The Sun Herald
BILOXI, Miss. — Woods off Eula Street and tarps that blend in with the scenery hide manicured paths leading to an immaculate, landscaped campsite where Gary Rayburn has spent two years living and distributing necessities to other homeless.
The yard is raked around paths to a netted gazebo shielding a sitting area with a glass-top table and plastic chairs, a tarp-covered sleeping area and a tent protecting supplies. His bed is an expensive mattress he found tossed on a roadside and fits inside a small tent.
A bird house overlooks yuccas and other flora he's planted near a decorative grouping of old wood from which blue bottles hang. A wicker flamingo perches at the doorway to his sleeping quarters.
Since Christmas, his featured centerpiece has been a solar-powered, decorated Christmas tree given to him by Jim and Kim Flynn of Gautier. Rayburn hosted a Thanksgiving celebration at the campsite for 75 of the area's homeless, and a smaller Christmas celebration.
His campsite is a far cry from plastic-covered cardboard boxes.
But Rayburn's idyllic campsite is coming to an end. The homeless veteran has been told he has to move because of a neighbor's complaint and a code-enforcement violation, both of which apparently involved a different campsite nearby.
"This is a crying shame," said Lynda Favre, executive director of Shepherd of the Gulf, a nonprofit human services organization in Gulfport.
"He is an intelligent, well-mannered and well-respected man who has run my model campsite," Favre said. "He doesn't drink, he doesn't do drugs and he has devoted himself to helping distribute necessities to others who are homeless. He's a blessing and a key role model. He has made this place a work of art with his own hands and is being punished because of someone else's wrongdoings."
"What I want the public to realize is there are different classes of homeless — those who are predicament homeless like Gary, and the chronic homeless who are day-to-day panhandlers," Favre said.
Rayburn, who once served in the Army and was a commercial truck driver, is on the board of directors for Shepherd of the Gulf. Members and others, including some who are homeless, gathered at the campsite Monday to pray with him and wish him well.
He said he takes pride in showing other homeless how to help themselves.
Rayburn figures he will "couch surf" a while, staying here or there on couches at friends' homes.
Signs posted in the woods say the campsite will be dismantled by Thursday, Jan. 15. Rayburn's not sure what that means, since Jan. 15, today, is a Tuesday.
The signs incorrectly imply the Biloxi Police Department has ordered the dismantling.
"The police were not behind this," Police Chief John Miller said. "I would just as soon leave the homeless alone unless they are causing trouble or a property owner wants them off their property."
Favre said the property owner has no problem with Rayburn living on his land.
"It seems the property owner gave in to pressure from code-enforcement to get rid of a group of less-than-desirable campers on a different part of his property."
It appears the property owner, whose name hasn't been released, posted the signs.
Rayburn said he found the area on the Internet by using Google Maps. He said he became disheartened when a group of homeless set up camp elsewhere on the property and turned it into "a trashy, scary mess." He had even talked about calling code-enforcement officers on the other campers.
The other campsite became a source of concern Dec. 29, when one of its campers allegedly stabbed another. Authorities found five-gallon drums being used as makeshift toilets, a sanitation violation.
Code officers held several meetings with the property owner about the unsanitary practice, and a man and woman who live in the area complained they were fearful after the stabbing, said Jerry Creel, community development director.
Creel said he has not seen Rayburn's campsite, but he has pictures of the other one.
Rayburn said he became homeless after he was falsely accused of a crime in Jones County and lost all he had. He works odd jobs and receives food assistance from the state.
Favre said most of the items Rayburn used to decorate the camp were donated by a Gulfport business.
Farve said she hopes the city will be willing to extend its deadline so volunteers can help Rayburn dismantle the camp and save the belongings.
Creel said that's possible if the unidentified property owner is willing.
"In some situations, it's a shame that the good have to suffer with the bad," Creel said of Rayburn's plight.