Seeking the homeless

Annual census provides data, glimpse of the many faces of homelessness

News Photo by Julie Riddle Tracy Hampson and Valerie Williams of the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency search for homeless people as part of the annual Point In Time count on a blustery, frigid day on Wednesday.

The younger woman with brown hair and intense, wide-set eyes thumped her palm on the table.

“You want to describe a homeless person?” she said. “Describe me.”

Victoria Purvis is the housing program supervisor at the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency. She knows what homelessness looks like –and that it can look like anyone.

On a single day in January each year, all across the country, social service agencies and volunteers participate in a Point-In-Time (PIT) count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people. The primary purpose is to provide data used to secure federal funding to be able to help those who are without a home.

On PIT count day, which was held on Wednesday, volunteers go to shelters and other places where homeless people are known to spend time, speaking to people who seem to be without a home. Those who are interested in sharing their information are asked to give a little background about themselves and their housing situation. They may describe where they are staying – perhaps in a camper without heat, or in a car, or under a tarp in the woods.

Last year ,76 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals were counted in the northeast region made up of Alcona, Alpena, Iosco, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties.

This year’s numbers have not yet been verified.

There is no easily recognizable “look” of homelessness, Purvis said. Anyone you see could be homeless. Anyone is susceptible to a change in circumstances that takes away the stability of home.

“Who knows what could happen in my life?” she said. “You have no idea what I go home to. You have no idea what the cashier at Walmart experiences. Maybe a receptionist at a doctor’s office sleeps in the lobby at night. We don’t know.”

No matter who the homeless person is, no matter their background, Purvis’s goal is to help end their homelessness.

“We want to get them into housing, where they are stable and they can have a life,” Purvis said.


NEMCSA employees Valerie Williams, housing and client services director, and Tracy Hampson, housing intake specialist, explored the streets of Alpena Wednesday afternoon, their eyes attentive to the alleyways and sheltered recesses behind trees that might serve as a temporary shelter.

The frigid weather on this year’s PIT count day — the average temperature was 1 degree — lowered expectations that anyone would be found outdoors. Sunrise Mission, normally closed during the daytime, allowed guests to stay for the day to make sure everyone had a way to stay inside. Like shelters across the Midwest, Sunrise Mission was full this week as people came in from the cold.

Not everyone sought shelter from the cold, though.

Williams and Hampson followed up on a list of people and places to investigate. One person has been noticed lingering around area businesses in Alpena Township, prompting a phoned-in report to NEMCSA. Another person called to report living in a car and showed interest in receiving assistance.

The PIT counters compared notes before approaching one homeless person. For both of them, this is only the second year participating in the count. Their outward professionalism gave way to nervousness when approaching a stranger who might not appreciate their presence.

A smile and a friendly greeting later, the two counters were making a connection with another human whose life may be changed by their conversation.

Later, William mused about fears people may experience when confronted with someone who may be homeless. It’s natural to not know what to say, she said. But “there’s nothing against sitting down with a guy for a cup of coffee.”

Kyle Robb, who only recently moved into his own one-bedroom apartment after a seven-month stay at Sunrise Mission, has seen the gamut of reactions to homelessness.

Landing on the street at 17, the 25-year-old has been in and out of more homes than most people see in a lifetime. Struggles with substance abuse and depression led him onto the couches of relatives, into homeless shelters, and, at times, nowhere at all.

Robb recounts sleeping in his car in a parking lot, rusted-out holes in the roof, dumping his clothes on himself to stay warm at night.

Loneliness came with homelessness, but so did compassion, Robb recounted. He tells of a boss who went out of her way to make sure he stayed employed, an elderly couple who took him in to keep him from living in a drug house, hospital staff who didn’t treat him like just another addict.

“I’ve had people look at me, they’re like, ‘You’re a piece of crap.’ But there were people that were nice and understanding,” Robb said.


The snapshot of homelessness captured by the PIT count can bring in more money to help more people, and that’s a good thing. Perhaps more significantly, though, the count can also help members of a community notice the people around and among them.

The stereotype of homelessness looks like something we might expect to see in the back streets of a big city. A frail, rag-dressed man with bird’s nest hair. A woman with red nose and layers of hand-me-downs.

That is one face of homelessness. It is real. Sometimes it is in front of us, even here in northern Michigan.

But homelessness wears many faces.

A homeless person is simply a person without a home, Purvis said. The people she works with come from all walks of life, each with their own story of how they arrived at a place of need.

People looking for the stereotype of homelessness don’t see it on their sidewalks, so they assume it isn’t there.

But, Purvis said, we have all probably seen a person who doesn’t have a home.

“Homeless people work, homeless people go to church, homeless people shop at Neiman’s … there’s no specific look,” Purvis said.

“It’s not always who you think it is,” Williams said. “These are good, hardworking people who have fallen on hard times.”

The count day draws once-a-year attention to homelessness, but it is far from a unique event for those who work to provide services for people living in places not meant for human habitation.

“It’s just one day out of 365 days for us,” Williams said.

As housing intake specialist, Hampson verifies the needs of every one of the people seeking assistance in all 11 counties serviced by NEMCSA. She has gotten to know many faces and many names, but she continues to meet more all the time as new people lose a job or suffer a major life-change and wind up without a home.

Once a homeless person signs up for services with NEMCSA, they are connected to a wide variety of resources to help them improve their life situation and, most importantly, to get back into a home. Each person is assigned a caseworker, and each case is treated as individually as the individual who is living it.

Williams doesn’t use any particular word to describe the people she works with. “Clients” is acceptable, she said, but she prefers to use a more simple term.

“We call them people. People without homes,” Williams said, her eyes flicking over her shoulder at the retreating back of a woman she’d just been talking to. “I call her Sharon.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or

Homelessness, by the numbers

76 — Number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals counted in the 2018 Point In Time count day in Alcona, Alpena, Iosco, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties

9,051 — Number of homeless Michiganders in 2017

553,742 — Number of homeless Americans in 2017

Sources: Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness