Michigan homeless shelters move beyond beds to providing services

Barbara Bellinger
Special to The Detroit News

People without a roof over their heads get more than a warm place to sleep at many Michigan shelters.

They can also find a path to physical and mental health and permanent housing.

“A lot of people when they think of homeless shelters, they think of mission style homeless shelters, where there’s a bunch of cots and a gym and hurry up and grab a bed,” said Sarah Paspal-Jasinski, the development director for the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County.

That’s not the case with her group, which serves nearly 1,200 adults a year and provides transitional services. 

The outreach van at  Covenant House Michigan, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.

“What we found is that with the amount of time that individuals have spent homeless, it would be foolish to just immediately put someone into shelter without addressing their other underlying needs,” Paspal-Jasinski said.

Homeless people may suffer from unmanaged chronic medical issues, substance abuse and addiction, and mental health disorders, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 

Other groups, like Our Brothers Keeper in Big Rapids, once prioritized housing. “We gave them shelter and food, met their basic needs and got them into housing,” said Nicole Alexander, the executive director.

This “Housing First” model prioritizes housing before offering support such as connections to social services and health care providers, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

But in the past two years, Our Brothers Keeper changed its approach. 

“We had to change what we were doing here to best serve everybody that comes through these doors,” Alexander said. “With the lack of affordable housing, and the length of stay that people are going to be staying with us due to that lack of housing, we’re kind of taking both approaches.”

It now helps people fill out housing applications, connects them to the Department of Health and Human Services and helps them get bus passes, housing vouchers and social security and identification cards. 

It even checks in on former guests who have moved out.

“I just had a gentleman who left shelter three weeks ago ask for our budget paperwork because now he’s worried about keeping his housing,” Alexander said.

The Washtenaw County Shelter Association also values longer-term support. People can drop in for meals and visit with friends they made while in the shelter.

“Everybody leaves with at least one friend and/or advocate..." Paspal-Jenkins said. “It’s kind of like a safety net.” 

Such a net is crucial for people who have nothing left to lose, said Rachael Neal, the development director for the Holland Rescue Mission.

“They’ve burned all their bridges, and coming to Holland Rescue Mission is really their last resort,” she said.

Her group annually helps more than 1,200 people — men, women and families — with emergency needs and longer-term transitional housing in a 200-bed facility in Holland. 

“We believe that most of the time homelessness is not a root issue, but a symptom of a deeper issue that’s been going on in someone’s life for a long time,” Neal said.

The mission addresses those root causes “by ministering to the mind, body and soul of an individual, and so helping them to get physically healthy, spiritually healthy and mentally healthy,” Neal said.

Many shelter officials say they seek similar permanent solutions. 

“It’s all about teaching them how to be mature about being in their own house, how to budget their money, how to handle their job experience,” said Gerald Piro, the executive director of Covenant House in Grand Rapids and Detroit, which serves young adults from 18 to 24 years of age.

“It’s not always going to be happy every day, but they need to be able to take the difficulties with the successes.”

Covenant House has an onsite school in its Detroit location, volunteer social workers, COVID-19 vaccination clinics and programs that address mental health and addiction.  

Piro said its approach can turn the tide for youth living in abandoned houses or under aqueducts and highway overpasses.

The message from the Covenant House, he said, is, "Now that you’re here, we’re looking forward to what you’re going to do. How can you turn your life around?”

Barbara Bellinger writes for the Capital News Service.