Count of homeless people provides valuable information

In the little brick building in Marquette’s downtown where pizzas used to be served, people are now seeking shelter and hope.

At 447 W. Washington St. is the Room at the Inn Warming Center, a place that offers the things many of us take for granted every day to people down on their luck. A lot of these people have at least one thing in common with the pizza shop customers: they’re hungry and looking for a warm meal. But the major difference? They have no home to call their own.

At 6 a.m., before the sun rises, people who slept at Room at the Inn’s overnight shelter begin gathering at the center. At 8 a.m., it opens its doors to anyone in the community looking for a hot breakfast, and it stays open till noon, providing lunch and other much needed items along the way.

Beyond the foodstuffs and material supplies, the shelter offers camaraderie and friendship, security and a safe harbor from many of life’s worries, and the promise of better things to come. At least that’s what we want to believe, and that’s what the folks who work for and volunteer with Room at the Inn are striving for. Once in a while, everyone needs some help to get back on their feet, and why should these people be any different?

It’s easy to dismiss the homelessness situation as a problem conjured up by a few community activists with exaggerated misperceptions, and as an issue blown way out of proportion by the money-hungry media looking to capitalize on a universal sympathy for those less fortunate.

But the fact is, homelessness is real and it’s right here in the Upper Peninsula.

Over 40 agencies and law enforcement departments in Marquette and Alger counties conducted the annual point-in-time count of homeless people last week. That effort is part of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandate which requires such counts to be completed on a single night in January.

If you’ve spent any time outside in the past week, you’ll recall the brutal cold snap we just had. Can you imagine not having a place indoors to sleep or relax, or even relieve yourself when nature calls? That’s what makes Room at the Inn such a critical resource in our community. If it helps even one person stay off the street, there’s value in it.

It’s easy to dismiss the homeless when we label them as “drunks and drug addicts,” or say “they’re lazy and just don’t want to work.” But what if it was you, and you were just in a tight spot?

Say your employer was making cuts and you lost your job, or maybe you’ve struggled with psychological problems your entire life and that’s kept you from holding a steady position. Maybe your skill set isn’t as robust as other candidates in the job market, and while you’re hunting for employment, your car breaks down and you can’t make interviews, then your savings is gone and you start falling behind on rent. Before you know it, you’re on the streets and branded as one of those “lazy people.”

Room at the Inn uses the term “guests,” which to us implies a temporary status, that these people will someday depart the shelter to some place where they’ll establish a more permanent residency. We hope that to be the case, and as it turns out, homelessness has actually improved in recent years.

In January 2018, almost 553,000 people across the U.S. were homeless on a single night, with nearly two-thirds found in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, according to that year’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. That figure was an increase of less than 1 percent from 2017, and the long-term picture is even more positive. Since 2010, the report states that homelessness has declined by more than 84,000 people, a 13 percent drop.

Due to what it termed “methodological changes” though, the report excluded Michigan from many lists comparing long-term trends. But it does indicate the state had an estimated homeless count of 8,351 people in 2018 and had dropped by about 7.7 percent, or 700 people, from 2017 to 2018.

But it’s easy to hide behind those statistics and dismiss the thousands who are still struggling to stay off the streets, the people who are trying to find their own homes and jobs, and trying to get their lives back on track.

That little brick building, smack dab along downtown Marquette’s main thoroughfare, is a reminder to all of us that homelessness is still right here in our backyards, and we need to figure out what more we can do about it.