Missing from Hancock County right now is a homeless shelter. And, there are no firms plans to build one either.

Major Anita Caldwell is the Salvation Army Area Commander for South Mississippi. She explains the transition away from traditional shelters.

“The Salvation Army is shifting away from emergency sheltering because there is very little funding for them unless the city really wants to fund the whole thing and commit to it for the future.

“Most cities won’t give funds and many people today don’t want to help the homeless, so they don’t,” she said. “The federal government gives very little funding towards any type of emergency shelter where there are bunk beds and a food line. So the shift that we’ve moved to is more transitional housing with actual apartments. The idea is that 85 percent of the homeless population can be successfully rehabilitated into a vital part of society if they walk into their own space and cook their own food. We walk with them into their work place and help them continue in their job.”

Caldwell says the Salvation Army is close to getting 10 efficiency apartments in Pascagoula and Gulfport.

“They only stay in these transitional housing places for short term, up to two months, three months. Each month we have to understand what their barrier is to get on to their own apartment. The goal is still to transition them to their own apartment and then we case manage them in their own apartment.”

Mary Simons, executive director of the Open Doors Coalition in Gulfport, adds to the shelter discussion.

“A lot of the shelters were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina and not rebuilt. With that said, sheltering is not a person’s way out of homelessness. We have funding through the Emergency Solutions Grant to provide hotel vouchers, particularly for families with children who are literally homeless, meaning they’re outside.”

Simons said the number of homeless in Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula is about the same, and she describes a very successful pilot program that was recently developed in Pascagoula.

“We worked with the assistant city manager in the city of Pascagoula who ran a series of community task force meetings,” Simons said. “We all met weekly to determine what the best approach was to reduce unsheltered homeless in Pascagoula. As part of that process, Open Doors Homeless Coalition partnered with the city through a Memorandum of Agreement.

“Our outreach person goes into the woods with the police department, engages with people, helps move them into housing, works with landlords to ensure that everyone knows what we’re doing, and we have been able to, between 2018 and 2019, reduce the number of unsheltered people in Pascagoula by 47 percent (from 38 to 18 of known homeless). We’re continuing that work and there are nine people in the pipeline right now that are seeking housing. The community’s happy because it scatters (rental) units. It’s not like we’re trying to put a place in somebody’s neighborhood, we’re just housing people with the assistance they need. They are all our neighbors becoming our neighbors in a different way.”

And once into permanent housing, how many stay in it long term?

“After two years, 93 percent of people who are housed either retain that housing or exit to another permanent housing option,” Simons said. “As far as the number of people who exit permanent housing, less than 10 percent two years out return to homelessness.”

Kenney Washington, director of client services at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, describes their clientele and housing program.

“We’re a day center for the homeless but we’ve never been an overnight shelter. We have permanent supported housing where we have 17 apartments scattered throughout Biloxi and Gulfport for people who are chronically homeless for a year or more, with a diagnosed disability. We’ve had people stay in that program for six years. It takes six years for them to get to the point where it’s sustainable to function on their own without any assistance from us.”

Kenney agrees there would be benefits to a short-term shelter.

“You need the shelter piece (of the solution), too, where you could stay a max of two weeks and during those two weeks you’re going to be evaluated to see if you would be eligible to go to the transitional piece where you could stay up to two years. That’s what some people need, just that short-term fix, but the overall functioning of the shelter has to be sort of like transitional housing to help people develop the skill set that they need to sustain on their own. That’s going to be the golden ticket to get people moving forward instead of just saying, ‘I’m going to be going in and out of the shelter for the next whatever.’ It has to be a holistic approach. It has to deal with their mental health, the physical health, and their employment situation.”

Pastor Elijah Mitchell is the executive director of Seashore Mission in Biloxi and he used to run the mission’s shelter. The mission was destroyed in Katrina and the only overnight shelter they provide is a cold weather shelter they operate at the community center in D’Iberville in conjunction with Loaves and Fishes. Mitchell acknowledges traditional overnight shelters are a hard sell, but his goal is to operate a 24-hour therapeutic center for the homeless and offer a lot more services than they’re able to now.

“I had four case-management staff, we had a medical doctor who came in once a month, we had nurses who would come, and we would have people from the barber college come in, beauticians come in, we had all that in place. I had a job opportunity specialist on board to help people find jobs. We just haven’t graduated back to that point yet.”

Shelter in Hancock County?

Do homeless service providers in Hancock County foresee an overnight shelter somewhere in the county?

Pastor Mike Ramsey first addresses his expansion goals for King’s Kitchen.

