This winter has been brutal. While Michigan was being held hostage by the polar vortex, records were being broken across the Midwest as temperatures dove to more than 30 degrees below zero with wind chills approaching minus 60. Meteorologists across the Midwest sang a chorus of ‘we’ve not seen temperatures like this in 100 years’ and warned people not to leave the house unless absolutely necessary. At those temperatures, frostbite can begin to set in in as little as five minutes. Consumers Powers sent out a plea to turn down the heat to avoid life-threatening outages across the state, and people joked on Facebook that Michigan was officially ‘closed.’
While it may be frustrating for those of us who can watch the wind blow from the relative comfort of our warm living rooms, what about the many homeless that don’t necessarily have the option to go indoors?
It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate idea of just how many people are homeless in Flint. They are transient, and Flint has an unusually large number of abandoned homes, which makes counting problematic
What we can say for certain is that during this blast of arctic temperatures, the Center for Hope Warming Center has seen between 92-103 people per night.
In November 2010, Catholic Charities opened its doors for the first time to allow people with no place to go, a chance to get out of the cold. “We had no idea what we were doing back then. I just knew I couldn’t let people stay outside in the cold while I sat in my warm office,” said Vicky Schultz, CEO of Catholic Charities. Now in its ninth season, the Warming Center has come a long way since that first bitter day almost a decade ago. It has become a refuge for those who have no place to go when the shelters are full.
It’s easy to stereotype the homeless. People often think that all homeless people are mentally handicapped, addicts, lazy or are just taking advantage of the system. While there are some that do have mental challenges or struggle with addiction, for many, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Stereotyping the homeless is like taking a snapshot of someone’s life and writing them off because of what you see in that single moment.
“We find an alarming number of families, single moms, students, people from out-of-town stranded in Flint, people who were laid off, people who were sick and lost their homes or were unable to keep up with utility bills, professional people who have lost jobs/homes. People from all walks of life come to the Warming Center for shelter,” said Mary Stevenson, Warming Center assistant.
Heather Bennett is a 42-year-old mother of three and grandmother. This year is the first time she has visited the Warming Center. Heather admits she has had a hard life. She is a life-long victim of domestic violence, first at the hands of her alcoholic father and then her ex-husband. Her mother suffers from mental illness and her daughter is bi-polar. When she was a child, her mother would make her do a lot of chores after dinner. By the time she would sit down to do homework it was late, and she was tired. She is also severely dyslexic, so her mother would get frustrated and angry and eventually write the answers for her. She managed to slip through the cracks at school this way. As a result, she reads very little and has very little education despite having graduated from high school. “I have worked hard my whole life, but I have only been able to work manual labor because of my lack of education,” said Bennett.
Ten years ago, she managed to break the circle of abuse. She left her husband, moved to Arkansas and was rebuilding her life. She had a good job working for Frito Lay, a house and things were really looking up. Then her oldest son got sick and she decided to move back to Flint to be closer to him. “That’s when things began to fall apart,” she said. She moved back during the recession, so work in Flint was harder to find than normal. Shortly after returning, a friend was diagnosed with brain cancer so she moved in with him to be his caretaker; however, after his death, the house was foreclosed on and she had to leave. For a time, she lived with her boyfriend and his mother, but last year his sister moved in with her kids. It was an overcrowded and untenable situation and last June she moved out. She stayed briefly with her daughter; however, while she was there, she encountered her ex-husband, which left her with two black eyes, a shattered cheekbone and bruised ribs. She clearly could not stay there.
For the next six months, she bounced from place to place until finally, about a week before Christmas, she was at the end of the line. It was getting cold and she had no winter clothes. A friend allowed her to stay in a vacant home that was being renovated so that she would not be on the street, but it had no running water. For five days, she slept on a mat on the floor. She cried and had panic attacks. She asked God why he had abandoned her. She had given up on herself and wanted to die. Then someone told her about Catholic
Charities. “I’m not street savvy. I came here starving with no money, not knowing what I was going to do, and wondering if this was going to be the rest of my life,” she said. “This isn’t me. I’m a good hard-working person.”
With everything Bennett has been through, it’s a miracle that she did not turn to drugs or prostitution, as is often the case for women who find themselves in such desperate circumstances. Living in warming centers and shelters is not easy. Many people think the homeless are sitting around doing nothing, waiting for someone to provide for them. “But in reality, the homeless spend a lot of time being told what to do, where to go, what they should have done, what they might be eligible for, and when they should have been there—and just when they figure out all the rules, they change,” said Stevenson.
Since arriving at Catholic Charities, Bennett has been able to take advantage of the Community Closet, Personal Needs room, soup kitchen, and the shower and laundry facilities. She has been able to get her Section 8 and is only days away from getting into an apartment, finally free of living in daily fear.
“When I get into a place, it’s finally going to be happy tears. My mother and father have never been there for me, but these people, STRANGERS, have been here with open arms. There were times I didn’t think I was going to make it. All I needed was one push to help me get back on my feet and finally, I’ve made it,“ said Bennett.
“The Warming Center really is a community effort,” said Stevenson. “We receive gifts from Blueberries and school groups, businesses, donors from all over who learned about us during the water crisis, numerous church groups participating in the Faith in Flint initiative of the Diocese of Lansing, teachers and nurses, dentists and hairdressers, musical performers and veterans—people from all walks of life who just want to help. We couldn’t do what we do without their generosity.”
Bennett hasn’t been able to work recently, because her body will no longer let her do manual labor after years of abuse. She has carpal tunnel in both hands, nerve damage in her left leg; and she can’t bend down or lift things like she used to. But she’s excited about the future.
“All I know is hard labor work but that’s not possible anymore, so after I settle into my new apartment I plan on finally going back to school so that I can get a job which does not require manual labor.”
She smiles as she thinks about all that has unfolded in the last year. “The irony is that a couple of years ago before all of this happened, I wanted to volunteer in a shelter and now I’m living in a shelter. I recently learned how to crochet, so this summer I want to make some blankets to donate so I can give back.”
Located on the lower level of the Center for Hope, the Warming Center is open 24 hours a day between December 1st and April 1st. In 2018, the Warming Center received 15,450 visits by individuals who used many of the services the Center for Hope has to offer. The Center is always in need of blankets, hand sanitizer, personal needs items, and prayers.