A Tale of Three Cities

As assistant director of a soup kitchen in Gulfport, Miss., Lynda Favre has helped serve thousands of meals to people. She has also had to turn away people begging her for a place to spend the night.

“I saw so many young people—19, 20 years old—come to that door looking for a place to stay who had been kicked out, had nowhere to go,” she says. For women it was particularly desperate; many times they would tell Favre that they felt uncomfortable staying with a man who offered his house, fearing he would expect something in return.

But for homeless women in the Gulf Coast cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., staying with a friend or living on the streets are their only options five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, leaving many without homes and destroying the Salvation Army-run shelter in Gulfport. There is now only one shelter for the homeless population in the area, and it’s for men only.

“We have all these women bumping around here, having nowhere to go,” says Sharon Hanshaw, executive director of Coastal Women for Change, a nonprofit aimed at rebuilding Biloxi. Many homeless women end up in the woods, under bridges or behind stores.

Prior to Katrina, the Salvation Army sheltered both women and men. After the storm, the shelter was never rebuilt because of confusion about zoning and opposition from some citizens. “Not in my backyard” is how Scott Williams, a program director at Gulfport’s Open Doors Homeless Coalition, describes the neighborhood’s resistance to building a shelter for the more than 1,800 men, women and children living on the streets in the Gulf Coast counties.

On the other hand, nearby New Orleans, less than 100 miles down the road, has a number of homeless shelters, several specifically for women and their children. The New Orleans Women’s Shelter, built by a grassroots organization immediately after Katrina, houses an estimated 60 to 100 women and children annually, with an average stay of four months.

But neither Biloxi nor Gulfport, with a combined population of more than 100,000, has a plan to build a shelter in the near future, despite the renewed economic hardship brought on by the gulf oil spill. The City of Biloxi 2010 Action Plan does not designate any funding at all to homeless needs. Instead, it merely supports applications for funding that local organizations such as the Salvation Army, Open Doors Homeless Coalition and Catholic Social Services have filed with the federal government and other agencies. (The mayors for Biloxi and Gulfport did not respond to a request for comment.)

So Lynda Favre intends to take matters into her own hands by creating a new shelter called Shepherd of the Gulf, which will house men, women, families and pets. She is working to raise funds for the facility and find a building, whether new or existing. She is planning to apply for federal funding to operate it. “This should be the responsibility of the city and the county,” says Favre, “but if they’re not willing to do it, somebody’s got to.”

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Above: A homeless woman’s encampment in the Gulfport, Miss., woods. Photo by Lynda Favre.

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