MARQUETTE, Mich. — In Marquette, the topic of homelessness is receiving increased attention with local media, and in daily discussions with concerned citizens. Policymakers, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups, and law enforcement are finally engaging in a more public debate about resolutions applicable to the city.

Once considered a problem devoid of a permanent solution, homelessness in Marquette may soon be eradicated as we look toward a solution with a permanent homeless shelter.

In the United States, an increasing number of people are suffering from homelessness. Over half a million Americans do not have a consistent place to rest their head at night. Of this population, approximately fifty Marquette County citizens seek shelter provided by local churches and non-profit organizations, but many are speculating the number is increasing.

Imagine being homeless in Marquette, Michigan from November through March. You’re the poorest of the poor. In addition to the two feet of snow through which you trek, the average low temperature during winter hovers just above twelve degrees Fahrenheit. This past Christmas, you’re battling the elements of harsh Upper Peninsula temperatures barely breaching single digits, while battling the even harsher elements of your own economic misfortune.

Statistically speaking, you have a significant number vulnerabilities. You may have a history of substance abuse, alcoholism, joblessness, mental illness, physical disability, or incarceration. You may suffer from a combination of all these infirmities. The obstacles seem insurmountable. No matter how hard you try, society has already stacked odds against you, maybe labeled you a criminal. Your fellow citizens have publicly branded you as someone taking advantage of the system. Some stigmatize you as person unwilling, undeserving, or incapable of moving beyond your plight.

How can Marquette empower this demographic to get motivated and move up and out of poverty? Is simple motivation enough for them to succeed? How can we compassionately seek solutions to homelessness in Marquette that do not enable people to stay in a vicious, chaotic cycle of dependence? Is it, as some say, a problem with no solution?

Not anymore. There are positive signs that a permanent answer is on its way. Community activists are assembling a task force to explore a viable resolution. Dedicated people in Marquette are looking to end the stigma of homelessness, concentrate on providing more services under a Housing First Initiative (HFI), and hope to start a permanent homeless shelter. Across America, cities with an HFI provide long-term homeless individuals with dignified housing so they are no longer living on the streets or in emergency shelters. The initiative concentrates on defeating the root problems plagued by our least fortunate members of society. It’s the next step for our unique growing micropolis to adopt.

A city-based HFI, sparked by municipal funding with a permanent homeless shelter, will save taxpayers millions, eliminate societal-damaging negative stigmas, alleviate significant burdens on city resources, and make our community safer. For the most vulnerable demographic, a Housing First Initiative is a viable solution that makes homelessness temporary and one-time. It is the most effective model for Marquette to embrace.

The face of homelessness is changing. Factors that contribute to it are multifaceted and complex. Those who study the problem generally refer to homelessness as a representation of the ultimate event of downward mobility for many people. In other words, it is the end of a descending spiral. The cause of which often varies with each individual that experiences it. Given the diversity of this demographic, intervention solutions need to be broad, all-encompassing, and address a multitude of different issues.

Organizations and municipalities across the U.S. are looking toward HFIs because they recognize the many factors of chronic homelessness, and work toward its eradication. This specific approach diverts attention from criminalizing homeless people, and addresses addiction, alcoholism, mental health, education, and stable community inclusion. For the benefit of cities like Marquette, homelessness is more accurately being defined as a symptom of these other societal issues. Championed by shelters and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Housing First Initiatives empower homeless people to attain independence, employment, education, mental health services, and productivity in society.

A Housing First Initiative focuses first and foremost on providing non-discriminate, long-term, basic housing to anyone in need. Once housing is established, the initiative provides resources to address the underlying causes of homelessness, such as mental health services, skill building, job training and recruitment, legal aid, and social services.

When the chaos of a homeless person’s life is pacified with the availability of a twenty four hour structure, attention then focuses on the root causes of their problems. If Marquette takes steps empowering homeless people to address their situations, individuals will have the mechanisms and tools to lift themselves up and out of poverty. Overtime, they become less dependent upon the shelter and services, and work to reintroduce themselves as productive members of society. It provides our least fortunate citizens a better quality of life, keeps them out of the criminal justice system, alleviates the burden on emergency medical services, and helps eliminate the stigma that homeless people are a nuisance to our community. Concentrating initially on their basic housing and nutritional needs compassionately removes the two biggest obstacles that prevent individuals from escaping a perpetual cycle of chronic homelessness.

According to police, in recent years there has been a rise in police interactions with members of the homeless community, causing the local dialogue on the topic to intensify. A big concern for law enforcement is this proliferation of incident-reports from business owners. Homeless people are allegedly passing out on stoops of downtown store fronts, causing nuisance issues at the public library, and disturbances related to public intoxication.

