Any discussion about where homeless people can get help in Hancock County involves the Hancock Resource Center. Since its inception as a nonprofit organization in 2008, the center has housed 260 families.
Rhonda Rhodes has been the HRC president from day one. As with any nonprofit, funding drives the direction and success of the center.
She is quick to point out that despite many apartment complexes built post-Hurricane Katrina that have 10-year tax exemptions, that housing isn’t a free ride for the homeless.
“Everybody thinks that these apartment complexes in Waveland are free or that they’re income-based. They’re not,” Rhodes said. “You have to have a certain income to qualify, but that doesn’t mean that your rent is based on what you make. The rent is set and set as a percentage of fair market rent, and fair market rent is astronomical.
“I mean, a three bedroom apartment free-market rent is $1,010 and these apartments are at $877. So, if you think about rent as being 30 percent of your income, then those people would have to make in the neighborhood of $35,000 a year for that $877 to be affordable. That’s not happening. Some of our new teachers don’t make that.”
Given the housing expense in Hancock County, adequate and consistent funding is the key to long-term success. Federal funding from the Veterans Administration to help homeless veterans has enabled HRC to provide places to live to 140 homeless veterans since 2014.
“We’ve been working with the VA on a federally funded program to end veteran homelessness and it’s been really successful,” Rhodes said. “If there is a homeless veteran, it should be brief and non-recurring. And so that’s the definition of ending military veteran homelessness. It doesn’t mean you’ll never see another homeless veteran, but it means if you see one, hopefully we know who he or she is and we have the abilities to re-house them quickly so they’re not staying homeless.”
The HRC has also had success with their veteran’s employment program. “They have to be homeless to be in the program and we’ve probably helped 120 veterans get jobs in the last 4 years. And our retention rate is about 70 percent. That means they retain the job for 12 months after we get it for them.”
Rhodes’ goal is to achieve success with non-veteran as wells. “I would love to have that program for our general population. We so need that. I haven’t been able to find a way to pay for it yet.”
The center strives to help non-veteran homeless with short-term rental assistance, but funding is not as consistent as funding for veterans. The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program was funded through the Open Doors Coalition in Gulfport and assisted very low-income clients who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. According to the HRC website, 53 clients who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless received financial assistance or counseling. More than 300 requested assistance before it ran out of money.
Rhodes stresses that they’re eager to meet with all homeless and can help with such things as hotel vouchers for short-term housing, although their focus is on long-term transition out of homelessness.
“We want to create self-sufficiency, not dependency. That’s one thing I would want the public to understand about our programs is that we’re not giving people handouts. We are trying to set them up for success and create an opportunity to be self-sufficient.”
When considering organizations that assist the homeless, local police departments may not come to mind. However, both the Bay St. Louis and Waveland police departments expressed their desire and practice of connecting homeless they encounter with the organizations that can help them.
Rhodes has met with police personnel from both cities to ensure they know what the HTRC can do for the homeless. Police from both cities are also familiar with King’s Kitchen – bringing homeless there for food and assistance as well as officers who volunteer to help distribute food there.
By knowing the available resources, Bay St. Louis Police Chief Gary Ponthieux, said they can bring the homeless to the right place.
“As a police department we can lead people in the right direction and say, ‘Hey, look, if you’re struggling with this and these are your issues, here’s an agency that can help you out.’ Whether you have a job, whether you have a house, is really not a factor.
“A citizen is a citizen, a person is a person, and you have to take care of everybody,” he continued. “And that’s the kind of community we have in Bay St. Louis. It doesn’t take long for somebody’s who’s here to establish relationships with different people in the community and everybody seems to lend a helping hand when they can.”
King’s Kitchen is housed in Central Bible Church on Highway 90 across from the Bay St. Louis Post Office. It’s next to, and is somewhat overshadowed by, a busy body repair shop so it’s understandable that many residents don’t notice it as they drive by.
However, once you become aware of it and the help it lends to the homeless, it stands out like a beacon.
Pastor Mike Ramsey was ordained at Central Bible Church in 2000 and has been there ever since. Dwindling enrollment after Katrina led to the decision to close the church’s school, leaving the building underutilized.
