New series: Homeless in the Copper Country

Editor’s note: This article is the first of a two-part series looking at the issue of homelessness in the Copper Country.

HANCOCK – There are many reasons for a person to find him- or herself homeless. Sometimes it’s a lost job, failing health, an abusive living situation or drug addiction, just to name a few.

Regardless of how it happens, it’s important to remember that help is available to those who ask for it.

While there are no facilities in the Copper Country dedicated specifically to homelessness, it’s still something local professionals encounter.

Maj. Mark Brown of The Salvation Army said he has interacted with four or five people in the last month who requested help due to an adverse living situation. However, The Salvation Army does not have the facilities to act as a shelter.

“What we can give them is a bus ticket for where there is a (dedicated) shelter, like Green Bay,” Brown said. “The ticket costs around $50.”

Brown added The Salvation Army usually wouldn’t put someone up in a hotel, which is a practice some resource centers will do, because it’s a short-term solution to a bigger problem.

He also said the reason people come for help is usually because of a domestic dispute.

“A lot of times they have had a fight with someone they’re living with,” he said.

Houghton County Department of Human Services Assistance Payments Supervisor Jim Tervo said the state has a specific definition of what constitutes being homeless and the only way a person can be helped for being homeless is if they fall within those guidelines.

According to Tervo, a person is considered homeless if that person is living in an emergency shelter or hotel, the person came in from the street, a car on the street or a place unfit for human habitation and there is no other place where the person can return.

Anyone exiting jail, prison, juvenile detention, substance abuse rehabilitation or someone affected by a natural disaster is also considered to be homeless.

“Any person who voluntarily leaves their home and can return without fear of violence we consider to not be homeless,” Tervo said.

Although DHS is based in Houghton County, it also covers Baraga and Keweenaw counties. Tervo said that within that three-county range, DHS might see a dozen applications a month citing homelessness as a cause.

“We have quite a few applications for people who might think they’re homeless because they’re (going from couch to couch) or living with family members,” Tervo said. “The true cases are two or three (a month).”

Of the cases that have been handled this past month, one was a court-ordered eviction due to non-payment of rent. Tervo said that a situation of this type may qualify as an eligible situation.

However, in order to receive help from DHS, a person would need to have some sort of income.

“If we put someone into a place and pay their first month’s rent and security deposit, they would have no way to pay the next month’s rent (if they don’t have income),” Tervo said.

For a single person, the cap for what DHS could pay is $410, which would go toward rent and security deposit.

In order to receive help, when someone finds him- or herself homeless they would first need to fill out an application. But DHS does not find housing for people. It is up to the person applying for benefits to find his or her own housing.

The average wait time between filling out an application and the decision regarding eligibility is about 10 days, according to Tervo.

A person would need to find his or her own living arrangements while waiting to see if qualification is possible. A referral would then be made to a place that could give immediate, short-term help, like The Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul.

Tervo said some of the causes of homelessness that he’s seen have been due to drug and alcohol abuse, but that does not factor in to whether DHS is able to help.

“How they got homeless doesn’t matter to us,” Tervo said. “It’s 100 percent about the financials.”

For example, if someone has income but chooses not to spend it on shelter, DHS would not be able to help.

“Because their income was spent on things other than shelter, we wouldn’t be able to help that person,” Tervo said.

If someone were to lose his or her job and can foresee a homeless situation in the near future, DHS also wouldn’t be able to help until the home is in foreclosure or an eviction notice has been served.

Tervo also said ignorance of help available isn’t an issue when it comes to homelessness.

“People in the Copper Country are survivors,” Tervo said. “They know what it takes to get from one day to the next.”

Teresa Meyers, treasurer of the Ontonagon-based St. Vincent de Paul Society, said it assists homeless people from time to time.

“They usually go to the sheriff’s office and then a deputy will bring him over,” Meyers said.

While it has no long-term shelter, Meyers said a person will usually put someone up in a motel for a few nights and give food.

But Meyers said it usually doesn’t receive many people who ask for help because of homelessness.

Occasionally, help will be given to a transient who is sleeping in a car, but that is mainly during the summer.

“They come to us mostly for food or for gas,” Meyers said.

Homelessness isn’t just a problem for abused men or women or those who have lost their jobs. Teenagers can also be homeless, even when they’re attending school.

Gray Webber, superintendent of the Ontonagon Area School District, said most school districts have a go-to person who tracks and oversees the status of any student who may be qualified as homeless.

“There is generally some money that goes to districts in support of homeless students,” Webber said.

However, the school is not assigned the task to get them out of a homeless situation, he said.

“The school is instructed to report them (to cooperating agencies) and notify students of resources that might be available,” Webber said. “We are not to intervene as any kind of controlling agency.”

The primary agencies that would need to be informed, he said, would be the Social Security Department for its Supplemental Security Income program, local nonprofits and Friend of the Court.

Webber said there are about three students in the district who qualify as homeless.

Anyone who finds him- or herself homeless, or knows someone who may benefit from the services provided by the above agencies, can call The Salvation Army at 482-3420 and the Department of Human Services at 482-0500.