Agencies working to help area homeless
ALPENA — When businesses were disrupted and people lost jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic, many Northeast Michiganders found themselves suddenly without income.
For some, that meant also being suddenly without a home, according to Traci Schuelke, of the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency.
As an intake specialist for NEMCSA, Schuelke saw more first-time homelessness in 2020 than in previous years as people who never thought it would happen to them lost their jobs or were furloughed, th eir rainy-day funds depleted as unemployment benefits or stimulus payments that were slow to drive.
As of last week, about 3,200 Northeast Michiganders were claiming unemployment benefits, 1,900 of whom are Alpena County residents, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.
State and national moratoriums on evictions when people can’t pay their rent mean there’s some financial assistance to keep people in their homes, but evictions are still happening, Schuelke said.
And, because of a shortage of inexpensive housing in Alpena, once someone loses one home, it can be very difficult to find another, Schuelke said.
Callers to her intake line share painful stories — sleeping in a vehicle when the people who took in the kids didn’t have room for one more, giving up a spot on a family member’s couch when that refuge became a toxic environment, sleeping in a garage of a house for years until the house burned down.
Most people turn a blind eye to homelessness, neither seeing nor looking for it, according to Amanda Bergeron, lead housing resource specialist with NEMCSA.
“They do not think it’s real,” Bergeron said. “But, it’s real. It’s very real.”
Multiple Northeast Michigan agencies work to connect the homeless with homes and funnel state and federal dollars. But, especially this year, with more people struggling financially who have never needed to ask for help before, Bergeron wishes there were more small groups and organizations offering on-the-ground, person-to-person support.
Food pantries and blanket drives and clothing giveaways are a lifeline for people trying to stretch every dollar and stay in their homes, she said.
Salons or barber shops could offer makeovers or haircuts to people who need to make a good impression at a job interview but can’t afford a haircut, she suggested.
Dreaming big, Bergeron envisions a tiny-home community, right in Northeast Michigan and maintained by the people who live there, where small spaces could give independence, purpose, and a roof overhead to the literally homeless.
“People just need some extra love and support right now,” Bergeron said, urging the community to work to end homelessness. “Hopefully, I’ll see that in my lifetime. That’s my dream.”
The members of Beaver Lake Community Church in Lachine try to love their neighbor — and their neighbor, they know, may not have a home.
Homelessness and the economic struggles that may lead to it are a real struggle in rural counties, said the Rev. Daniel Williams, pastor of Beaver Lake Church.
Many people who couch-surf, bunking with friends and family, aren’t visibly homeless, so the community doesn’t know they’re homeless and doesn’t feel compelled to help, Williams said.
“We have a problem,” Williams said. “We just don’t see it, and we choose not to think about it.”
Food banks and charitable organizations do a good job meeting the needs of Alpena people, but it’s harder for rural folks to get to those resources, Williams said.
That’s why the church has a food pantry in its basement, stocked with cans and boxes and meat and, in the summer, produce, free to whoever needs it. Churches can’t fix everyone’s problems, but relieving the burden of an unmanageable food bill is something his congregation’s members can do to help people stay in their homes, Williams said.
Anyone can be hit hard financially and be in sudden danger of losing their homes, food pantry organizers said.
When Sharon Church, one of the food pantry’s volunteers, divorced years ago, there was no food pantry to help the single mom who, living on $300 per month, made too much to qualify for food stamps.
Williams, too, remembers the empty cupboards of his youth. Now, he and his volunteers try to fill the cupboards of others to help them keep a roof over their heads.
“When people are hurting, they’re hurting,” Williams said. “Maybe the government can help them, maybe they can’t. But we don’t have to have a standard, as a church. We can just give food away to people where they’re at.”
For help keeping or finding a home:
Contact Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency Central intake