Welcome Inn, OptimEyes team to provide free services

By: Chris Jackett | Royal Oak Review | Published April 9, 2012

ROYAL OAK — When Donna Jones signed on to do her social work internship with the Welcome Inn Day Center at Unity Church, she wasn’t sure what she was getting herself into.

With a weakened economy putting people out of a job and forcing home foreclosures, the homeless population in southeastern Michigan is higher than most people are used to. Welcome Inn, which was founded by and has been operated by the South Oakland Citizens for the Homeless since 2000, has been helping the local homeless population with bare necessities and, during the winter, serves as an overnight warming center.

“I really didn’t know that much about the homeless population,” said Jones, a Ferndale resident. “It was really a wake-up call as far as how many there were. It is a real learning experience.”

Jones became an integral part of Welcome Inn during the past few months, joining four nursing interns and 90 other volunteers in helping about 260 individuals get back on their feet.

“Basically, I learned how blessed we are. That’s what I got out of it,” Jones said. “When I got in there and opened my eyes up to it, it was just so many different kinds of people and cultures. With the economy, more and more people are being displaced.”

Without a home address, many homeless “guests” were allowed to use nearby St. Dennis as a mailing address so they could apply for jobs and other things.

“They were able to get cellphones, DLS services and birth certificates,” Jones said. “A lot of them have other issues, so a lot of them can’t coordinate these things on their own.”

The Welcome Center also helped get a few people up to date by partnering with Henry Ford OptimEyes in Troy and Roseville to provide a dozen free eye exams and pairs of glasses at each location.

“The Roseville and Troy locations offered us 12 slots each for free eye exams and free eyeglasses at no charge whatsoever,” said Dru Szczerba, Welcome Inn’s executive director. “It was an incredible gift. It’s something that the guests are so grateful for.”

Of the 12 eye exams at each location, 11 of the homeless people needed a new pair of glasses and received them for free. With an address and a new pair of glasses, some were able to do things many people may take for granted.

“One couldn’t even get her driver’s license renewed,” said Szczerba, a Bloomfield Township resident. “If you don’t have your health, you can’t get a job.”

Szczerba said the demographics of the homeless have been changing this year. She noted there are more foreclosed homes, resulting in more women, including five who were pregnant, for example.

“There’s a big network of homeless,” Szczerba said. “If something’s available, word gets around pretty quickly.

“You get so attached. It’s so gratifying. It changed my life for the better. I will never
ever walk by a homeless person without smiling or saying hello.”

Jones added that many of the homeless people had been homeless before, while others lived inside their vehicles. The average age was between 40 and 60, she said.

“Most of the people we had were chronic homelessness. We had an influx of new people, too,” Jones said. “We’ve had veterans. One guy was a Vietnam vet.”

With the warming center closing March 16, the Berkley Community Church, 2855 Wiltshire, will host the Welcome Inn this summer. Hours will be 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays, Szczerba said. Jones said she’ll be there helping with social work needs 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through the end of April when her semester ends.

For more information on the Welcome Inn, visit www.sochwelcomeinn.org.