Berrien County services work to connect homeless to housing

BERRIEN COUNTY — The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to financially impact people already precariously housed.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported Michigan’s June 2020 unemployment rate to be 14.8 percent, down from 21.3 percent from May. The more than 7 percent improvement still leaves many finding their way financially.

With only one family shelter in Berrien County, Emergency Shelter Services in Benton Harbor services the entire area.

For the homeless populations throughout the county, Denessa Driver, program supervisor at ESS, said the organization coordinates efforts to find options for housing county residents.

“We are contracted with Red Roof Inn in Benton Harbor, so that’s always our first go-to,” Driver said. “If there’s a barrier to transportation, we try to work out that barrier to get them there.”

The PATH Program, based in Kalamazoo, can connect a person needing to get to Benton Harbor for shelter services, according to Driver.

“We try to address all barriers,” she said.

Reshella Hawkins, acting executive director for ESS, said in the summer is not a time when the staff sees an overwhelming amount of calls.

“We find, especially with those who come to the shelter, it’s kind of the opposite during the summer,” Hawkins said. “They tend to think they’re OK living on the streets. Summer is not as big of an issue for them because it’s warm. In the winter, there’s a pickup because there’s no warm place to go.”

If staying with family and friends is not an option, the shelter is the next best place for homeless residents, Hawkins said.

“In their mind, they feel more safe, and they feel like they can figure things out on their own,” Hawkins said.

The shelter in Benton Harbor generally offers 30 beds to those in need. Through COVID-19 precautions and the need to space out the beds, the shelter is able to house about 20 residents currently.

“We have a system that is a score system,” Driver said. “We usually try to bring in the people with the highest scores, the most chronic and most severe [at-risk individuals]. We don’t want anybody living outside.”

Driver and Hawkins advised people wanting to connect or refer homeless or at-risk individuals to get in touch with Emergency Shelter Services.

“Our first mission is to make sure our clients are taken care of,” Hawkins said.

Driver said the facility has two different numbers people can call.

For those seeking services and want to be connected, (269) 277-5055 is the line Driver recommends.

“They call that number for the intake survey,” she said. “Then their referrals are sent to our case managers.”

For anyone wanting to make a client referral, perhaps about someone they have seen struggling with their housing or who has become homeless, Driver encourages them to call (269) 925-1131.

“They don’t have to be the person. They can just give us the information and report it,” Driver said. “Then, we can reach out to [the person in need.]”

ESS works with agencies around the county, including the Ferry Street Resource Center, 620 Ferry St., the city of Niles and the Southwest Michigan Communication Action Agency.

“We want to make sure we are covering all aspects of Berrien County,” Hawkins said. “If we do it as a team, I think we can be more effective in meeting the needs of our homeless population.”

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