A sign welcomes Room at the Inn guests at St. Louis the King Catholic Church in Chocolay Township. (Courtesy photos from Kayla West)
MARQUETTE — There’s a tree painted on a wall at Room at the Inn’s Warming Center. Its branches stretch outward, with several plaques shaped as leaves hanging off it. Each leaf has a name written on them, memorializing former guests who died — often from an addiction.
Brian and Jess, who asked their last names not be used for this article, have been guests at RATI for about four years.
Brian points at one of the names. “Kenny,” he says. “We used to have a blast together.”
“Yeah,” Jess replied. “I liked Kenny, he was a good guy. Most of us are good people. We’ve just had a bumpy time in our life where we needed help — a pick-me-up, not a handout.”
In 2007, Jess was the sole survivor of a head-on collision that claimed the life of two others. Lifting her shirt to show scars on her stomach and back, she says, “I was in a medically-induced coma for eight days and miraculously was out of the hospital within 12 days. It’s crazy I’m even walking. I was impaled — I’m lucky to be here.”
Jess, who’s originally from California, moved to Michigan after her mom bought a house in the Houghton area.
“I came out just to see what Michigan was like and I ended up liking it and staying,” she said. “I had a doctor down here, so I moved to Marquette to be closer.”
Shortly after, Jess said she starting going “down the wrong road” and became addicted to numerous drugs. She’s on the right path now, she said, thanking the Warming Center for having a place to go during the frigid temperatures that have recently whipped across the Midwest.
“If this place wasn’t here, we’d be out on the streets,” she said. “A lot of homeless people die out there in the cold.”
She said some guests have slept outside recently, burrowing into snowbanks, since there’s a no-alcohol policy at the night shelter.
“It helps when it’s open because it gives us another opportunity, a place to go, somewhere to sleep instead of bombarding the library (Peter White Public Library),” she said. “Every place else doesn’t want us there, like the bus station and places like that. It’s hard because I get disability, so I don’t have much of an income and I can’t really afford a whole apartment.”
Brian, who’s originally from the Detroit area, replied: “You hear a lot of people (sic) about this place, but it has saved my life more times than I can count. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you’re mean all the time, or are going to lie, steal, cheat.”
Brian came to the Upper Peninsula for a rehab program in Sault Ste. Marie and was later admitted to UP Health System-Marquette for psychiatric care.
“After being in and out of the psych ward, a police officer brought me here (the Warming Center),” he said. “I didn’t know where to go. I’d never been to Marquette before.”
Currently addicted to Suboxone, he said he doesn’t plan on moving back to the Lower Peninsula because drugs are much cheaper downstate.
“My drug problems are bad enough up here and everything’s expensive as hell,” he said. “Downstate, everything’s cheap as hell.”
Jess and Brian both said they’ve tried to seek help for addiction issues in the past, but to no avail. They said a lack of services in the area is part of the cause.
Opening at 6 p.m. each evening and closing at 6 a.m., RATI offers nighttime shelter for the homeless at rotating churches in the Marquette area during the winter. Dinner is provided each evening for shelter guests.
“We’re so lucky to have these churches open up their doors to us and give us wonderful meals and give us brand new socks and clothes,” Jess said.
The Warming Center, located at 447 W. Washington St., provides a warm location for shelter guests to gather before heading out for the day. It opens for shelter guests at 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. for community members, closing at noon.
“We’re looking into changing that very soon,” said RATI volunteer Kayla West. “A number of folks want to see the Warming Center opened longer. I think the library would far prefer if they had a place to hangout during the day. They are very hospitable, they don’t care what your background is as long as they’re on good behavior.”
West, who’s a coordinator at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, said although there are some prejudices in the area, people still look out for one another.
“One guest, he’s a welder and got a hole in one of his boots while he was working,” West said. “A Facebook post was put up earlier asking if anyone had any boots with a steel-toe. Someone replied in an hour.”
On Wednesday, over 40 agencies and law enforcement departments in Marquette and Alger counties conducted the annual point-in-time count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in negative temperatures. The goal of the point-in-time count is to determine an accurate number of homeless people in different regions so that funding and support can be secured for the area’s agencies.
As a requirement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 400 Continuum of Care planning bodies, which cover 3,000 cities and counties across the nation, and tens of thousands of volunteers counted the number of homeless people in shelters and throughout communities.
HUD requires that a yearly count of homeless people who are in emergency shelters, transitional housing and safe havens be conducted on a single night in January. Since there are no formal homeless shelters in the area — aside from RATI — defining the extent of rural homelessness presents a challenge, especially since “couch surfing” is the most common form of homelessness in the area.
West said due to the cold temperatures, volunteers weren’t walking the streets trying to find people like they normally would be. Instead, they counted people who came through the Warming Center’s doors, the PWPL, and elsewhere.
Gabriel Gonzalez, volunteer at the Warming Center and Northern Michigan University student from Lansing, said he thought there would be more people during Wednesday’s count.
“It’s my second year here and I heard there’s quite a significant homeless population before moving here. I thought there’d be more than this, but I’m sure there’s many who are couch surfing that didn’t come out because of the weather,” he said.
According to a recent study, there are around 3,000 literally homeless people in the Upper Peninsula. There’s believed to be over 500 homeless in Marquette, Alger and Schoolcraft counties.
The average length stay at RATI is under a month, West said. It’s estimated that 80 percent of those who use RATI services have a mental illness or addiction. Most of the guests are from Marquette County, while others are from around the U.P., midwest and country.