation?’ ”
“Every day, when he meets somebody who has a need, he follows through with that need, whether they need to go to a doctor, need to go get a driver’s license, need to go get a prescription filled, they’re short on their rent. It is endless.
“ . . . And he never gives up and he never stops.”
Who will step up?
One recent morning, Hearn was on a mission to find Johnell Thomas, who was knocked in the head outside a convenience store in December and woke up with a badly injured ankle.
Drinking had cost Thomas his job as a line cook at a popular Coast restaurant and, when assaulted, he was homeless. His ankle was bandaged up in an emergency room, but he could barely walk. Hearn found a doctor to see him for free in February.
The doctor, Robert Weierman, said Thomas might never work full-time again unless he had surgery. Weierman found a doctor willing to perform the surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
Hearn secured a fuel card from Memorial Hospital in Gulfport so a relative could buy gas to drive Thomas to Jackson. The relative picked up the gas card but did not take Thomas for his surgery. So Hearn secured a bus ticket to Jackson for Thomas.
Thomas had the surgery and was back in Gulfport in an apartment. He was working again at the same restaurant.
Hearn knows the streets. He knew the general area where Thomas’ apartment was located and was in no time knocking on the door. Weierman, he told Thomas, needed to check the ankle.
They hopped into Hearn’s truck.
The ankle was healing well, Weierman said. Hearn then stopped at a medical supply store and bought Thomas a support stocking the doctor said he needed.
Hearn had to ask. “Are you staying sober, Johnell?”
Thomas said: “I did have a beer. What you want me to do, tell you the truth or a straight up lie? I had one Mother’s Day.” Pause.
“Actually, I got drunk Mother’s Day.”
Thomas said he would renew his effort to stay sober and promised to check in weekly with Hearn.
That’s the thing about “Mr. Ted,” as volunteers and his homeless friends call him. Homeless people find it hard to lie to Hearn. He said he’s willing to help anyone, as long as they are truthful.
He loves the homeless people he helps, and they love him. He doesn’t know how long his ministry can continue but, for now, he does what he can.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I worry about what’s going to happen. There’s nobody doing exactly what I do. I don’t know who’s going to help them all.”
About the series
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.