Affordable housing, shelter at top of homeless needs list

There is no easy solution to homelessness. 

But it will start with affordable housing and a shelter on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

That was the message from a public forum on homelessness held at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi.

“What we need as a collective is more affordable housing built,” said Mary Simons, executive director of Open Doors Homeless Coalition. “And we’re working on that, but one of the barriers is that no neighborhood wants that affordable housing.

Open Doors director Mary Simons
Open Doors Homeless Coalition executive director Mary Simons speaks at a town hall meeting on homelessness.

‘NIMBY’, or ‘Not In My Back Yard,’ has been a persistent barrier to getting either a shelter or affordable housing built on the Mississippi Coast. There has not been an overnight shelter in the region since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the ones that were here.

“We’ve got to have an overnight shelter,” said Back Bay Mission Executive Director James Pennington. “We’ve got some plans, but we need you not to say ‘Not in my back yard.’”

Pennington and Simons were two of six social service organizations represented on a panel that listened to community complaints about the homeless.

“There’s no easy answers for any of us,” said Biloxi police chief John Miller who defended the panel.

“If anybody thinks that anybody at this table is not busting their behind on a daily basis trying to figure out an answer to this, you’re absolutely wrong.”

“We get solutions by creating partnerships, and we want to partner with the community too,” said Sarah Smith, Back Bay Mission director of client services. “We are always open to solutions. I want to hear every solution you have.”

There are 100 to 150 people sleeping outdoors on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on any given night, Simons said. And there are many more people who are very close to becoming homeless.

Homeless woman speaks at town hall meeting
Tracey Lupton, who said she has been homeless for two years, speaks at a town hall meeting on homelessness.

The organizations in the region’s Continuum of Care found housing solutions for about 600 people in 2021 and prevented another 1,600 from becoming homeless, she said.

“That’s clearly not enough,” she said. “Because at the same time 600 more people fell into homelessness.”

Homelessness is an ongoing cycle. Simons said an effective shelter — along with an ample supply of affordable housing — would allow the organizations in the Continuum to get ahead of the problem.

We need not just overnight, we need 24/7 services for people who are in need so that they have a safe place until they get to their solution,” said Simons.

Ideally, there would be a shelter in every community across the Coast. With 8-16 rooms each.

Town hall meeting on homelessness
Members of a panel answer questions from the audience during town hall meeting on homelessness.

“We want something that kind of looks like hotel rooms so that people have a place to stay. We want people to get back on their feet and have a safe place to do it while we’re working together.

“But we need to get to the place where we can keep up with the inflow.

“We don’t need 100 shelter beds because the hope would be —with the plan — that people are moving in then moving into their solution. So eventually, we don’t have 100 to 150 people on any given night.”

A shelter would “not just (be) a place for people to linger, but a place where people will have a safe place to be until they get to their solution.”

Support for affordable housing and shelters needs to be “community-driven,” Simons said.

The public has supported the concepts of a shelter and affordable housing in the past until a location is announced, Simons said. Then they say “‘well wait a minute, that’s a good idea, but not in my back yard.’”

Loaves and Fishes director Kris Riley asked people to have compassion for the homeless.

“We’re all working,” he said. “These people up here are tirelessly working to come up with a solution. But it’s not only going to take us to combat this problem. It’s going to take the community. “

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Are you homeless, or experiencing a housing crisis in South Mississippi?Call 228-604-2048If you need other essential servicescall 211