“My vision is to open a community room where we have washers and dryers for folks to wash and dry their clothes at no cost. And then to have these showers closed off for privacy. Have a male and female shower with locking doors so they can have security and give them that opportunity to take a shower. That’s in the works. It’s a long-range plan but it’s going to come to pass I really believe. We’ll have to have electrical and plumbing and then we’ll have to have the expertise and then we’ll have to have the funds to pay them and to buy what we need.

“Right now we do have washers and dryers. We have three washers and three dryers that have been donated so we would be looking at getting a shower and then lumber and things like that to finish off that room.”

Another often-overlooked aspect of homelessness – especially in Hancock County – is a lack of transportation to either get the homeless to food or bring food to the homeless. Ramsey wants to address that need.

“There are a lot of them that don’t have the means, especially if they’re living farther away than walking distance from us, the means to get here. Some of them you’ve seen ride bicycles here and others just walk, but another part of the vision I see is getting some kind of vehicle like a food truck that would be used simply to deliver to-go plates to the homeless camps that are in our county for those who couldn’t physically come here.”

As far as a shelter, Ramsey thinks it’s possible to find funding.

“I know that there are sources for funding, manpower, and those kinds of things to help with purchase of property, construction of a facility, and to staff that facility on a long-term basis. It’s just a matter of locating and securing those funds. And if enough agencies are involved, there would not be a tremendous burden on just a few. But we will not do anything to alleviate homelessness in our county until we all come to the realization that it is a major issue and we all have a role to play in addressing it.”

Ramsey also sees the layout of the communities in the county as an obstacle to a cohesive effort.

“We’re so fragmented socially that it’s sad to see that the attitude seems to be fragmented as well. It’s a county-wide problem and I’d like to see the county working as a whole to help, at least begin the discussion of what can we do to help. The way our county is designed we’ve just got the concentrations of populations in communities and not spread out over the entire county to where folks have that sense of community. There’s not really a sense of community except in the individual cities and towns.”

“When law enforcement and city officials and churches are all working together instead of saying, ‘It’s not my job,’ or ‘Why should I go step outside my comfort zone to help somebody,’ when we all work together the burden’s not on one individual entity or person. It’s a shared responsibility but it’s also a shared reward because we’re helping these people to hopefully step out of their situation and improve themselves.”

Rhonda Rhodes shares why she thinks a shelter is not the best approach for Hancock Resource Center to get someone out of homeless.

“We don’t have enough money to run a 24/7 shelter even when we applied for shelter money, and I’ve really thought about whether or not we need a shelter, an actual shelter, and it’s just not consistent with sort of our philosophy of working with people that are experiencing homelessness. So, I don’t want people to sleep outside but I don’t ever want my staff’s livelihood to be based on whether or not that bed is filled and that’s how shelters work. They’re paid if the beds are occupied so there’s sort of this disconnect where the homeless service providers have to fill the bed to get paid but you’re not supposed to have anybody in the bed if you’re doing your job. So, by putting somebody in a hotel for a week, we have a seven day window to resolve their situation and so that’s our motivation.”

Pastor Zach Cooper of Old Spanish Trail Baptist Church said, “I’d love to see a shelter in Hancock County that’s 24 hours. Now, when you go to that kind of shelter there’s a lot of different things you have to do versus just having an overnight shelter. Maintenance, staffing, finances, insurance, there are a lot of things that come into play there that are different from what we’re doing. But when the time comes, I think it’s a great idea.”

If the voters in Hancock County elected to fund, build, staff and maintain an overnight shelter, the next decision is where to build it. Connie Lyons has looked at different locations and she realizes a residential area is a hard sell.

“They really don’t want them but the county has land on the side of the jail and I asked, ‘Why can’t we have shelter out there away from the city area?’ Have the shelter and have a work center to get them back on their feet. That would be perfect out there. And then bus them in to the churches, or the churches, we go to them. Why can’t each church take a day and if they didn’t want to come to the church, we would have a cooking facility on site and would bring the food to them?”

Waveland Mayor Mike Smith has also looked at potential property for a shelter, but he says the city’s ability to support such a facility is limited.

“There’s some property going out toward the interstate that would really work well. The city can probably get grant money to build the building but we can’t man it. The manning, the electricity, the maintenance, the responsibility and insurances, all those things are real things.”

Mickey Lagasse, Waveland’s city clerk, agrees the city can’t help with the staffing and operation of a center.

“Some of the things we learned post-Katrina was that the churches are better equipped to handle some of that kind of stuff. I think from a perspective of the way the city operates, the way we have to work with municipal government, it would be better for somebody else to serve that.”