In a December airing of a news story by TV6 — Fox U.P., multimedia journalist Alex Kline quotes Detective Captain Mike Kohler of the Marquette Police Department (MQPD), reiterating concerns about the homeless population currently utilizing services by Marquette’s emergency shelter, Room at the Inn. “We have about three contacts a day with the homeless population here in Marquette,” says Kohler. “This can range anywhere from vagrancy, trespassing type complaints all the way up to criminal sexual conduct, prostitution.”

New data provided by Room at the Inn (RATI) suggests these reported figures may have been skewed, and recently has been reduced to one interaction per day. Monthly reports from November, December and January state there are on average 25 police interactions with the homeless each month.

Most observably, the homeless community gathers outside Room at the Inn on Washington Street before the organization opens for evening hours. Churches, non-profit organizations, and emergency shelters step up to accommodate these citizens.

The Janzen House is a permanent structure for approximately thirty five low income people. These individuals are not considered homeless, as subsidies pay an average rental rate of fifty dollars weekly. However, if the Janzen House did not exist, the population renting rooms would be effectively living on the streets. Room at the Inn is Marquette’s rotating homeless shelter. As of January 2017, twelve churches work with this organization to house the homeless for a week at a time. Because of increasing demand and the burdens placed on the churches, some of these faith based groups are curtailing their roles. “At the end of every week, the shelter moves to another church,” says RATI board chair, David Payant. “This model is becoming harder and harder to sustain as it requires an army of volunteers to maintain. Every week, we need 400 hours of volunteer time.”

Room at the Inn offers night time shelter to about fifteen people, opening each evening and closing every morning. Dinner is provided to each shelter guest. During the winter months, The Warming Center at RATI’s facilities on Washington Street provides temporary shelter for guests to gather and commune before heading out for the day .

Previously, this adequately fulfilled the needs of the city’s homeless population. However, as Marquette grows and changes, so do the needs of our least fortunate citizens. Many people believe the solutions provided by our two emergency shelters are no longer sufficient. This is a view reflected in public opinion. According to a poll on Facebook, seventy two percent of people think Marquette, as a municipality, needs to step up and provide housing and mental health services to the homeless. Twenty eight percent of poll participants say enough services are provided to the homeless, reasoning that services will attract more homeless, and municipalities should not join churches and shelters in negatively “enabling” the homeless.

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of removing a negative stigma of homeless people in Marquette is the perception that providing more services enables this population to remain homeless. People who believe this concept also want to eradicate homelessness, but think more responsibility should be placed on the individual. They believe homeless people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and regain control of their lives, with internal motivation derived from negative consequences. Opponents of more services fear a permanent homeless shelter as provided under an HFI may attract a criminally-oriented population to the city.

Resolutions advocated by some current and former members in local law enforcement are to make homelessness in Marquette unattractive, attributing the influx of homeless people in the city to comparatively better services provided by the city’s emergency homeless shelters.

According to the MQPD, their interactions are with people who are from other states and counties. Authorities regularly state to the members of the press they are in “contact with homeless people from Escanaba, Houghton, L’anse, Menominee, Iron Mountain, Pontiac, Southfield, Detroit, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, California, and Oregon…”

“There’s resources available to them in Marquette that aren’t available to them in other communities so certainly that’s attractive if you’re homeless to come to Marquette,” says Detective Kohler to TV-6 / Fox U.P..

The ratio of out-of-town homeless people compared to local homeless people is refuted by RATI’s David Payant. According to a letter to the editor in the Mining Journal, Payant counts seventy five percent of the people who receive emergency shelter services are from Marquette, and the remaining twenty five percent are from elsewhere in the Upper Peninsula. The non-local population of homeless people are returning to the area to find work or reconnect with friends and family.

The presumption that homeless people in Marquette are outsiders unworthy of services in our city disseminate the myth that these individuals are taking advantage of an adequate system. It’s an obtuse characterization that creates a false generalization of the types of people experiencing homelessness.

My biggest take away over the past year working in the non-profit organization dedicated to providing housing for people in medical crisis, is life can change in a heartbeat. Any one of us is susceptible to unfortunate, tragic situations like homelessness. You could lose a job, get a divorce, have a major medical crisis, or a mental breakdown. Anything could happen to put you in the same shoes as those making footprints in the snow to-and-from the Room at the Inn.

Deterring specific populations from attaining housing services in the city only further perpetuates the problem. Exclusively categorizing these people as criminals causes our police department to more aggressively patrol areas where homeless people are suspected of congregating. Often times, the only crime of which this population is guilty is the act of being homeless. Strictly as an emergency shelter, Room at the Inn is only able to keep fifteen homeless people warm during the night. Previously, because of the lack of a resources, volunteers, and a permanent structure, the organization was forced to send them all on their way into nothingness. Recently, because of generous donations by Messiah Lutheran Church, who is leading the way for extended services, the warming center is open all day.

