GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - By Elizabeth Vowell – email
GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) – A make shift gate decorated with beads and warnings is the only thing to mark the entrance of a small community, hidden away in the woods of Gulfport. Tents replace houses, and a beaten foot trail becomes the only road.
It looks like an abandoned campground, with trinkets of beads, flags, and a few signs acting like archeological markers of a people long gone. However, for the handful of people who do live in this community, it's home.
"We try to make do with what we got," explained 30 year old Jamere.
This camp is just one of many that house an estimated 800 homeless throughout Harrison County. Those who live here fiercely protect their privacy and safety. They've been shunned by society, and there are those who would do them harm. So, their campgrounds are isolated and unassuming.
A few scraps of Christmas decorations are set up around the camp, signs that the Christmas Spirit knows no limitations. These decorations are also signs of hope, and that is something one woman is trying to provide these people.
"My name is Lynda Favre and I try to help the homeless," the director of Shepard of the Gulf said proudly.
Lynda Favre was the one who brought me to this camp, to meet the people who called it home and to share how they lived. She began working with these people after volunteering at a soup kitchen, where she noticed a large number of homeless looking for shelter.
"Somebody had to do something because nothing was being done. They were crying for help and no body was listening," said Favre. "God kept bringing these people for me until finally I said, 'Please don't bring me any more. I know what I got to do.' I've got to provide shelter for these people."
That's when Favre began Shepard of the Gulf, which provides emergency needs like tents and food to the homeless. She finds these people through word of mouth. Because they are so private, Favre had to earn trust before helping.
Now, the group that sits around some glowing embers in a makeshift town square told me, Favre is their personal Mother Teresa.
"Ms. Lynda really has done some backbreaking work to help us. Ms. Lynda, she's not Jesus Christ, but darn it she's close. She really is. She has been a savior to us," said Cheryl who is one of the few women living in the campground.
For Cheryl, the biggest struggle is overcoming the embarrassment and judgment that society places on her.
"We struggle just for people to validate us as human beings. Every day. Every day," said Cheryl. "It's really hard because there's a lot of things I want to do and I'm hindered in doing it because the embarrassment of what people look at us like. We're not worthless people. We have a lot of worth. We're good people."
"It's pretty rough. Its kind of hard not knowing where you're going or where you're going to sleep at or not having a meal cooked. It's rough out here," Jamere said of this life.
Jamere said he works every day to get out of this situation, and he has a warning for others: homelessness could happen to anyone.
"With the economy, and the way it's been faltering, we are all so very close to being in the same situation these people are in right here. This is reality here," said Favre.
The cold months of winter are especially challenging. Volunteers with Shepard of the Gulf say people are freezing to death in the woods because they can't find warmth. The organization tries to help by collecting candles and blankets to pass out.
Volunteers also say there are camps throughout Harrison County, many of them holding homeless veterans. One of the volunteers even spoke of an 80-year-old who was awarded a Navy Cross. The veteran lives in the woods alone with his two dogs.
Favre explained that she tries to keep veterans in the Biloxi area so they have access to the VA Hospital. However, even in a dark situation, each of these people have hope that a brighter day is around the corner.
"Life circumstances. They have an ending point as well as a beginning point. Trouble never last always," explained Joe, a man who wore a worn, but neatly coordinated clothes. "Each and every person that's in a situation of homelessness, or even becoming homeless, try to keep your head above water and keep your eyes to the skies."
Shepard of the Gulf hopes to one day build a permanent shelter to replace the tents. Favre said with the new year, she is starting a whole new effort to help as many homeless as she can.