They have a home, explained Anna Jacobs, who works with The Living Well Ministry.
“Ocean Springs is their home, so they’re not homeless,” she said. “They are just without shelter.”
She’s talking about the people who have that deep tan and a light layer of grime from living in the woods along U.S. 90, the tracks near downtown, the parks, behind City Hall or around the public library.
The population varies, but a solution to their need for shelter is taking shape. It involves new grants and is based on improving relationships and bringing these people into the community.
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Open Doors Homeless Coalition, in association with Singing River Services and Living Well, is making a difference in Ocean Springs and Jackson County, and it’s taking that solution across South Mississippi.
Mary Simons, director of Open Doors, met with a group of organizations at a meeting the mayor had called at Ocean Springs City Hall on Wednesday for an update.
“By targeting Ocean Springs,” she said, “in the next few years, you’ll see a big, big difference in the parks and other places.”
She said her group determined 15 people in the area are regularly living without shelter, with 100 or so who might fall into homelessness through the year when someone loses a job, is evicted or is locked out.
Living Well has a pretty good idea who these people are, how to find them and what they need. It had been running a day center two days a week in Ocean Springs that served them.
It lost the building last year, but continues the ministry by going to the people they serve. Jacobs said three volunteer case workers with the nonprofit are in the field every day.
On Thursdays, they host a devotional that serves food, hands out hygiene products and snack packs and provides other needs.
Open Doors, realizing Living Well already has a strong tie to the population, added its services to one of the Thursday devotionals.
Jacobs said the group came in with tools, supplies and case workers to begin assessing the people who attended. They sat with them at computers and began the process of applying for housing or replacing lost identification documents so they can get food stamps and other services.
Simons was proud to announce that since that April 27 coordinated effort, they have found homes for five people, a sixth is off the streets and five more are moving toward getting a home.
“It’s a slow process,” she said. “We won’t see change overnight, but for some it is quick.” This process could mean people won’t be sleeping outside anymore, she said.
Money is key
Two key grants received recently are helping with a new outreach across South Mississippi.
The Choice grant and a continuation of Emergency Solutions grants are making the most difference.
Choice provides $500,000 a year for the next three years to hire case managers, but most of it goes to rent. It resulted from a federal mandate to serve people with mental illness in the least restrictive way. The goal for this money is to help 75 people a year in South Mississippi, to link them to services and homes, to make a path and to ease the journey.
The pilot program for Choice, with Singing River Services, housed 41 people in Jackson County last year.
But there are other needs, and the meeting Wednesday evening at City Hall showed organizations and businesses how they can add to the effort:
▪ As people move in, they need furnishings, sheets and towels.
▪ As they find jobs, they may need transportation, which is a problem for the poor and the homeless.
▪ As things get better they may still need the support of a community.
▪ As Living Well continues, it is looking for a new building to be donated.
Reactions are still mixed.
Some residents want to take responsibility and help; others want the homeless people to leave.
At the Ocean Springs Library on Thursday, one patron said she is very sympathetic because she believes the homeless don’t have the services in Mississippi that are available elsewhere. She used Denver as an example of finding creative solutions, such as converting an old hotel to a shelter.
She smiled and said the homeless people are like greeters at the library, because “they’re here all the time.”
A woman riding her bike by the library stopped to say she’s tired of homeless library patrons taking up all the computers.
A neighbor who lives across the street, however, said she doesn’t see the problem. She’s a home-builder who allows homeless residents to use her company’s portable toilets at building sites.
Ocean Springs has wrestled with the issue by moving benches on which the homeless sleep and posting a curfew on Marshall Park, but the mayor sees the new partnerships between mental health agencies and the people who know the Ocean Springs homeless population as a longer-term solution.
“Moving the homeless is not a sustainable solution,” she said. “They still want to come downtown and eat at the Lord is My Help. They stay around businesses and panhandle, but moving them out doesn’t work.”
The partnership brings together people who fill different niches and have resources for helping.
Counseling or case management is so important, she said, because getting a home isn’t the end — the newly housed must learn and be encouraged to take responsibility for an apartment. There’s a need for education and work-force training.
And what Mayoar Connie Moran said she heard was that the biggest need now is housing for homeless families who are living in their cars.