By Joe Petrous
“I came to Lansing two years ago. I had a job and an apartment; everything was going well until my ex-boyfriend started to be physically violent to me and my little girl.”
Often, personal catastrophes like this are overlooked. It is fortunate that this anonymous woman and others like her have a place to turn.
“I ran away from him and had nowhere to go but Volunteers of America. I was dirty, had no clean clothes and no money for food. I thank Volunteers of America for giving me a warm place to stay during those cold nights and three meals a day.”
This is just one of many tales you could listen to while spending a day at the Volunteers of America New Hope Day Center, the only homeless service center in the tri-county area open on weekdays.
The Volunteers of America Michigan (VOAMI) is a faith-based organization that has provided homeless services in Lansing since 1896. The Lansing campus, located at 430 N. Larch, houses six programs and includes the New Hope Day Center, the Community Kitchen and overnight shelters that are available to all in need. Two residential and substance abuse treatment facilities are provided for homeless veterans. The building is recognized in the downtown area with its blue and white striped siding, five-story warehouse and banner on the top floor that faces northbound Larch traffic, inviting drivers to “donate your car.”
For a decade, the car donation program was the center’s main source of income. Its revenue allowed VOAMI to contribute approximately $535,000 per year to support homeless ministries. The effort proved successful until the American Jobs Creation Act took effect Jan. 1, changing tax rules for car donors. Volunteers of America has since lost 50 percent of its revenue from car donations forcing the closure of programs to remain solvent. New Hope is the largest homeless service program VOAMI provides, but also the most costly: $250,000 each year.
“There was just no way we could cut costs enough to match a 50 percent cut in revenue,” said Patrick Patterson, vice president of Lansing Operations. “Staffing has always been tight and the facilities are modest. We simply don’t have the revenue from cars anymore. We had to make some terrible choices.”
New Hope is the single largest homeless service program in the tri-county area. It provides essential services for approximately 1,700 unique individuals 25,000 times each year. New Hope first serves immediate needs, offering shelter from the elements, snacks, coffee, clothing and emergency/survival supplies. Telephones and a post office are available, in addition to a separate room for mothers and children. New Hope also facilitates eight on-site agencies that help the homeless return to self-sufficiency. In effect, the two goals of Volunteers of America New Hope Day Center are to provide basic facilities to homeless people and assist them toward a robust recovery.
While New Hope is open, many in the community pay no attention to Lansing’s homeless population. If New Hope is closed, the community will have no choice but to stare homelessness in the face everyday. Without a day center to get people off the streets and enable them to earn their own living, those people will have limited options for survival. Some will turn to theft and panhandling to get by, while others will resort to substance abuse to escape the cold reality of bus stop sleeping and concrete creeping. When services are not available, many of the local homeless will be jailed or hospitalized. Judgment and incarceration will replace care and recovery. “The homelessness problem can’t be solved with one day of compassion,” Patterson said. “It’s a complex problem that requires an equally sophisticated service response.”
It will also cost scarce public resources that could be otherwise spent on economic development. Meeting the needs of the homeless allow Lansing’s downtown to function without worrying about the needs of the poor. “There is little need for new bricks and mortar and shiny streets, if homeless people with compelling needs are ensconced sleeping on the benches,” Patterson said. This is indeed a reality Lansing could face if New Hope is forced to close its doors.
Since the crisis of closing New Hope was announced in January, Volunteers of America has received gifts from a variety of donors including community foundations, churches, Citadel Broadcasting, anonymous individuals and even college students. A Lansing Community College group, People for Positive Social Change, organized an ambitious series of events to advocate awareness and raise funds for the New Hope Shelter. The events included a living art display titled “Portrait of Homelessness,” a brigade of bucket toting students collecting donations during Silver Bells in the City and a benefit concert at Dart Auditorium hosted by 96.5 Morning Rampage hosts Big Howard and Smoky Jones. All three successful events helped raise about $2,000 for New Hope and awareness in the community. All of this plus the City’s annual grant for $100,000 and a grant from Ingham County’s contingency fund has managed to sustain the New Hope Shelter until the first week of April, 2006.
For New Hope, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The local Continuum of Care has voted to make New Hope a funding priority in for this year’s United States Department of Housing and Urban Development HUD allocation. If the HUD comes through like normal and the City and United Way hold the line on their funding New Hope will be fully funded starting July 1, 2006. VOAMI still needs $80,000 to make New Hope a reality throughout the end of June 2006.
As the harsh winter weather quickly approaches, warm clothing like hats, scarves, socks, sweaters, mittens and blankets always are appreciated among homeless service providers. Monetary gifts can be given directly to Volunteers of America Michigan for the New Hope Shelter. Send checks to Volunteers of America Michigan, 430 North Larch Street, Lansing MI, 48912. Readers can give on-line by following the links at VOAMI.org. If you have any questions or want to volunteer please call (517) 484 – 4414, extension 103.