Niles, Berrien County officials provide resources for homeless, precariously housed

NILES — As summer arrives, so too does a higher visibility of the signs of poverty.

With more people out in the city, Niles Community Development Director Sanya Vitale shared some insight on the current situation and resources available to struggling members of the Niles area and neighboring communities.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in July 2019 that 30 percent of people in Niles lived at or below the poverty line. The bureau listed a median household, including the householder and any residents over the age of 15. Income for Niles in 2018 was estimated to be $31,953.

“I think there are a couple issues at play here,” Vitale said. “Poverty is fairly visible in Niles. We see a lot of folks who live impoverished lives. There are several adult foster homes in and around the downtown who do encourage their residents to get out and about.”

With warmer weather here to stay, access to services becomes paramount to individuals’ locations.

“We are seeing the transient population who move out of the camping areas in and around the community and move more toward central services they can access during moments of crisis, like we are having right now,” Vitale said.

With resources available throughout the city for residents, and in the county and region for those outside of city limits, Vitale pointed to organizations that may be helpful to individuals who are currently experiencing homelessness or may be trying to prevent it.

According to Vitale, Niles and Berrien County have received CARES Act funding to help address a higher volume of financial need in the areas due to the COVID-19 economic impacts. Niles received around $170,000, and Berrien County $400,000. The funding from this became the Community Development Block Grant-COVID fund, and the city paired it with $50,000 left over from the 2019 budget to provide utility, housing and food assistance. The money was approved for the allocation at a Niles City Council meeting hosted April 27.

“We’ve got some cash in the county to support and start working on this [issue] again,” Vitale said. “We are really coming together as a county saying ‘what can we do?’ We need to act. The great thing is that we have been fairly reactive, and everyone has been so supportive. We are working with people right now to ensure that their utilities are staying on, and if they need help, we are working with the utility companies and support agencies, and making sure that people know that there is support available.”

Vitale has witnessed many organizations stepping up in the Niles area to combat food insecurity. Food pantries, school nutrition programs and churches have been noted as stepping up to the challenge. She also encouraged residents to reach out to resources such as the Ferry Street Resource Center, Salvation Army, the Niles-Buchanan YMCA, as well as the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency.

Vitale encouraged area residents concerned about their housing situation to reach out to The Connection in Benton Harbor.

According to Reshella Hawkins, shelter manager of Emergency Shelter Services in Benton Harbor, the resource is something of a one-stop-shop. The Connection serves all of Berrien County.

“Once we find out if their need is evictions related, needing shelter, we go through this one system,” Hawkins said.

“That’s the best place to start. They will let you know which agency is the most appropriate if you are homeless,” Vitale said. “If they are behind on their rent, start with the Connection in Benton Harbor. It’s for any resident in Berrien County. They will refer you out to the appropriate agency for your address and let you know which agency can help you with funding. If it’s urgent, always start with the Department of Health and Human Services and get your state emergency application going.”

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