By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
TAYLOR – ChristNet Services, a non-profit group helping the homeless Downriver, needs church volunteers to help host its night program, and financial help to renovate a building for its expanding daytime program.
Since 1993, ChristNet, a member of the Out Wayne County Homeless Services Coalition, has provided safe overnight shelter to homeless people for up to 90 days through a rotating shelter program run by a network of area churches.
From mid-October to the beginning of June, 34 local host churches each provide guests with three meals a day, a secure place to sleep, access to showers and a way to launder clothing for a week.
ChristNet provides 32 mattresses, bedding, and towels that travel from one host church to the next. Host churches often set up a temporary shower in a restroom or utility area, or ChristNet arranges for guests to shower at a nearby facility or school.
ChristNet Services executive director Debra Petri said if they had more volunteer churches, they could provide nighttime shelter year-round. She said any church groups even considering hosting ChristNet guests for one week should call her at 734-287-8890, and she will answer their questions.
“One of the visions of ChristNet is to become a year-round shelter,” Petri said. “We need more churches involved. We depend on our churches and our volunteers to run our program. If it were not for our churches, we would not be able to do what we do. It’s a big task to take on, but the blessings that you get back are so much more than the work that you do that week.”
She said church members are often afraid that the homeless guests will have mental health or substance abuse issues, but once they host ChristNet for a week they find their fears were unfounded.
“When they actually host, they are like, ‘This is not what I expected at all,’” she said. “They really are people just like you and I. They really get to know them over the week, they listen to their stories, and they find out about them.”
The daytime program, begun in December 2008, provides a service center where the homeless can go to sign up for emergency nighttime shelter, get breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday, and meet with counselors who can help them apply for health benefits, housing vouchers, jobs, and other services.
Computer access is available so guests can get an email address and apply for jobs and benefits online.
Petri said they recently purchased a former storefront on Eureka for renovation.
An online crowd funding effort at gofundme.com has generated $3,560 of the $200,000 needed for the renovation.
The daytime center, when relocated to the renovated storefront, will include showers, laundry facilities, a larger computer area, a commercial kitchen for food preparation and culinary skill training, and handicap accessibility. The current center is in a basement accessed only by stairs.
“We are kind of in a waiting pattern,” Petri said. “We have enough funds to get started, but we really need more funding to complete it.”
The group continues to rent the church basement at Taylor Church of the Nazarene, 24356 Eureka, while paying the mortgage on the building awaiting renovation.
Michigan State Housing Development Authority Emergency Solutions Grant funding for Housing Assessment and Resource Agencies pays for some of the church basement rent and insurance for the daytime program. The state of Michigan funded $6.8 million for HARA grants last October.
Federal grants fund some of the nighttime shelter program, Petri said, but do not cover all their expenses, and they rely on donations and fund-raising to make up the difference.
A fundraiser, Harvest for the Homeless, will be held Nov. 6 at Orlando Familia Banquet Center, 15001 Sibley Road in Riverview.
Civic, religious and school groups have collected and donated paper products, dry cereal, and canned goods for them, Petri said. Eagle Scout candidates have collected sleeping bags, backpacks, and twin-size bed sheets, blankets and towels. Hand soap, plastic utensils and paper plates are also welcome donations.
“Pretty much anything you use at home, we can use here,” Petri said.
Petri said the public has many misconceptions about the homeless.
“I wish that people would understand that the people that we serve are really just like everyone else,” she said. “They really deserve to be treated as they would want to be treated.”
She said there is a common misconception that homelessness is a product of either substance abusers or problems people created themselves.
“A lot of times that is really not the reason why,” Petri said. “Most of the people that we serve are homeless because of financial hardships, an illness in their family, or a loss of a spouse, whether that’s divorce or death.”
When guests arrive at ChristNet, counselors meet with them to determine their needs.
“If we can refer them right away for some type of housing, we do that,” Petri said. “If they have no income, they are going to have to apply for a job, get a job, and save a little bit of money. Our (shelter) program is 90 days, so we have had people that stay with us for however long they need to, until they get a little bit of savings to move on.”
She said they help people apply for the MSHDA housing choice voucher, formerly known as the Section 8 housing voucher program.
Applicants must be in a homeless shelter for a specified period of time before they can even get on the MSHDA housing waiting list, and then they may be on the waiting listing for a few weeks or several years before they are placed.
Petri said that last year, government funding enabled them to move more people off the wait list and into housing than in the past. However, ChristNet had to house some guests at other shelters if their 90 days at ChristNet were exhausted before they were placed in MSHDA housing.
Petri said finding housing for people with no income, who cannot work, is a challenge. She said disabled people might wait years for a decision on Social Security benefits, and the appeals process can also take years.
For more information about ChristNet Services, call the center at 734-287-8890, or go to christnetservices.org.
Financial donations can be sent to ChristNet Inc., 24158 Goddard Road, Taylor, MI, 48180, or made online through gofundme.com/lvgkks.
People needing shelter should call the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency central intake line at 734-284-6999.