Federal money, marathon focus on Miss. homeless

Published 11:28 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Job losses in east Mississippi display their effects on the streets of Meridian, where about 40 people sleep each day, says the leader of a local advocacy group.

Just two years ago a survey found only five people living on the streets, said Shirley Deville of Strategies To Ensure Permanent Stability, a nonprofit organization in Meridian.

“The need is growing daily for new projects to serve homeless people,” Deville said. “The economy being where it is, we’re having a difficult time getting new projects funded.”

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Deville and other leaders of nonprofit organizations say $5.5 million recently provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will help keep existing programs afloat.

Advocates say the state has seen more people losing their homes, although an official count hasn’t been completed. Roger Smith, director of the state Homeless Management Information System, estimated about 1,700 homeless people currently live in Mississippi. He said the 2007 count was 1,322.

HUD grants were provided last week to 28 homeless programs, including those at Matt’s House Women’s Shelter in Jackson, STEPS in Meridian and Haven House in Hattiesburg.

The money can be used at shelters, to provide permanent and transitional housing and to help pay for job training, health care, substance abuse treatment and child care.

STEPS, which received $353,841, operates a transitional housing program for families with children under age 18, Deville said. The organization leases properties throughout a nine-county region for families who pay rent on a sliding scale, she said. The money paid by families goes into an escrow account and eventually can be used for a down payment.

Homelessness on the Gulf Coast remains a problem more than three years after Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of residents. It’s the subject of a 14-hour radio marathon that was set to begin Monday night, said Jeremy Alderson of Hector, N.Y., who organized the event broadcast from Pass Christian.

“I was shocked to realize how bad things still are down here. I don’t think the country knows,” Alderson said. “This is really a broadcast about raising the consciousness of the nation about what’s going in.”

The program features a toll-free number for people to share their stories. The organizers weren’t asking for donations. The marathon was to be heard on the Internet and dozens of radio stations across the country.

There are 2,364 families still living in trailers, mobile homes and hotel rooms on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

They had been under a March 1 deadline to find permanent housing, but that’s been extended until May 1.

The state also will benefit from federal stimulus money designated for homelessness programs, said Cassandra Terry, HUD’s field office director for Mississippi.

Terry said it’s unclear how much of the $1.5 billion set aside nationwide will make its way to Mississippi.