In August 2012, Ramsey was walking through the expansive dining room when he said he felt God question him, “What are you doing with this facility? It’s sitting here being wasted and I’ve blessed you with something that most churches don’t have and what are you going to do with it?’ ”
It was a question that had to be answered. “I went to the church that Sunday morning and stood before them and I said, ‘This is what happened. This is what I felt happen, and I believe our community needs a full-time soup kitchen.’ ”
The facility opened its doors about three months later on Nov. 19 and served lunch to 35 people.
“Our second year, the number probably jumped to 55 or 60, and now today, seven years later, we’re serving about a hundred folks a day,” Ramsey added.
Besides the hot meal at lunch, the kitchen prepares bags of canned food and ready-to-eat foods to sustain the homeless until lunch the next day. They also allow second plates when they have enough food. As Ramsey put it, “We try to help them with that because that could be their evening meal.”
For the first few years, the kitchen was open Monday through Friday. A year and a half ago, it began opening on Saturdays – staffed solely by volunteers from other churches and organizations.
Ramsey said he is pleased the homeless are served an additional day and is appreciative of the volunteers.
“There’s been an outpouring of support and that’s why we’re able to stay open because our church could not solely support this facility. I always brag on Father Jacob at St Clare in Waveland and Father Mike at Our Lady of the Gulf. They are just wonderful big supporters. Other churches in our area help out, as do many from out of the area and even out of state. We have support from many out of state as well, including folks in Virginia and Tennessee who provide monthly support to keep us operating. We also are supported by local organizations, clubs and businesses.”
King’s Kitchen has the space and the desire to expand their services to the homeless to include regular shower and laundry hours, however the facilities are usable only on a limited basis due to the need for additional interior construction.
“Right now the facility is not finished, though we have permitted some folks who we regularly see who we know are homeless to shower and wash their clothes. But once we get that facility completed, we will open it to anyone in need.”
Donations enable the Kitchen to also operate a well-stocked clothesline with free clothes and shoes.
“We need more men’s clothing, socks, and shoes,” Ramsey said. “It seems like women go through their closets and donate to us more than men, but the demand is increasing from the men.”
It also has an outreach room with pillows, blankets, deodorant, soap, toothpaste and other hygiene products.
Old Spanish Trail Baptist Church
Old Spanish Trail Baptist Church is west of Waveland Avenue, an unassuming white building on the north side of highway 90, surrounded by pine trees. The low-key appearance is in contrast to the energy inside the church.
Pastor Zach Cooper operates Celebrate Recovery, a program to lead people out of addiction.
“Everyone has to humble themselves and say that they cannot do this on their own, and come to God and say, ‘Lord, give me the things I need today to survive.’ And so, if you’re willing, we talk about it a lot in Celebrate Recovery, willingness, being willing to allow the change to happen in your life. So if you’re willing, there’s nothing that can stop you.”
The church also operates the only cold-weather shelter in the county.
“When we open up the shelter we cook dinner that night and house them,” Cooper said. “In the morning we cook them breakfast. We have cots and blankets and pillows and we’ve had about 15 cots set up before. We get women. We’ve had families before. And it’s not always homeless people, I want to emphasize that. Sometimes it’s people who don’t have heating in their house. They have a house, they just don’t have heat.”
The church is grateful for donations to help run the shelter, such as food and jackets.
Waveland United Methodist Church
Waveland United Methodist Church is a small congregation with a big heart.
After Katrina, they opened their doors to allow St. Clare Catholic Church use the building for weekly mass. St. Clare has since moved into their rebuilt church, but Waveland UMC continues to open their doors for those in need, notably to the hungry for lunch every Wednesday.
Pastor T. Manuel Johnson says the demand has increased. “When I first came it was like maybe 65 people a week, and now it’s up to around 100 people a week.”
Johnson acknowledges they can’t do all they would like to do.
“We can’t pay somebody’s utilities, we can’t do a lot of other things but we can do this,” he said. “And I guarantee you there are people who come here Wednesday and eat a meal, and if they didn’t come here and eat a meal on Wednesday, they wouldn’t have a meal.
“Where God guides, God provides, so we are pleased with the fact that the Lord has blessed us. We are not a megachurch, we don’t have a surplus of much, but we’re faith-based and that’s what we’re operating on.”
Readers are encouraged to e-mail comments and suggestions to help the homeless to Publisher Rob Langrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. A compilation of e-mails may be published after the series to share the community’s ideas.