Homelessness is a big issue in the New Orleans region, one that extends to the Northshore. Winter is particularly hard — shelters fill up, it is cold, and there is often nowhere to go. It can be especially hard for single men, and one organization is Slidell is trying to help.
Mark McVille has been homeless for two years. He has worked as a tugboat captain and construction worker, and was in the army for a while. He always had a pretty good job and had no problem supporting his kids.
“There’s a lot of things that have happened to me in life, but if there’s anything that you’d have asked me about something that would never happen to me — I will never be homeless. Never be homeless. Not in my lifetime,” he said.
But the economic downturn in 2008 meant less construction work, and then he injured his shoulder. He had relationship problems and ended up losing everything — his house, car, wife and children — and found himself on the streets. Now he is staying at the Miramon Men’s Center in Slidell, which is run by the non-profit group Community Christian Concern.
Director Debbie Shimmeck said it is hard to find temporary or emergency housing. “You’ll see, in communities, shelters for women and children, but not for families or for males," Shimmeck said. "We see them literally living in the ditches, in the woods or under bridges. We see men just trying to tough it out, but it’s pretty tough.”
The Miramon Center offers a warm place to sleep, food and clothing, and connections to resources. It’s kind of a community — they cook meals together, share chore duties and help out around the place. McVille gave me a tour, showing off the center’s dining room area, laundry facility and dorm rooms. He helped build the room separators and was proud of the place, as well as grateful for how much help he has received.
“When I came here a few months ago I basically had a couple of tee-shirts and a pair of pants up here, and as you can see I’ve accumulated a little bit of clothes and shoes and whatnot,” he said. Construction tools and work boots spilled out across the carpet from under his bed. He had been doing some part-time construction work but it did not pay enough to help him get on his feet.
As part of the program the men meet with case manager Angela Darby, and set goals to work toward independence. But the one key factor in that is jobs.
“They come over here with different backgrounds — some are in the oil fields, some are in construction, which, construction right now is very low — so for them to go out and try to get a McDonald’s job or Burger King job when they’re doing construction all their life is very, very hard,” Darby said. She helps them learn how to use computers, work on their resumes, and role-play job interviews in order to prepare them.
While they eat dinner and sleep at the center, they are not allowed to be there during the day and must be out working, volunteering or job-hunting. Shimmeck says being unemployed is hard, but the hardest part? “Probably the judgment that comes with ‘women and children first,’ and men are homeless because they’re not working because they’re lazy. So I think the stigma that comes with being a male and not working — ‘Why are you not working? You’re lazy.’ Instead of knowing the reason why. Homelessness is a complicated issue.”
At Miramon they work to connect the men with any and all resources — whether that is applying for food stamps or getting a job, moving into their own apartment or even reuniting with their spouse.
Darby said watching them move on is the best part of her job. “Wow, it’s very exciting… I'm even getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. It makes a difference in someone’s life; when they leave here they’re totally different from when they came in.”
McVille is working hard to get a full-time construction job so that he could get his own place somewhere nearby, and have regular visits with his youngest daughter.
Ed. note -- This story was produced in 2015. Mark McVille has since found a home and job and has regular visits with his children.
The Northshore Focus is made possible with support from the Northshore Community Foundation, a center for philanthropy in the Northshore region.