Changes Resource Center for Hattiesburg homeless to open soon

By J. DANIEL CLOUD,

Sometime in the next few weeks, a new resource center for Hattiesburg’s homeless will open in what used to be the Courtesy Ford dealership on West Pine Street in Hattiesburg.

In May of this year, the Hattiesburg City Council decided by unanimous vote to purchase the facility. As of now, it’s going to be called the Changes Resource Center, but things are still coming together. They’re moving in new furniture, fixing walls, redecorating in a limited fashion.

I like the new decorations. There’s a huge rug with a design based on Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting. One of the people moving things around (I think she’s a volunteer, but she may very well be an employee either of Pine Belt Mental Health, or of the city) has painted over some of the Ford Motor Co. verbiage on a mural in the entryway.

(It’s a lovely mural. Kids on a rope swing, jumping into a creek, with an antiquated Ford sitting nearby. I don’t know which portions of the painting she did, and which were already there when it was a car dealership.)

The initial intention was for the property to be used as a maintenance facility for city vehicles. Mayor Toby Barker has said the purchase saved the city almost $1.6 million, considering what it would have taken to build a similar, brand new, vehicle-maintenance structure.

Some portion of the structure, that which used to be the 12 service bays for the dealership, is still intended to be used as a maintenance facility. However, it’s a huge building, approximately 9,000 square feet, leaving plenty of space for other uses.

“This facility came about following a phone call from the state Department of Mental Health back in the spring,” said Rita Porter, director of Adult Services for Pine Belt Mental Health. “They suggested a resource center for the area’s homeless population.

“We already knew something like this was needed. They wanted to know exactly what was needed, and how it would be utilized.”

While Pine Belt Mental Health is not a state agency, the state Department of Mental Health recognized that the organization is in a unique position to oversee a state grant, Porter said.

The grant is for $180,000 per year. The amount of the grant is not guaranteed from year to year, “year dependent,” nor is it “time-limited,” she added.

In other words, if there’s money for it, the center will be funded via the state grant. If not, it won’t be.

One benefit of using this particular building is that “it’s situated in a place with a lot of foot traffic,” said Kim Townsend, Homeless Coordinator for the city’s Planning and Development office.

“It’s also very significant that it’s on the bus line. If you think about a place like the old Salvation Army shelter,” which was south of Hattiesburg on Hwy. 49 until being destroyed by a tornado several years ago, “it’s just harder to get from there to a place where somebody can get a job,” she said.

One homeless woman I spoke with while I was hanging out with Townsend said she’d heard about a specific job at a store in Petal. Townsend agreed that the woman could be a good fit for the job, and that the shop was interested in hiring someone with her skillset.

“But that job is in Petal,” Townsend said. “Sure, it’s only a few miles. But if she can’t get there on time, and safely, and get home safely, it just wouldn’t work.”

Some of the various services the new facility will offer will include showers and laundry facilities for those who need them, and computers people can use to search for (and apply for) jobs.

The facility “will also provide homeless clients with a place to get an ID, storage lockers, a place to get out of the elements without getting arrested because they’re trespassing on private property,” Townsend added.

Because of the amount of available space, Porter said, the facility will be able “to invite other agencies to come in and essentially have office hours.”

She views the new facility as “a one-stop shop” for people who otherwise might not know where to go next, or what to do next.

“I don’t want to duplicate what’s already out there,” she said. The facility will, rather, be a place for people to get off the street for a few hours, a place where they “can develop life skills” including, potentially, working toward their GED, the high school equivalency diploma.

The center will also eventually offer other skill-building classes, particularly computer skills. At the beginning, however, the computers available to clients will be primarily used for job search and application, that kind of thing.

“Once everything is up and running, we’ll be talking about the best ways to optimize the space,” Porter said.

“There are a lot of resources out there already,” she said. “But there are also a lot of barriers, things that make it difficult for people to access the resources that are already available. I want to remove the barriers, for people to be able to access the services they need, that are already available.”

One thing that won’t be happening: The Changes Resource Center will not be a homeless shelter. Business hours only. That’s the plan.

“We’re not housing anybody. It’s not designed to be a shelter,” Porter said. “We’ll be open Monday through Friday, 8-5.”

The mail service thing is interesting to me, but Porter says it’s not unusual. “At a few similar centers in the state, it’s been shown that we can pretty quickly set up mail delivery there.”

Townsend agreed, saying it’s a place that will give homeless people a mailing address at which they can receive casual mail, from family members and friends, but which they can also use on legal documents if necessary, or at which potential employers can reach them.

Part of the reason for developing the center in the first place is to “develop a diversion center, to divert people in crisis from jail, or from the hospital, or the emergency room,” Porter said. “People facing a potential mental health crisis need somewhere to go, someone to turn to.”

The center will have four full-time staff members: a coordinator, a community support specialist, an administrative assistant, and a peer support specialist.

The community support specialist will be one who is familiar with, and can be a link to, services already available in the community, Porter said.

The only thing stopping them from opening now, she said, is time and scheduling: stocking the building with furniture, etc.

For one thing, the building has to be certified by the Department of Mental Health, which gave the grant in the first place. “We have to check the square footage to determine how many people we can have inside at any given time,” Porter said.

Consider it advanced Fire Marshall stuff.

The showers aren’t fully set up yet. When they are, it will be by extending the existing restrooms in the building. There’s certainly room for it. Again, the building is huge.

“It’s far more space than I ever could have imagined when we started talking about it,” Porter said.

The facility is going to be leased from the city, and Porter is well aware they are getting a deal on the property. “I have no doubt that if that building was leased to a profitable business instead, they’d make more money.”

However, “As you know, the mayor [Toby Barker] is very pragmatic, and has been very supportive of many of the things we’re doing. I think he understands that the benefits of this facility [to the community as a whole] are worth the costs,” she added.

There will be some rudimentary paperwork required for people who want to use the facility, Porter said. “But people won’t be required to be registered in the Department of Mental Health database to be there. They will have to provide some form of identification, just to keep track of who goes into and out of the building.

“This facility, this resource center, will of course be an opportunity to engage people who need mental health assistance,” she said, but it will not be a requirement that people be either homeless or mentally ill, in order to use it.