Shining a little light on the hidden homeless

Published 10:23 am Thursday, February 1, 2007

By Staff
The stereotype of homeless people has them pushing shopping carts around full of their belongings and sleeping on grates where steam warms them or under the shelter of bridges.
The reality is more complicated – especially in a rural area, where the precariously sheltered might be seeking refuge in a barn or in tents when the weather is warmer.
Mostly they double up with friends or relatives and stay where they can until the landlord gets wise. That's the kind of homelessness seen in southwestern Michigan.
So the spaghetti-serving soup kitchen sponsored at Dowagiac's Second Baptist Church Jan. 25 seems like a practical solution.
The numbers served on this snowy Thursday were not large, but in many cases those who stopped in carried valuable information to friends who might need help, but were reluctant to stop in.
Actually reaching out to homeless people by the agencies who serve has got to be preferable to a bunch of social workers thumbing through their case files.
Not only can it be intimidating to go into the state Department of Human Services (DHS) office in Cassopolis, but for many, transportation remains a hurdle.
"It's amazing how many people we've seen today who … didn't have a way to get there," said Margaret Shultz, DHS community resources coordinator.
Another successful aspect of the soup kitchen was seeing the various agencies collaborating from DHS to the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency.
The state may not be able to immediately quantify the effectiveness of $1,000 grants by which it seeded this year's homeless count, but if the bridges built to the downtrodden continue to help, it will be money well spent.
For the agencies, getting out of the office and into the field not only means a more accurate count, but their presence helps restore a sense of community to an isolated population. If they had families to take them in, they probably wouldn't be homeless.
DHS seems to realize how valuable such connecting steps could prove.
"We could be a lot more friendly sometimes at the agencies," Shultz conceded.