Homeless in Houghton

HOUGHTON A lifelong Copper Country resident and her adult son say they’re living in a tent and desperately seeking help to get back on their feet, with all resources they know of currently exhausted.

Karen O’Connell lost her job two-and-a-half years ago, she said. She lost her Baltic house shortly thereafter, and she and her son Derik O’Connell, 23, have been staying with relatives ever since, most recently at her sister Debbie’s Houghton apartment.

But according to both sisters, when Debbie’s young son returned home after spending time in foster care, authorities in charge of his welfare weren’t comfortable with the relatives on the couches. Either Karen and Derik moved out within six weeks, they were told, or the authorities would have the boy returned to foster care.

That deadline was Thursday, and Karen, Derik and their dog Grizzly are now living in a tent set up with permission, Karen says in a small field just off Sharon Ave. They return to Debbie’s during the day for hot food and showers.

“I lost my house, my pets, nobody would help me find a place to live, and I can’t find a job,” Karen said. “I’ve tried churches, (social) services, you name it we’ve tried it. We’ve got no place to live, there’s no family members that would take us in.”

The tent, Karen said, was donated by Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church, along with a sleeping bag and “a whole lot of food,” but other groups haven’t had much to offer.

Karen said she’s on a waiting list for subsidized housing with the Houghton County Housing Commission, but she hasn’t heard back. Child & Family Services of the Upper Peninsula is the local agency most directly charged with combating homelessness, but they haven’t called back either.

“They said they’re working on it, that’s all I’ve got,” Karen said.

Joe Proust, a housing and resource specialist with CFS, said Friday that while his organization can sometimes put people up in a motel for as long as six months, they’ve currently exhausted their funding to pay for those rooms. CFS also has an emergency program to put people up for just a few days, he said, but tries not to use that when people won’t be any better off after that time.

“We try not to put a (Band-Aid) on a bullet wound,” Proust said, adding that he’d call the O’Connell’s to at least check in.

Proust said that even with funding low, people facing homelessness can call 482-4488 or stop by the CFS office on Quincy Street in Hancock. Some programs for specific situations may still be available, and the organization will always help with applications and connecting with other resources.

There are currently no dedicated homeless shelters in the Keweenaw, though there are a few shelters for victims of domestic violence and their children. A few years ago, CFS was working to create shelter space at the old St. Peter & Paul Church in Hancock, but funding never materialized.

“Homelessness is a big weak spot in our area,” said noted Kevin Weir of Dial Help, which provides crisis counseling.

Weir advised beginning a search for help with the Department of Human Services, as denial letters from DHS would be required from most private agencies. Representatives of the Salvation Army and the St. Vincent de Paul Society both said their organizations can no longer help with housing.

Jim Tervo, assistant payments supervisor at DHS, said that organization offers a state emergency housing relief program, which can help with security deposits and first month’s rent, or sometimes back rent. Clients have to be able to prove they’ll be able to continue payments, however.

That would be a problem for the O’Connell’s. Neither Karen nor Derik receives any sort of state payment, Karen said, and neither have been able to find work since a friend she was cleaning for left town.

For now, she said, they’re looking for help anywhere they can get it.

“It’s hard to go through this,” Karen said. “People say keep your head up, but it’s hard.”

Anyone interested in trying to help the O’Connells can contact them through Debbie, at 523-5546. The Gazette did not print Debbie’s last name to protect the identity of her son, a minor.