By Ralph Echtinaw
Founded on a shoestring budget in 2018, a St. Louis homeless shelter has become a full-time provider of not only shelter but help for people aspiring to become self sufficient.
Jake Gregory and Nathan Workman of St. Louis Church of the Nazarene briefed county commissioners Oct. 4 on the remarkable progress.
Since Nov. 1, 2021 Hope House has housed 131 homeless individuals ranging in age from newborn to 84.
Based at Gregory’s Church of the Nazarene on M46, Hope House has room for 20 occupants.
A full-time Hope House case manager works with Gratiot Integrated Health Network to help guests become self sufficient. The Health Network sends access workers to Hope House to enroll guests into services and to get mental health treatment, Gregory told commissioners.
“I think that is a huge success,” Gregory said. “And in our conversation with other shelters they are blown away by that. Most of them have adversarial relationship with their Community Mental Health.”
A Salvation Army officer told Gregory that Hope House is “leaps and bounds ahead of any other shelter he knows of in the state working with their Community Mental Health.”
Commissioner Jan Bunting asked if Gregory and company plan to move Hope House from its current location to a more suitable facility.
“One of the biggest limitations our facility has is that it’s not handicap accessible,” Gregory replied. “We had to turn away numerous people over the course of the year and find alternative housing for them because we simply couldn’t serve them. Unfortunately, there’s not a good way to make our space within that building handicap accessible.” Upgrading to a more suitable facility is merely a “dream” at this point, Gregory said.
Another area for improvement is the shelter’s capacity to handle homeless families, Gregory said. “Currently we have 25 to 30 individuals who are in a family on our waiting list. Some have been on there for a month or more because we just don’t get enough turnover in our (two) family rooms to meet that need.
“So to have a nice family center that is able to serve more families and separate from the general population (is) something to work towards, but those are five and ten year kind of ideas; not anything we’re able to do right away.”
Transitioning people from public assistance to employed self sufficiency is problematic, Gregory said, especially with rising house prices, interest rates and rents.
“Sometimes we have individuals who, if they get a job, will lose their disability,” he said. “Or if they get a job they won’t qualify for the voucher that they’ve received. We have to toe those lines because all forms of assistance come with an income guideline. If we get people employed they don’t qualify for assistance. But they don’t make enough money to survive.”
Bunting asked if any Hope House guests are from outside Gratiot County. Gregory said the nature of transience is that the homeless aren’t necessarily rooted in one place. They move around, finding shelter where they can. If they are in Gratiot County Hope House will help them. But Hope House can’t “coordinate” anyone’s move to Gratiot County.
“We try not to bring people in unnecessarily, but there is always that transient nature to the population,” Gregory said.
Police chief praised
Occasionally there are instances where transients cause problems in St. Louis, Gregory said, and police get calls from people assuming the miscreants hail from Hope House.
But Police Chief Richard J. Ramereiz Jr. “is always a good advocate for us,” Gregory said. “He checks into those things (and) nine times out of ten those individuals are not from our shelter. They’ve never even heard of our shelter. It was great to hear his advocacy for us and how quick he is to dispel some of those rumors or concerns.”
Gregory added that he’s “grateful to know that law enforcement’s perspective is (that Hope House is) an asset and a blessing the community, not a burden.”
No help from other churches
Bunting asked if other local churches are still helping Hope House.
Not so much, said Workman. “One of the fallouts from Covid is that the level of support of churches coming in and providing a meal has not ramped back up. That’s been a real struggle. We’ve been able to meet that need through some other means, but we would love to see that ramp back up again.”
Hearthstone Oven praised
Bunting asked if Hope House staff still make meals for guests. Gregory said yes, staffers prepare meals, but occasionally an individual will contribute ready-to-eat food. He singled out Hearthstone Oven of Ithaca which donates meals regularly.
Hope House funding was of the shoestring variety when it began but has ballooned to $348,000 for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
That includes $110,213 from local donations and fundraisers, $99,171 from the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter Program and $215,000 from American Recovery Plan Act funds (allocated by Gratiot County commissioners). Other donations came from Emergency Solutions Grant 2021-22 ($30,000), Emergency Solutions Grant 2022-23 ($50,000), Emergency Food & Shelter Program ($35,000) and Gratiot & Isabella United Way ($4,000).