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Back Bay Mission wraps service, caring around community

Biloxi — A mission that began in 1922 to assist poor immigrant families working in the seafood industry has remained strong and evolved to meet current needs of the community. Back Bay Mission has a legacy of compassionate service and has spawned other caring agencies that have yielded stunning, long-term impacts for the good of the Gulf Coast.

Programs created under Back Bay Mission auspices but now independent service agencies include:

• Gulf Coast Women’s Center for Nonviolence, the first shelter for battered women in the state.

• Coastal Family Health Center, a community health care system which has grown to operate 17 clinics over a five-county area.

• South Mississippi AIDS Task Force, a comprehensive program that includes education and prevention campaigns and support groups.

• Loaves and Fishes, an ecumenical feeding program serving as many as 55,000 meals a year.

• Interfaith Hospitality Network, a program to house and assist homeless families.

Today these agencies deliver nearly $15 million in annual services to the Gulf Coast.

The Rev. Shari Prestemon, executive director said, “We’re 83 years old and here to stay. We’re proud to be a part of the community.”

She says the mission remains strong although it suffers the same ups and downs of all nonprofit organizations and is subject to the generosity of those who also have ups and downs.

“Our service and commitment to this community has not changed,” she said. “We are striving to address many needs and always stretching every penny.”

Back Bay Mission was established by the First Evangelical Church of Biloxi that later became the United Church of Christ. The mission continues to thrive through local and national support.

“There are United Church of Christ churches in every state except Mississippi,” Prestemon said, “but churches all over the country have adopted us and support us along with local people and organizations.”

A national fundraising campaign enabled the mission to complete a recent renovation and addition to the buildings on their Division Street campus.

With the changing seafood industry, the mission’s focus has changed to address other needs. “As circumstances change, our focus becomes whichever group is disenfranchised,” the director said.

Currently on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that group is homeless people. Prestemon says she’s seen those ranks swell in the four years she’s been at the mission. She chairs a six-county homeless coalition that has pushed for a Homeless Task Force for the city of Biloxi. Mayor A.J. Holloway is currently naming a 15-member group that Prestemon will chair. She hopes the Task Force will be ready to go to work in September.

“The federal government has urged cities to fashion 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness,” she said. “It’s been an ignored issue down here but now is getting attention.”

Prestemon said churches can’t be lone rangers in addressing this issue and that she hopes for a broad base of support for the Task Force that will include business leaders, social services, government and churches.

“We believe we have a lot of need and it’s growing, especially among women and children,” she said. “I hope this group will make us look more creatively to stem this tide of homelessness.”

Prestemon believes homelessness in increasing on the Gulf Coast because the warm climate is appealing and the casinos are a draw with the offer they hold out for jobs and riches.

“I have seen it grow in the time I’ve been here and I believe that’s a reflection of what’s happening nationally,” she said.

The coalition has gone to shelters, the woods and places where the homeless hang out to try to get a headcount and other information. Prestemon said they’ve found that the majority of homeless people are actually from the area. Many are in these circumstances because of substance abuse, unemployment and under employment.

“These are ‘our people’ and that’s another motivation for doing this plan,” she said.

Another current initiative of Back Bay Mission is to conduct a voter registration drive among the homeless and low-income people. The mission will partner with other organizations that have contact with these groups of people. She said homeless people can use the address of shelters to register.

“These are people who are very unempowered politically and there are a lot of issues in elections that involve them,” Prestemon said. “After September we will be much more visible with the registration drive. Regardless of how they vote, we want them to vote.”

Ongoing services of Back Bay Mission are:

• Direct service and emergency assistance with food, clothing, rent and utilities relief, and referral and counseling services.

• Home At Last, a program to put homeless people in permanent, safe houses and increase their self-sufficiency.

• Community development, a program of starting new organizations dedicated to addressing substantial problems.

• Low-income housing rehabilitation, a program made possible through volunteer work groups from across the nation, approximately 20 per year, that travel to Biloxi to assist the mission in these housing rehab tasks.

In 2003, Back Bay Mission provided emergency assistance to more than 9,000 people, renovated 25 houses for the poor and handicapped, and managed and coordinated the Home At Last program.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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