Count offers inexact glimpse into local homelessness
ALPENA – A spreadsheet lists an address where someone suspects a woman lives in a space not fit for human habitation.
At that address, in middle-of-nowhere Presque Isle County, a ramshackle trailer home sits high on cement blocks, broken windows offering glimpses of sparse furnishings and trash inside. The front door stands open.
Nobody responds to a repeated, “Hello.'”
Thank goodness. Nobody should have to live in such a place.
Then again, the thermometer says 13 degrees, and the wind makes it colder.
Perhaps the trailer would be better than nothing.
On Wednesday, volunteers canvassed Northeast Michigan in search of people experiencing homelessness as part of the annual Point In Time Count, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and conducted nationally at the end of January every year.
The count helps agencies better respond to homeless persons’ needs and allows those experiencing homelessness to say what services they wish they could access.
In northern Michigan, the January timetable regularly stands between volunteers and those they are trying to find, cold temperatures chasing indoors anyone who might be findable in warmer months.
A search of parks, parking lots, trailheads, and other spots suspected as sheltering places for the homeless in Presque Isle County added no numbers to the count conducted by the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency.
Not finding homeless people on a given day doesn’t mean everyone living in the county has a home, residents and police say.
Elsewhere in the region, volunteers followed up on reports of suspected homelessness: a man living in a vehicle behind an Alpena restaurant and another living in a garage. A possible encampment near Lincoln. People living in unheated campers in Herron, Hillman, Ossineke, Lachine.
Some live alone, the reports say. Some have children.
In Onaway, in Presque Isle County, a woman at a gas station has heard that people sometimes live at a nearby park, where iron statues and tumbledown buildings offer shelter.
Then again, it’s winter, she says. She knows people in town who offer their floors to people without homes during the bitterly cold months so they don’t have to sleep in the park.
At the park, footprints in the snow lead past a hollow sculpture of Abraham Lincoln’s head, but nobody seems to have entered it any time recently. A matchbook and energy drink bottles show someone has visited the cave-like interior of the sculpture, noticeably warm after a trudge through snow.
The metal head would, indeed, provide welcome shelter if the bare elements offered the only alternative.
Still, the inside of a head is no place to live.
At a state park near Rogers City, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources employee reports nobody lives in the park’s campground or woods, or at other campgrounds in the county. He’s checked, he said.
Park employees sometimes see transients eyeing the campgrounds in hopes of a free place to stay, but rangers confront them and send them on their way unless they can pay.
They’d like to offer free lodging, but they’re not allowed to, he said.
A laundromat is locked, as is a library. At another library in another town, the librarian says she’s heard people with nowhere else to go sometimes warm up at libraries, but not in Posen.
A police officer in a nearby gas station says the same thing. He hasn’t heard of homeless people in the area. Reports of people living in statues should be taken with a grain of salt, he cautions. Police check those areas, and they haven’t found anything.
At the sheriff’s office, a worker says police have had to talk to people living in the woods near a school, but no such reports are coming in now. Nobody is reporting homeless people now. It’s too cold.
The police chief says an officer talked to someone living in their car in the woods behind a Rogers City gas station a few days ago.
There’s almost always at least one homeless person living in town, he says.
A man from California looking for a job locally has been living in his truck near a trailhead west of Rogers City, a DNR officer reports. That was two, maybe three weeks ago.
The truck is gone now.
A homeless census in winter makes no sense, everyone agrees. The numbers will mean nothing. Nobody stays outside in a Michigan winter, even if they don’t have a place to go.
Besides, they say, people experiencing homelessness don’t want to be found. They’re embarrassed. They don’t want others to know they’re struggling.
Maria Harrison and her sister, owners of the Onaway Motel, wonder if someone busses homeless people upstate from metropolitan areas during the summer months.
That would explain the homeless people Harrison sees walking by with their belongings or camped among statues in the park, the ones who disappear in winter, she said.
Some time ago, police asked Harrison to provide housing for an elderly woman who was homeless. After two weeks of lodging her with no pay, Harrison had to ask for police help moving the woman along.
The officer suggested he could drop the woman off at the county line, Harrison said.
He eventually agreed to take the woman to Sunrise Mission, Alpena’s homeless shelter, although the shelter may not have had enough room for her.
Rural counties like Presque Isle need shelters, too, Harrison said, unsure how else to help people who don’t have a place to live.
Then again, it’s hard to prove the need for a shelter without knowing the extent of the problem, and it’s hard to determine the extent of the problem unless the people struggling can be found and counted.
Try the woods, Harrison suggested – everyone suggested – in a county in which nearly every road eventually leads to wilderness.
“They’re there,” said Harrison, who, like others, has met people without homes in Northeast Michigan but doesn’t know where they are, especially in winter. “They could be right in front of you, and you’d never see them.”