Lack Of Homeless Shelters Raises Concern

Transients may be to blame for two fires in two days. An abandoned building in downtown Gulfport burned down early Wednesday, while a storm-damaged motel caught fire in West Biloxi late last night.

Homeless people, seeking shelter, are the primary suspects in both blazes.

The homeless have few options for finding warmth and shelter. Katrina damaged or destroyed two of the places where the needy sought sanctuary from the cold. With the addition of those left homeless from the storm, a long time problem is now worsening.

Gulf Coast Rescue Mission is the lone shelter in Harrison County. And with a frigid weekend forecast, the director is prepared for extra visitors.

"We've seen it full, we've seen it full. We've come close when we thought we were going to have to open up the chapel, so yes, several times," said Rev. Tom Mims, while giving a tour of his mission's dormitory.

Along with beds in the dorm, the mission's chapel will be on standby for sleeping space.

"Like I said, we've got about 20 rollaway beds we can put in here. Absolutely," he says.

The mission has provided help for the homeless since 1965. Right now, it's the only one offering shelter from the cold. And the cold is coming.

"Well, we're concerned with this weekend, with the lack of shelters and with us being the only shelter. But we're ready. Anybody needing a place to stay, come. We can accommodate 50 to 60 comfortably," said Rev. Mims.

Gulfport's Salvation Army Shelter is a casualty of Katrina. Major David Craddock says the storm damaged facility won't likely reopen until the end of March. And that shelter isn't the only one hit by the hurricane.

For years, the United Methodist Seashore Mission on Howard Avenue opened its doors to provide a warm place for transients and the homeless. But like so many properties in East Biloxi, Katrina destroyed the church buildings, wiping out a mission that provided a warm place for more than 100 people on cold nights.

"We've got all sorts of new homeless, as well as those that were here prior. And our resources before were scarce, and now that's even more the case," said Back Bay Mission's Rev. Shari Prestemon.

Whatever the numbers, Rev. Prestemon says concern about the cold remains the same.

"As we all know, we've seen incidents when people have died in that kind of weather. And I have concerns about that this weekend," she said.

Rev. Prestemon was part of a task force studying the homeless. The task force presented its recommendations just before Katrina, but the hurricane devastated so many social service agencies, that plan is no longer of much use.