GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Homelessness is a problem that cities across the country and across the Coast have struggled to cope with.
Gulfport will be testing a new program to try to combat the evident homelessness around the city. The city’s police department is teaming up with several social service agencies to create a “Homeless Housing Hub.”
The program is modeled after one that uses the police to identify the needs of the homeless and connect them to resources. Partners in the program include Open Doors Homeless Coalition, the Salvation Army, Goodwill, Mental Health Association of South Mississippi, and Feed My Sheep.
“Every day on a daily basis, we are engaging our homeless,” said Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania. “Feed My Sheep is engaging our homeless. We know the client base, and what we’re going to allow our officers now is to be connected to resources to help solve these problems.”
“Homelessness is a condition, not a crime” Papania said after presenting the plan to the city council. “And we’re looking at what can we do collectively instead of leaving it to this resource or to that resource.”
“Reaching people where they are is critically important,” said Mary Simons, director of the Open Doors Coalition. “The police department is already engaging with people. The police department does a fantastic job of serving and protecting people and marrying that with social services to then engage people in their permanent solutions allows people to then move forward in a really positive way.”
It’s a model that is already proving effective in Pascagoula. In the first year since the city established the hub, that program reduced homelessness by 47 percent. It continues to be successful, say officials.
“We’ve done some work in Pascagoula, and there’s already been significant reductions of un-sheltered homelessness in Pascagoula,” Simons said. “It was an outreach partnership between the faith-based organizations, Open Doors outreach team, and the police department.”
Biloxi police have started to sit in on Gulfport city council meetings with an eye towards implementing a similar approach.
Across the Coast, homelessness has been cut in half since 2007. But in the last three years, the number of homeless has been stuck at around 200.
“If we can take some of those resources and target them to the people that don’t necessarily meet the chronic definition but are in high need... and in some cases are at risk of dying on the street," Simmons explained. "If we can really target them, get them connected to the services they need and permanent housing, then we will see the needle move on that 200 and eventually move everyone who is outside, inside somewhere in a way that makes sense to them and meets their goals.”
The group’s goal is to effectively eliminate homelessness in Gulfport by next June.
Chief Papania has faith in the effort.
“I think there can be a relentless approach with the right resources,” he said. “And we do it because we’re morally driven to do it.”