HARRISON COUNTY, Miss. (WLOX) - The Harrison County Youth Shelter has been a staple in Gulfport for many years, providing a home and safe shelter for many Coast kids in need, but not many kids can be seen around the shelter anymore. We took a look at what’s causing that drop in numbers and how the shelter will continue to be used to help families.
In 2012, Kameron Bourgeois and his brother were placed in the care of the Harrison County Emergency Youth Shelter.
It was a tumultuous time that Kameron remembers well.
“You feel a little depressed, but you try to hold on," he said. "I think in times like that, that’s when you really learn how to love because, you know, I had my family with me, but also my family taken away from me. So it was kind of just so much at one point in time.”
The brothers were there for over a month, and while the ordeal wasn’t easy, Kameron said at the time the shelter was the best-case scenario.
"The people here, they instill good things into you. They try to help you learn how to do things. Everything’s on schedule here. So, you always know when you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re supposed to shower, when you’re supposed to do get ready for laundry, get up in the morning, make your bed, so it just helps grow you up a little bit,” Kameron said.
Walking around the property, it’s clear the shelter is a place for children. Rooms are set up and ready to go with the beds all made. The shelter carries clothing and shoes in sizes for any child that may come into their care. The backyard is the real gem with a variety of play equipment, including a splash pad.
However, a lot has changed since 2012 when Kameron and his brother were sheltered there. Kameron remembers the shelter being full of kids, but if you go to the shelter now, you won’t find many children, if any, there at all.
Data provided to WLOX from Harrison County shows the number of children being housed at the shelter has greatly declined since 2018.
In 2018, 214 total children were housed at the shelter. In 2019, that number dipped down to only 81. Breaking it down by month, January of 2018 had 20 children compared to only 3 children for the month of January in 2020.
Why the decline? Where have the children gone?
Harrison County Youth Court Judge Michael Dickinson said there are several reasons, but the main reason is the decline in the number of children in state custody in Harrison County. The number of children in CPS care has dropped since Judge Dickinson took office.
“When I started, there were 792 kids in Harrison County in state custody or CPS custody. Right now, there -- or by the end of 2019 -- there were 459. So, the number of kids in custody has gone way down, which of course accounts for the decrease in the number of kids in a shelter,” Judge Dickinson said.
A 2019 annual report written by Judge Dickinson highlights the staggering figures. From January 2019 to January 2020, the State of Mississippi had a decrease of 611 children in CPS care. Of those 611 statewide, 333 of those children were from Harrison County.
Judge Dickinson said The Families First Prevention Act and his “Safe at Home” philosophy have helped contribute to the decline in children in state custody, which has consequently led to a decrease in numbers at the shelter.
“There’s an enormous amount of trauma that is caused to a child when you pull that child out of that child’s biological home, and that’s true. Whether it’s a great home or not so great home, as long as you can safely keep that child in the home, let’s do that and let’s fix the family. Let’s not break the family apart because it does cause a lot of trauma to the kids," Dickinson said.
So, where does that leave the shelter? Judge Dickinson said he absolutely wants to continue using it.
“It's a phenomenal facility, the layout is great. The quality of the facility is great, the workers are wonderful. I do not want to stop using it,” Dickinson said.
While the budget and staffing of the shelter will remain the same, the use of the shelter will now be different. First, Judge Dickinson plans to have it licensed so children can spend the night in an emergency situation where no family or foster care homes are available. Second, he plans to use it as part of his “Safe at Home” philosophy to keep families together.
"So, for instance, if we had a family that had a bad bug infestation, rather than pulling those children out of that home, let’s pick up the family and put them in the shelter for a few days, let’s get their house fixed, and then let’s move them back home. You completely eliminate the trauma that would occur to those children if you were to separate them from their parents,” Dickson said.
The shelter is also already being used as a visitation center for families to reunite.
"It allows these biological parents to visit with their kids for a lot longer than the CPS policy of twice a month for an hour each, which is just not a whole lot of visitation,” Dickinson said.
For Kameron, he understands the idea behind “Safe at Home,” but he doesn’t want the shelter to be overlooked.
“It’s called a shelter for a reason, you feel sheltered. And so and you know, you never know what’s good, never know what’s going on in, in foster homes. I’ve thankfully never been in a severely bad one, but my little brother has. So, I’ve heard, but I mean, you never know. So, here I would say it’s way better. It’s better," he said.
Kameron, now 22-years-old and a senior in college studying accounting, still visits the shelter regularly. A big couponer, he even brings his own donations into the shelter for children who are in the same situation he was in not too long ago.
“I told myself growing up, being young, I told myself I was gonna do it. I told myself I was gonna go to college. I told myself I was gonna graduate. I was going to be the first graduate in my family. And that’s what I’m planning to do. And I’m going to keep doing it,” Bourgeois said.