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Homelessness prevention advocates arm locals with information

News Photo by Julie Riddle Art Ohlrich, health care for homeless veterans case manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Alpena, standing, speaks to participants in an Association of Lifelong Learners presentation on the Alpena Community College campus on Monday. Victoria Purvis, director of homeless and prevention services for the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, appears on the right, and Vicki Denstaedt, McKinney Vento homeless liaison for Alpena Public Schools, appears on the left.

ALPENA — Fixing a big problem starts with knowledge, said presenters speaking about homelessness in the Alpena area on Monday.

In Northeast Michigan, 302 people — including 96 children, 21 veterans, and 42 seniors — currently have no home, said representatives of several organizations that help people experiencing homelessness, addressing about two dozen members of the Association of Lifelong Learners.

With affordable housing scarce and living costs climbing, homelessness numbers continue to climb locally, including a skyrocketing number of children identified as homeless, attendees learned.

Some people facing homelessness, including military veterans, could surmount the obstacles that keep them out of a home if only someone helps them, said Victoria Purvis, director of homeless and prevention services for the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency.

The community can help agencies fighting to get people into homes by arming themselves with knowledge about the extent of local homelessness and the services offered by local agencies who work together to get people into homes, Purvis said.

“The end goal,” she said, “is to make sure they never return to homelessess again.”

At the tail end of Homeless Awareness Month, celebrated in November each year, Purvis joined Art Ohlrich, health care for homeless veterans case manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Alpena, and Vicki Denstaedt, who serves homeless children in Alpena-area schools, for the ALL forum.

As attendees asked occasional questions, Purvis explained NEMCSA’s partnership with 50 landlords in Alpena County who provide rentals to those experiencing homelessness under NEMCSA’s voucher program.

Those rentals are nearly always full, with waiting lists, Purvis said.

People without homes waited an average of 69 days to get into a home in 2021, up from 59 days in 2020, she told the group.

Those who have homes may struggle to keep them. Last year, based on local data, a single mother needing a two-bedroom rental had to work 77-hour work weeks at $19 an hour to make rent payments, Purvis told attendees.

Her agency locates available housing, helps people pay rent, teaches them life skills to ward off another homelessness event, and connects them to resources to keep them fed, clothed, and warm, she said.

At the Veterans Administration, Ohlrich regularly works with veterans who, in some cases because of post-traumatic stress disorder or serious brain injury, lack simple skills that would keep them in a home.

“We have veterans who make more money than me who are homeless,” he said, explaining that military service leaves some with anxiety or impulsive behaviors that make basic life tasks overwhelming.

He described one veteran who managed well until helicopters from the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center started circling over his home during a training exercise. Stricken by PTSD, the man engaged in dangerous behavior and lost his home, Ohlrich said.

His agency connects such people with health care, teaches job-finding skills, works with courts, gets veterans signed up for pensions they didn’t know they could receive, and provides other services, but “the VA can’t do it all,” he said.

Neither can those who provide services to children, Denstaedt said.

In the first 12 weeks of this school year, she has identified 239 Northeast Michigan students — including 114 from Alpena County – who qualify for services under a federal program.

Last school year ended with 321 students on her list. At the current pace, she expects to far exceed that number this year.

Already, the number of students identified as homeless this year tops those identified in all of the 2019-2020 school year.

Lack of affordable housing accounts for much of the increase, Denstaedt said, describing providing temporary housing in her own home for a single mom who lost her rental when the landlord tripled her monthly rent.

For children living in a car or campground, in a motel room or doubled up on the couch of a family friend or stranger, the program she oversees can ensure free meals, homework help, transportation to school, and other tools to give them a chance at school success despite their circumstances.

Local agencies can’t fix all problems, but they can walk alongside those experiencing homelessness and provide a host of helps, from shower vouchers to budgeting classes to lessons on baking a potato, presenters said on Monday.

“There’s help in our community,” Denstaedt said. “People just don’t know.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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