From the left, HOPE Director of Development Brian Wright, CEO Elizabeth Kelly and shelter manager Carolyn Hurst help run the HOPE Hospitality and Warming Center in Pontiac.

From the left, HOPE Director of Development Brian Wright, CEO Elizabeth Kelly and shelter manager Carolyn Hurst help run the HOPE Hospitality and Warming Center in Pontiac.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Mental health issues, COVID-19 contribute to homelessness

‘Each night in Oakland County, there’s somewhere between 350 and 500 people who are literally homeless, and there’s about 150 shelter beds’

By: Mark Vest | C&G Newspapers | Published December 15, 2020

 The HOPE Hospitality and Warming Center in Pontiac currently has three shelter options for individuals without a home.

The HOPE Hospitality and Warming Center in Pontiac currently has three shelter options for individuals without a home.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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OAKLAND COUNTY — There is never a good time to be homeless, but with the arrival of cold weather, life has gotten even tougher for some Michiganders.

One of the places that can provide help and shelter is the HOPE Hospitality & Warming Center in Pontiac; HOPE stands for Helping Oakland’s People Everyday.

HOPE offers an emergency shelter for adults; a recuperative shelter “for people with high medical needs who happen to be homeless and are discharged” from a hospital, to give them a safe place to recover; and a motel site in Auburn Hills for people who are COVID-19 positive or who have been in an environment that could be high-risk for it.

During COVID-19, the preference is to have 45 people or fewer at the adult shelter and nine at the recuperative shelter.

HOPE CEO Elizabeth Kelly said there are 25 beds at the motel.

There is currently no time restriction for length of stay at any of the shelters, but Kelly said they “do remind people that they need to keep working on this.”

Despite stereotypes that can be associated with homelessness, according to Kelly, those who have come through the shelters include physicians, attorneys, a patent holder and “even a Grammy winner.”

Leah McCall, who is the executive director at Alliance for Housing in Pontiac, shared a similar sentiment.

“You would probably be surprised (by) some of the individuals that used to work for the ‘Big Three’ or have lucrative, if you would call it that, degrees and jobs, and end up in a homeless situation,” McCall said. “So, there really isn’t a picture to paint for that.”

Kelly discussed a couple of the factors that can lead to homelessness.

“Mental health is by far and away the biggest issue that we see, and poverty,” she said. “Substance use is one of the things that people associate with homelessness, but I actually think it’s more of a reaction to the stress of being homeless as opposed to being a driver, although for some people it can be.”

Despite a commonly held belief that homeless people are unemployed, that is not always the case.

“A lot of folks have jobs that are homeless,” Kelly said. “But they don’t get enough hours to be able to afford an apartment.”

McCall also discussed employment among homeless people.

“Many of the individuals we serve are living paycheck to paycheck or have low-paying jobs that they’re barely making minimum,” she said. “If there’s any sort of bump in the road, it can send them into homelessness.”

Finding an apartment or another form of housing can help open up even more doors for those who have spent time at shelters.

“Once a person is housed, life calms down for them,” Kelly said. “When you’re in a shelter, you don’t really have a lot of space to call your own — you’re waiting in line for a shower, you’re waiting to use the phone to make a call about housing. But once you’re in your own place, that’s when people are able to do things like get a job, if that’s something that they’re capable of doing. It’s about kind of removing each of the pieces of chaos that make up homelessness, because if you’re on the street and you don’t know where you’re (going to) lay your head or where your next meal is going to come from, that’s something that you can’t focus on anything else.”

The encouraging news for those who find housing is that the return rate to a shelter is “very low.”

“It hovers between 4% and 7%, and we usually serve around 700 people a year,” Kelly said. “That’s something that’s really important, because what it’s telling everyone is that most of the people that we get housed, that becomes permanent. And an awful lot of times, the people may start out on the subsidy, but they’re able to maintain themselves well enough that they get a job and life calms down for them. They’re able to integrate back into the community, and they don’t need that subsidy anymore.”

A form of what Kelly said is “legal discrimination” can be a barrier for some to escape homelessness.

Some apartment complexes have a policy that an applicant’s income must be at least three times more than the cost of a rental unit.

Despite getting assistance in the form of a government subsidy and “agencies guaranteeing the rent,” that policy can prevent many people from qualifying for an apartment.

“So, someone’s on a subsidy, even though their rent will be paid a hundred percent, they can legally turn somebody away because they won’t have income equal to three times the monthly rent,” Kelly said. “I believe Michigan is one of four states in the nation that has that source of income discrimination.”

Kelly would like for owners of apartment complexes to consider  “dedicating a small percentage of their apartments to subsidized housing.”

Her role has familiarized Kelly with some unpleasant stats.

“The reality is, each night in Oakland County, there’s somewhere between 350 and 500 people who are literally homeless, and there’s about 150 shelter beds,” she said.

Despite that grim information, Kelly is able to appreciate what she gets to do for a living.

“I feel like I have the best job in the world because I get to see the good side of people,” she said. “The guests that come are largely grateful and helpful. … The part I worry about is making sure that we are able to accommodate everybody and making sure that we don’t have anybody left behind. That’s the part that keeps me up at night, because we’re not only dealing with winter, but COVID and all kinds of other things.”

Despite being “full all the time,” on the positive side, Kelly said, “Despite the pandemic, we’ve been able to get quite a few people housed.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit hopewarmingpontiac.org or call (248) 481-4394.

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