Most guests do not have jobs, reliable transportation, basic minimal healthcare, mental health services, or accountability other than law enforcement. Trouble ensued when homeless people are left to their own devices. They congregate at the library to stay warm, or fall susceptible to alcoholism and drug abuse, and become loiterers at downtown businesses. Without an HFI, their increased contacts with police are inevitable, and the result of inadequate services.

Fortunately, Marquette can adopt strategies to implement adequate services from other cities. Many shelters in Boston, Massachusetts successfully apply Housing First Initiatives to combat homelessness. Friends of Boston’s Homeless (FOBH) dedicate themselves to the well-being of people experiencing long-term homelessness, recognizing that most suffer from complex health and mental health disabilities, making the population uniquely vulnerable. The organization believes these issues are impossible to address amidst the chaos of homelessness. They are also often victims of crime, their safety constantly at risk.

Comparatively, Marquette’s current emergency solutions, as well-intended as they are, only solve half the problem. They cost the taxpayer more than it would to provide preventative services under an HFI. With social services and mental health wellness provisions under the initiative, the city can decrease disturbances, avoid emergency room visits, and alleviate the burden on our police force.

Officials estimate that every contact with a homeless person costs taxpayers $100 . Less contact with the MQPD is not only essential for the well-being of our homeless population, but it decreases the cost to the taxpayer, and requires less allocated resources to respond to suspected criminal incidents. It costs between $1,500 and $3,000 every time an uninsured homeless individual is brought to the local emergency room, totaling over one million dollars per year. Less than half of this amount is repaid by Medicaid reimbursement programs, highlighting another significant expense to the taxpayer. The other half is absorbed as a loss by the hospital. Some of these are hospital visits that could otherwise be substituted at a permanent shelter. With so many homeless people in Marquette suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction, the cumulative cost of hospital visits for our homeless population is significant. In a three month period, the cost to UPHS-Marquette to provide medical care to the city’s most chronic homeless individuals was over $300,000. Under an HFI, it’s avoidable.

If Marquette implemented a Housing First Initiative, even in the unfortunate hypothetical situation where services were ineffective, causing authorities to respond to a publicly intoxicated homeless person on the street, instead of placing the burden on our jail and justice system or local hospital, police can return the individual back to the permanent shelter.

In Boston, according to FOBH, this type of strategy and other HFI preventative measures can save a community over $13,000/person per year in health care and public safety alone once someone is housed rather than living on the streets or in shelter. In Boston, it works.

Nationally, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates the annual cost of a single homeless person is $40,000. Marquette has the ability to emulate Boston’s approach on a smaller scale, and can expect to see similar cost saving measures. Furthermore, HUD has recently granted funds to cities who adopt HFIs, offering two billion dollars in 2018 to similar programs across the nation. These grants can help sustain the programs after startup.

To implement the initiative, a local task force organized by Room at the Inn called ‘Future of RATI’ needs to raise enough funds for the purchase of a building. The task is not without challenges. Approximate costs for an ideal building to accommodate the current number of homeless people range between $1.5 million to two million dollars.

If the municipal government of the City of Marquette believes in eradicating homelessness in our community and is committed to decreasing the problems associated with it, purchasing a building or contributing to the organizations start-up costs are in its best interest.

The health of a society is often based on how it takes care of its least fortunate citizens. We need to stop casting homeless people in a negative light, and look at them more compassionately. Ask yourself if any member of our community, regardless of circumstance, deserves less than twenty four hour shelter from Upper Peninsula winter elements, and food-security. A city ought to be judged based on how it cares for the meek. Housing First Initiatives link treatment to housing, servicing homeless people struggling with mental health and addictions, and combat the root cause.

We need a permanent housing structure for the homeless, which will eliminate disturbances by giving would-be homeless people a better quality of life. It will be considerably more effective to address the root causes of the actual problem and stop dismissing the people suffering from it. There are plenty of initiatives on which to take action, and they start with reallocating attention from police and emergency medical intervention, and instead using resources for preventative measures. It is compassionate and effective.

A permanent shelter and an expansion of services will create an environment for people to build skills, fight addiction and alcoholism, and subsequently keep our streets safe. The goal is to empower the homeless under one roof, not entitled them, and provide them a literal service hub to lift them up and out of poverty.

Not only advantageous to the individuals utilizing services, an HFI in Marquette offers something beneficial for society as a whole. It’s time community leaders, policy makers, and citizens step up tojoin the efforts of our local churches and Room at the Inn, and offer funding or support to make a Housing First Initiative in Marquette happen. It’s time Marquette rethinks homelessness.

I also would support something similar to this grant-funded initiative that gives homeless people jobs.