This series so far has concentrated on the county south of I-10 where most of the homeless resource providers are, but what about the rest of the county? Are the homeless on the priority list of the supervisors representing the rest of the county?

Blaine LaFontaine is the president of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors and he says homelessness deserves more attention.

“I would say homelessness in Hancock County oftentimes is overlooked because our numbers probably are not as astounding as larger metro areas.”

The county has worked with the HRC on partnerships and programs to help disadvantaged county citizens, but LaFontaine believes more emphasis could be placed on the homeless.

“We probably don’t do enough. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement from the county perspective with what we do and truthfully I think the resources are there. We just need to develop that plan and commit to it and see it through.”

As far as the possibility of the county being involved in opening an overnight shelter, LaFontaine is open-minded but reserved.

“I would say that for a county of our size, if you were to prioritize that shelter versus other competing needs, a lot of times I think this would be near the bottom. I will say that I don’t think that this conversation for this type of shelter has ever been at the forefront of any conversation.”

Incremental improvements

If the expense or the politics of establishing an overnight shelter in Hancock County are insurmountable, what characteristics and practices of other homeless day centers could be implemented here?

Washington describe several at the Back Bay Mission.

“We make connections with other service providers within the community like Coastal Family Health, which provides health care services for the homeless. They usually come here. We try to reach out to Vocational Rehabilitation because some people may have a disability but they can actually still work. We also connect them to the Social Security office and we help them apply for food stamps too. If you don’t have a felony on your arrest record you actually are eligible to receive food stamps, about $200 a month.”

“They also use this as a physical mailing address because when you’re applying for a job you can’t say that I live down Division Street underneath a tree. We distributed about 5,000 pieces of mail a year for people who are homeless. With our telephone, that line is not connected to our Back Bay Mission line. It’s a direct line in here. The person who answers the phone says, ‘Hello.’ They don’t say ‘Back Bay Mission’ because if they use this number as a contact number, we don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, that’s a shelter,’ or, ‘That’s a day center.’ If they ask, ‘May I speak with John Smith,’ we’ll answer, ‘He’s not here. Would you like to leave a message?’

“John Smith walks in, I give him the message and then he can actually can go about pursuing that job. You really want to try to eliminate any barriers that are going to be placed upon them because a person is homeless.”

Eliminating barriers includes providing a laundry service so clients can look and feel presentable when going about their day working or looking for work. Clients put their laundry in a numbered bag and take a matching number to present later to retrieve their clean clothes.

And finally, Kenney recommends collaboration among service providers.

“What we do on a quarterly basis, Back Bay Mission, Seashore Mission, Loaves & Fishes, Mental Health Association, (and others), we all team together because basically we share the same mutual clients. We have a conversation about what’s taking place within our own agency, maybe some problems occurring or solutions that are working for them and how to work with the homeless population. So, we come together to make sure all of us are on the same page because homelessness is not a Back Bay Mission problem. It’s not a Seashore Mission problem. It’s not a Loaves & Fishes problem. It’s a community problem.”

What can you do?

HRC accepts donations to help equip those newly housed. Rhodes explains why they request donations of new items.

“As far as what the public can do, when we move someone in they usually have nothing, and so we always take donations of new items. We have to take new because we’re not equipped to screen for things like bed bugs. When we house somebody we have what we call a Welcome Home Basket. We put a bunch of stuff in the basket and bring it to them. So, we don’t have a grant that pays for that. All of that comes from donations from individuals and businesses.”

King’s Kitchen and Waveland United Methodist Church accept food donations and most in the area welcome volunteers and donations.

Todd Wimbish, formerly homeless for six years, knows what donations are most useful and appreciated.

“Book bags, tents, canned goods, hygiene, toiletries, maybe some towels, things like that nature. Maybe little cans of Sterno in the winter or summer to cook on or to heat up, things like that. But I would encourage anybody who has the desire to drop off donations to stick around long enough to meet one person. Just say hello to somebody because that hello might mean more to that person than everything you dropped off.

Ramsey adds that he hopes this will be the start of a much larger discussion.

“I think this series is certainly going to do that and I’m hoping somebody will read it and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that,’ and then ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ or ‘Let’s have a meeting of everybody in the county that’s interested in helping.’ It’s going to be a big meeting because there are going to be a lot of people who are going to want to do something to help.”

“There’s only so much one organization or entity can do and everybody has to be involved because homelessness is not just a church’s problem and it’s not just the community’s problem, and it’s not just the government’s problem. It’s a problem for all of us.”

Readers are encouraged to e-mail comments and suggestions to help the homeless to Publisher Rob Langrell at rlangrell@seacoastecho.com. A compilation of e-mails may be published after the series to share the community’s ideas.

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