Community comes together to dicusss issue
MARQUETTE — During his Inaugural Address in 1937, Franklin Roosevelt said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Even though it’s been decades, Roosevelt’s speech stands the test of time as local communities gather to help fellow human beings while the country faces a homelessness epidemic.
Addressing a crowd of around 60 people, Executive Director of Marquette’s Room at the Inn and Warming Center Doug Russell began the Forum on Homelessness event by quoting Roosevelt’s passionate speech at the Peter White Public Library’s community room Thursday evening.
The forum is part of Forward Action Michigan-Upper Peninsula’s Building Love: Image series, a group of scheduled events aimed at creating positive social change within the community.
At the event Russell was joined by Jason Parks, the housing resource manager at Community Action Alger – Marquette, and Elissa Kent, the assistant director for Great Lakes Recovery Centers-Adult Residential Substance Abuse Disorder Treatment in Marquette.
Guest speakers discussed services provided at organizations they’re a part of and how collaboration and transitional housing is necessary for helping those in need move forward with their lives.
Russell said the homeless population is changing and that last year’s point-in-time homelessness count indicated there are 600 homeless people living in Marquette County.
“From 10 years ago, the mission really was (that) we didn’t want anyone to die in a snowbank,” Russell said. “We have to believe that everybody deserves a home and that’s the purpose of our mission.”
When RATI first opened, most of the guests were middle-aged men with alcohol problems that had fallen on hard times, Russell said. The dynamic has shifted drastically over the years, he added, stating that RATI is seeing a much “younger population” of women and men.
“Many of them really aren’t ready for independent living. In part because they don’t have many of the basic skills you need to live on your own — basic cooking skills, understanding how to clean something, taking care of a space, understanding anything about money,” Russell said.
The Warming Center is solely funded by fundraising, donations, and is operated through volunteers, Russell said. Many of the guests, Russell said, have some form of addiction, mental illness, or both.
“We have volunteers working at the shelter — strictly — and we are not equip to deal with some of the mental illness that we see at the shelter. Our volunteers are absolutely incredible … but we are reaching that point, that tipping point, whatever you want to call it, where we’re going to have to start turning people away and we don’t want to do that.”
Russel noted there’s a misconception that the center brings homeless from “all over the place,” which has given RATI a negative connotation. However, access to state data shows seven out of eight people that sought homeless services in Marquette County last year are from the area.
Even though Great Lakes Recovery Centers offers a variety of services like four residential programs, 13 outpatient offices throughout the Upper Peninsula, a women’s transition house and more, there’s a dire need for supportive transitional housing in the area, Kent said.
“The way the population has changed since I’ve been there, the one thing I’ve noticed that absolutely breaks my heart is that there are so many people that come into our program who’s very basic needs for living are not met,” Kent said. “I would love to see more sober living facilities.
Kent said sober living facilities give people a “much needed” stability that’s lacking from their lives.
Since the Upper Peninsula is miles from cities with larger populations, Parks believes geography is also one of the biggest challenges for people seeking housing and mental health services in the U.P.
“Geography, I find, is our biggest challenge,” he said. “The affordability of housing in Marquette is definitely a huge barrier (as well). There’s a high level of need but not a lot of resources that meet the homeless definition.”
According to Parks and Russell, when people are seeking housing, they’re prioritized. If they don’t “score high” on an assessment, they’re placed on a waiting list.
Russell, Kent and Parks believe the successful supportive housing model such as Housing First that’s noted in larger cities like San Francisco would be helpful in the U.P.
“I have no doubt that we have the resources locally to address these challenges. I have no doubt. It is a matter of connecting the dots, we have an awful lot of people here that want to make this happen,” Russell said.
According to Russell, the program wouldn’t be about supporting people for the “rest of their lives,” but taking people off the street, giving them a safe place to live and getting them to move forward with their lives.
“It’s a harm reduction model — and it’s been highly successful in other cities,” he said.
In the future, Russell hopes to have a 24-hour permanent homeless shelter.
RATI’s Warming Center always welcomes volunteers, Russell said. The next volunteer training will be held March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the center, which is located at 447 W. Washington in Marquette.
For more information, visit www. roomattheinn.org/