Open Doors Homeless Coalition helps house a record number of homeless in 2021
GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - “I’m so happy to be able to say ‘welcome to my home.’”
That was the first thing Elizabeth Merlo, 60, had to say to visitors when they came to her apartment in Gulfport on Wednesday.
She had spent about six months couch surfing on the street. She was working but didn’t have enough money to pay rent. When her last housing arrangement fell apart, she found herself on the streets.
She was totally unprepared to be homeless.
“I didn’t even know about Feed My Sheep,” she said referring to the Gulfport soup kitchen. “That’s how new to homeless I was. I was just wandering around trying to find places to get because I was scared.”
Her co-workers put her in touch with the Open Doors Homeless Coalition, an organization that planted its seeds in 1999 and incorporated in 2005. They opened as an agency with staff in 2009.
This past year, the Coalition has seen its greatest success by getting 600 people in the six southern counties off the streets. In addition, they administered the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program which gave $6 million to help keep 1,400 families in Harrison County from being evicted.
“Our goal is to empower people to take control of their own lives and move forward,” said executive director Mary Simons. “Because we are only walking with them for a short time on their journey.”
They hit the mark with Merlo.
“They strive to turn your life around. They strive to make you more efficient, and have more dignity in the way that you live.” Merlo said.
David Stinson learned about the program when Open Doors caseworker Amanda Barnett brought him food where he was living under the Interstate 110 loop in Biloxi. He had been on the streets for more than a year. He believes Open Doors saved his life by helping him get into permanent housing.
“Cause now, with my health deteriorating like it is, I’d be in the grave probably by now if I was still out there,” he said.
The coalition got Stinson and another homeless man into permanent housing about two years ago. He has worked most of his life but bronchitis now prevents him from working.
“I appreciate everything they have done for us...everything, because we’d be in a bad way if it wasn’t for them,” Stinson said.
The Homeless Coalition administers several programs that work to prevent homelessness and get those on the street off.
“Here at Open Doors as an agency we have a variety of programs that include the emergency rental assistance program, for that homelessness prevention,” Simons explained. “(The) Emergency Solutions grant that is for both the rapid re-housing which is moving from homelessness into housing or prevention.”
Another is the Choice Program. It is done in partnership with the Department of Mental Health and community mental health agencies that provide stable housing while clients access mental health services.
“So while we don’t do the treatment,” Simons said. “We do provide support to help people stay connected so that they can be stable in their housing.”
Greg Burton, 57, spent about five years living on the street. He came to the Coast 10 years ago to work in the shipbuilding industry. A divorce and his mother’s death led him to drink, which led to his homelessness.
“Every day was a struggle and you just do what you do to get by,” Burton said of his time on the street.
He has now been in an apartment for more than two years.
“It gave me a new spirit, a new look on life,” he said. “I still have my struggles, you know...but nothing like before...nothing, because I’ve got a good support group around me and they’re a tremendous help.”
He cited multiple agencies that have helped him along the way, including Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church that put him in touch with the Open Doors.
“It’s a team effort in the work we do,” said Simons.
For Merlo, walking into a home after months of living on the streets was an experience like no other.
“It just felt so good to come up in here,” she said. “And I came up in here without anything and slept on the floor. I put all the clothes that I had on the floor. I would sleep on my clothes.”
Merlo now has a bed to sleep on and a stable future.
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