'This is insane,' says Salvation Army worker facing bare pantry

GULFPORT -- Salvation Army Sgt. Jerry Casey feels a little panicked. The pantry is almost bare.

For the first time in awhile, the dependable charity had to send clients elsewhere when they showed up Monday hoping for groceries.

"I'm scared," Casey said. "This is insane. We are in America. We have food. We just have to distribute it correctly."

Resources have been drained. A cold winter meant more nights the Salvation Army opened its homeless shelter, where clients are fed. The shelter also has opened during heavy rains that washed the homeless from their tents, often in low-lying wooded areas unsuitable for stick-built houses.

In the past six months, the Salvation Army's food-assistance program has helped 1,535 families. The organization is accepting food at its locations on Division Street in Biloxi and on 22nd Avenue for distribution in Harrison, Hancock, Pearl River and Stone counties. Food also is being collected at Wal-Marts in Gulfport, Biloxi, D'Iberville and Pass Christian, and at Winn-Dixie stores in Biloxi and Gulfport.

Casey said calls for help are not getting the immediate response the Salvation Army had hoped. He went to check four big food barrels Wednesday night at a Gulfport Wal-Mart: One plastic bag sat at the bottom of one barrel with nine canned items inside.

"I was a little embarrassed for the community," he said. "I was like, 'Really?'"

Casey usually spends his time with the Salvation Army as a minister, but he's working as hard as he can this week to stock the pantry. He had just sent someone Thursday to pick up donations from Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Gulfort and Ocean Springs.

He hopes when more residents and businesses hear about the dire need, they will step up with groceries. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which supplies basic commodities, is running low. The USDA shelves in the food pantry are bare. Casey said he offered to drive over to the USDA warehouse in Mobile, but was told it was low on food, too.

The hungry expect to find food at the Salvation Army, he said, because it is one of the Coast's largest charities. When the Salvation Army has to refer its clients elsewhere, those pantries have a tough time keeping their own shelves stocked.

Still, Casey, said, he knows the community will come through.

"I've got faith," he said. "I think we're going to be fine."