The Salvation Army in Lafayette this month began a $600,000 improvement project on its downtown shelter and pantry where, these days, more men are showing up for overnight stays and more families with children are standing in line for supper and breakfast.

The downtown shelter, run by Maj. Mel James and his wife, Maj. Esther James, is run out of a three-building complex at Sixth Street and Evangeline Thruway that was built in the 1950s and needs repairs. Those repairs started last week with workers replacing a roof that leaks.

The project goes beyond repairs. Plans are to increase the number of bunks from 20 to 40 and move the dormitory to the chapel that fronts Evangeline Thruway, which now sits empty and unused in a state of disrepair. The dining area will be expanded so people aren’t rushed out to make room for more. And a classroom, a computer lab and other facilities are planned to help those on the fringes of life get jobs.

So far, $300,000 of the needed $600,000 has been raised from a select group of donors for the Shine Your Light fundraising campaign. Now, the Lafayette Salvation Army is reaching out to the public for help. The campaign for donations ends July 1, and Salvation Army officials would like to complete the project by Christmas.

“We want to educate people on what we’re doing,” said Michelle Van Norden, the organization’s regional resource development director. “We need their help.”

Mel James is a 49-year veteran of the Salvation Army who, with his wife, took over Lafayette operations in 2014. “I would love to see this project finished,” said Mel James, who turns 79 this summer.

More people — some of them children — started lining up for food nightly after the oil-and-gas industry took a dive in late 2014 and led to layoffs. Some who show up and need help have jobs, but the pay doesn’t quite afford them independence from charity.

“We call them the working poor,” Mel James said. “Some of their lives are so uncertain.”

According to a study by the Louisiana Association of United Ways, one in six jobs in the state pays less than $10.61 an hour, the lowest wage needed by two parents in a family of four to meet basic needs. Many others make less than that and have to rely on organizations such as the Salvation Army.

One of the Lafayette shelter’s regulars is Richard Mitchell, who has stood in line for a night’s stay and a meal for a few years now. Mitchell, 54, from Lafayette, is an ex-convict whose truck-driving job ended after he developed glaucoma in 2012. He’s been homeless ever since. He survives on $1,300 a month in disability checks.

“I lost my vision. I lost my job. I can’t work,” Mitchell said last week.

Mel James said that most who stay and eat at the shelter can work, and they’re encouraged to take advantage of the Salvation Army’s job services, such as résumé writing and job searches. Sometimes, he said, they need a lot of encouragement.

“There’s a certain sense of despair when they get to that point,” he said. “But just because that’s the way it is doesn’t mean that that’s the way it’s going to be forever.”

Local Salvation Army board Chairman Jim Faulk said in a letter to supporters that Lafayette can help contribute in a number of ways. Volunteers, food and other goods are always needed. For more information call (337) 235-2407, visit at 212 Sixth St., or write a letter to P.O. Box 3504, Lafayette, LA 70502.

To send money for the shelter expansion, visit the secure website at or text to 41444 Message: ShineLight, the amount of money and a name.

Follow Billy Gunn on Twitter, @BillyGunnAcad