Jackson County

Ocean Springs is considering helping the homeless by offering them jobs

Two homeless men sleep in the gazebo at Marshall Park in June 2016. The city is considering a new program to help put the homeless to work.
Two homeless men sleep in the gazebo at Marshall Park in June 2016. The city is considering a new program to help put the homeless to work. ttisbell@sunherald.com

Offer the homeless a job.

That should strike a chord with a conservative town, one observer said.

It’s a simple, inexpensive program that has worked in Albuquerque, New Mexico, since 2015. And outgoing Mayor Connie Moran thinks it would work in Ocean Springs, on a smaller scale.

For more than two years, Moran has compiled a coalition of organizations that work with the homeless, because she said she realized the issue is growing in the area.

Incoming Mayor Shea Dobson called that coalition “effective” and said he would help any way he could. But he wasn’t as sure about the hire-the-homeless proposal specifically.

“I mean I’m open to new solutions, but I want to look more into how successful it’s been,” he said.

The program is called “A Better Way.”

And it doesn’t propose to be the solution to homelessness, rather a viable piece to the puzzle.

Volunteers with Living Well Ministry in Ocean Springs are working to help the homeless in their community by providing them access to basic needs. The homeless population in Ocean Springs has become a contentious issue in the city.

Mary Simons, with the Open Doors Coalition that focuses on housing the homeless, said, “Every piece helps.”

Moran pitched a six-month pilot program to the Board of Aldermen at her last board meeting. The aldermen said they’d take a further look.

▪  The city would not have to hire the homeless. Instead, it would donate $10,000 to a nonprofit that would do the work and handle all the details, including making the rounds to offer work and paying those willing to work an hourly wage.

▪  The city Public Works Department would outline where it needs help with trash or debris pickup and give the marching orders, but have no part in managing the workers, just noting the outcome.

▪  The city might donate an old, used van for transportation.

▪  The idea is that the city gets cleaning done, the homeless earn money instead of a handout and the nonprofit has an opportunity to introduce the workers to services that are available to people living without shelter.

In Albuquerque, the city donated a van, found a driver who was used to dealing with the homeless, partnered with a nonprofit to handle the insurance details and set about going from street corner to corner, offering panhandlers a job.

In a short YouTube video that Moran showed city leaders, you see the driver pull up to a person with a sign and ask, “You want to work?”

They fill the van quickly. The work is offered two or three days a week, with church workers in the video saying that’s about all the work someone with mental issues can handle.

In that large city, the work day is 5 1/2 hours and the pay is $9 an hour.

Ocean Springs can set it up any way it wants, Moran said. That’s the beauty of the program. She said the city of Albuquerque has been willing to work with the Ocean Springs city attorney, Public Works and city administration to explain the program and answer questions.

In Albuquerque, Mayor Richard Berry said people are encouraged to donate to this program instead of handing $5 out the window. He said, “It’s a better way.”

In the video, a priest says that when someone gets some cash in their pocket, they stand taller and feel more in control of their life.

Moran said a lot of people in Ocean Springs want to help the homeless.

It’s a very caring town, she said.

When city leaders removed the benches at the public library and put partitions in bus stop benches to keep the homeless from lying around, there were calls of outrage to City Hall. When she announced meetings of the homeless coalition on Facebook, the city board room was packed.

Long-time Alderman John Gill said, “We definitely need to do something about the homeless in Ocean Springs. We’re looking into that program. We don’t understand all of it, but we’re being informed by that group. It takes an initial investment of $10,000.

“We haven’t approved the $10,000 yet. But we have talked about the concept,” Gill said. “It’s an important issue, but economic development is the No. 1 issue.”

Alderman Mike Impey expressed concern about where the $10,000 would come from and what kind of results would be generated by the work performed.

He said he wouldn’t expect to see money allocated before the next budget is worked out. The new budget year begins in October.

Another city leader said he was concerned that a program like that might attract more homeless to the city.

Moran said she hoped the city would try the pilot program at a minimal cost with an eye toward that leading to private donations and a continuation of the program at a lower cost.

“It can work in all size cities,” she said.

She said the Public Works Department could use the help, even if it’s just blowing leaves off sidewalks. And Public Works would not have to manage the workers.

“Why wouldn’t we want to help these people get back on their feet,” she said. “Isn’t that what public service is all about?”