Scratching the surface

Forum addresses homelessness concerns

The Room at the Inn recently reopened its homeless shelter, which rotates between a dozen local churches, for the 10th season. Pictured here is the Warming Center, which is open year round. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — They might not realize it, but many people in the Marquette community care about “those people.”

A large crowd turned out Tuesday night at Messiah Lutheran Church for a community forum on homelessness.

It’s a problem that concerns many people, and not just those without homes.

It’s also a problem with roots in the area.

According to 2016 emergency shelter data captured in the Michigan Statewide Homeless Management Information System, 87 percent of the “literally homeless” individuals receiving emergency shelter services in Marquette were residents of the area before receiving those services.

Marquette City Police Chief Blake Rieboldt addresses a large crowd Tuesday night at a community forum on homelessness. The event took place at Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

Of the 13 percent who were considered “non-residents,” nearly three-quarters migrated from another county in the Upper Peninsula.

Doug Russell, executive director of the Room at the Inn, is familiar with the problem. Room at the Inn provides shelter from September to May, and operates the Warming Center along Washington Street in Marquette the entire year.

“We have some challenges right now,” Russell said. “How best do we address those?”

One of the forum panelists was Andrea Ingmire, director of the Peter White Public Library.

“We see homeless folks every day,” Ingmire said. “Some of them we see from the time that we open to the time that we close.”

The reason? The library, she acknowledged, is one of the few places where everyone is welcome, and the library, in turn, tries to be welcoming to them.

However, she said PWPL sometimes comes across behavioral problems among some patrons, not all of whom are homeless.

People sleeping inside the library is one issue.

“While that might not seem like a horrible thing — to sleep in a public place — it makes other people feel uncomfortable,” Ingmire said.

If people use the library for its intended purpose, that’s fine, but if they’re causing problems, they will be asked to leave, she said. Library patrons also can alert staff to a problem.

“We try to be fair and we try to be consistent, but it is difficult at times,” Ingmire said. “We are dealing with the same people over and over.”

Rebecca Salmon, assistant director of the Marquette Downtown Development Authority, discussed the impact of homelessness in the downtown area, giving what she said might not be the “popular” view.

“We want to strive to make downtown a welcoming community for everybody,” Salmon said.

However, she noted there are issues with loitering and panhandling, particularly with the Ramada Inn located close to the Warming Center. The hotel, she said, has had problems with people approaching their guests and asking for money or other things.

Other people have expressed concern with homeless people along the multiuse path, she said.

Salmon suggested the Warming Center be relocated away from the main business corridor while still serving its patrons’ needs.

“We’re not insensitive to this issue,” Salmon said. “It’s very complex. I think that we would be remiss without taking a look at it from the economic perspective and also the arts and cultural perspective because we do want everybody to feel comfortable coming into our downtown and the amenities there.”

Marquette City Police Chief Blake Rieboldt agreed that local homelessness is a complex issue.

He estimated the police department receives three to four calls a day regarding issues with the homeless, and called on the community to work to find a solution.

“We need help,” Rieboldt said. “We can’t do it all.”

Members of the audience spoke about their concerns, which included noting the homeless population is a diverse one, the importance of agencies partnering with each other and actually conversing with homeless people to get their perspectives.

There already are resources for people in need. Jason Parks, housing resources manager for Community Action Alger-Marquette, said CAAM is the housing assessment and resource agency for 10 of the 15 counties in the Upper Peninsula. It handles issues like short-term rental assistance and support services for veterans and families.

Pathways Community Mental Health serves people with severe mental illnesses or emotional disturbances, and those with development disabilities.

Marquette County Sheriff Greg Zyburt said he works at the “other Room at the Inn” — the county jail.

One option that’s available, he pointed out, is the Angel Program with the Michigan State Police in which drivers transport people to treatment program sites.

“Sometimes it’s retired people, sometimes it’s ex-addicts or alcoholics, who can empathize with them,” Zyburt said. “They know exactly what they’ve gone through and what they need to do, and it’s that positive reinforcement that they’ve probably never had.”

However, what might be needed is a permanent brick-and-mortar place to house people who, for whatever reason, will never live independently.

“But when you begin with the philosophy that everybody deserves a place to live, then you figure it out,” Russell said.

It also makes financial sense to find homes for people because taxpayer dollars are used to provide services for them in other ways, such as police interactions and jail incarceration, not to mention them being in the court system and using hospital services, he said.

“It’s not free to live on the street,” Russell said.

That first step, then, is providing people a place to live, along with daily support services.

“It’s incredibly complex,” Russell said. “We scratched the surface tonight.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.