- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) - There’s something to be said for asking the homeless what it is they want or need.

And responding to that input.

An example could be taken from spending time with George Rogers, 52, who is without a home and has lived that way in Ocean Springs for more than two years. He wound up on the coast when he bought a $15 ticket for a casino bus bringing gamblers from Florida.

He says he’s been homeless for eight years and Ocean Springs is the best place he’s lived so far.

On a recent Tuesday, as he sat on a curb in busy east Ocean Springs, in less than 30 minutes, one driver stopped and handed him a carton of Wendy’s chili; another handed him two hamburgers, fries and tea and another, five dollars. He wasn’t panhandling.

He was gracious and thanked them. They seemed happy to be offering help.

But when it quieted down, Rogers said he won’t eat what they brought him.

“They don’t ask me what I want,” he said. “What I really hate is the double cheeseburgers from McDonald’s. They just hand them to me.”

He said what he wants is a can of chicken soup from Wal-Mart. He pops the top and eats it cold. But he can’t go to Wal-Mart. He got in trouble for hanging out with beer on his breath, was marked as a trespasser and told not to return.

Helping the homeless can be complicated.

When told the story of Rogers, the Rev. Elijah Mitchell of Ocean Springs said: “Basically people are concerned. He’s a human being and nobody wants to see a person suffer.”

But how to help is evolving.

Mitchell and others who minister to the homeless -and for the record, he doesn’t like that term, because it categorizes and labels people - have learned from experiences similar to the one with Rogers. He said they are still learning.

The issues of people loitering without a place to live are complex. Cities don’t want them around public buildings or in parks, as recently seen when Ocean Springs cleared them out from around the public library and City Hall and removed the benches in front of the library.

Taking the benches created an outcry from the public. Alderman John Gill said he got a call wanting to know why he didn’t set up a shelter first, so they would have a place to go.

Some boards and coalitions dealing with people who are chronically or temporarily without a home on the coast now have a homeless representative on the board. They’re listening.

Mitchell is a pastor with St. Paul United Methodist Church in Ocean Springs. He has made ministering to those without homes a 20-year endeavor. He’s on more than 20 boards.

He sees a lot of compassion, some misdirected efforts and things that work.

St. Paul’s has opened the Living Well Ministry in Ocean Springs that offers breakfast; hot showers; a place to wash clothes; a haircut; clothes from a clothes closet; a TV lounge and access to computers, counseling and a case manager on Mondays and Thursdays.

Mitchell heads the ministry.

But when they first opened late last year, volunteers with good hearts brought breakfast food.

“The sweets were pouring in,” he said.

Then one of the men spoke up and said they don’t really want sweets. And the ministry adjusted. Now they cook a hot breakfast and the men and women who come get grits and eggs.

There’s a retired nurse and a counselor who volunteer there.

Case managing has become a key to the solution. Getting along with the police, whose job it is to answer complaints about loiterers, is another. There are many ways to progress and at the heart of them is a community’s desire to embrace the issue and to advocate, he said. There are three similar day-lounges in other coast cities.

But there is a need for a shelter in Ocean Springs, Mitchell and others say. He said the first step would be a much-needed emergency shelter to house people for a few nights.

“Children living in cars is an emergency situation,” Mitchell said. “Someone discharged from the hospital after surgery with no place to go is an emergency situation. I’m dealing with that now.”

He said members of his church have stepped up and paid for a hotel room for more than one night.

The parking spaces at the Living Well Ministry are full on Monday and Thursdays because many who are homeless live in cars.

Gill reported recently to other aldermen what he did with the library benches and noted that the scene is much quieter there now. Even though some in the community say it was an errant few causing the problem.

He looked at shelter options but did not recommend one for the city. He said, “There’s no answer for the homeless. That’s my take on it.”

Mayor Connie M. Moran said she was part of a coalition meeting late last year, and a church located along Ocean Springs Road offered to build a shelter on 22 acres there, if the city would help write grants for funding.

She said she would be willing to revisit that effort.

Moran said people also suggested the possibly of using church space when churches are not holding services.

Ocean Springs has had, for years, the Lord Is My Help downtown.

It’s a “nonprofit, nondenominational, nondiscriminatory soup kitchen” that raises money through popular events.

The soup kitchen numbers don’t accurately reflect people without homes, but rather people in need of a good, hot meal. That can be a family that doesn’t have the money in its budget to buy food for an entire month.

General Manager Barbara Ruddiman said its mission is delivering 160 meals a day to the elderly and infirm and serving 50-60 inhouse. Of those, she estimates 10-15 are truly homeless. She says she can tell by how dark their tan is.

The soup kitchen does attract the homeless to downtown, however, and aldermen discussed the possibility of moving the soup kitchen to better accommodate downtown businesses that have complained about the mess workers are sometimes confronted with when they open shop.

Those who work with the homeless say the population in Ocean Springs is relatively small, compared to Biloxi and Gulfport or even Pascagoula.

Ministers and the community say more can be done.

___

Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

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