For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, the Salvation Army has apparently found a building for housing families, men and women who would otherwise be sleeping in their vehicles or the woods.
The Planning Commission on Thursday unanimously approved the planned 200-bed Center of Hope for the old Colonial Bakery building on Pass Road. The center will house people who are homeless and can demonstrate within three days that they are working toward stability and permanent housing.
Maj. Gary Sturdivant, area commander for the Salvation Army Mississippi Gulf Coast, said the center will not house the chronically homeless. Instead, the Salvation Army will serve them with a cold-weather shelter, laundry and showers in a building being renovated on U.S. 49, where the organization’s thrift store also will be located.
Only one family in the immediate area had questions about the Center of Hope, but said they could support it as long as active alcoholics and drug addicts would not be housed there.
Former Jackson County Supervisor John McKay, whose father lives across from the bakery, said he hopes the Gulfport Police Department will accept the Salvation Army’s invitation to locate a police substation in the 55,000 square foot building.
The proposal does not have to go before the City Council unless the Planning Commission’s decision is appealed, which appears unlikely.
Gulfport, Biloxi and Ocean Springs have all been grappling with the problem of where to send homeless people because the only homeless shelter on the Coast is in Pascagoula. Gulfport becomes the first of the three cities to approve a transitional living center.
Before the vote, planning commissioner Michael Daniels asked why the shelter should be in Gulfport. Sturdivant said the Salvation Army had for decades operated a homeless shelter near downtown on 24th Avenue but Katrina destroyed it.
Sturdivant said the city would not permit reconstruction of the 24th Avenue shelter, asking the Salvation Army to find another location.
He and other speakers told the commission that homeless people are living outdoors all over the city, and across the Coast, because they have nowhere else to turn. Many, they said, just need support to find work and get back on their feet.
The Center of Hope, Sturdivant said, will provide residents with child care, spiritual guidance, job training, mental health services, veterans’ support and other services through organizations that will work on site.
“We’re going to be a one-stop shop for individuals who have been misplaced and give them every chance we can to break that cycle of poverty,” Sturdivant said. “You have residents of the city of Gulfport right now in the shadows. The Salvation Army has been begging the city for years to let us help you with your problem.”
Several speakers were on the verge of tears as they spoke, including former Mayor Brent Warr. Warr and his father own the building the Salvation Army plans to buy.
“I don’t think anybody in this room or this city would say we don’t have an issue with the homeless,” Warr said. “We do.”
Police Chief Leonard Papania said he was at first skeptical about the proposal but, since meeting with Sturdivant, thinks the Center of Hope will benefit the city. He said the city gives his department $175,000 a year to house dogs and cats at the local animal shelter.
“Give me the resources in my community to act humanely toward people,” he said. “I do it for dogs and cats.”
The city is not being asked to spend any money on the Center of Hope.
Two Salvation Army workers helped make the case for the shelter. One is a chronic drug addict in recovery who is now a sergeant in the Salvation Army, while the other is a woman who came to the organization in 2010 because she had lost her job and had no money to buy groceries for her children or pay the electric bill.
She was trying to finish college, too. The Salvation Army helped. Today, Stacy Gooden-Crandle oversees social services for the Salvation Army and will be serving clients at the new center.