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Light at the Inn: Same mission, new procedures for homeless shelter

The Rev. Geri Hamlen of Trinity United Methodist Church in Iron Mountain, chairwoman of the Light at the Inn administration committee, reviews new operation procedures for the homeless aid shelter this season to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. (Terri Castelaz/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — As local COVID-19 cases continue to rise, organizers of the Light at the Inn Homeless Shelter have had to adjust how they will operate this season.

The non-profit’s mission remains the same — to provide a safe emergency shelter with meals throughout the winter months for the homeless of Dickinson and Iron counties.

But health concerns due to the coronavirus forced LATI’s administration committee to change their procedures, which in the past included having churches take turns hosting the shelter.

“We didn’t want the churches to struggle with the decisions about opening up their buildings to house the homeless in the evenings,” said the Rev. Geri Hamlen of Trinity United Methodist Church in Iron Mountain, chairman of the committee. “We also didn’t want to put our volunteers at risk, with so many being over the age of 60 or 65.”

They looked at how they still could serve in emergency situations, since they consider it critical to maintain some type of local emergency housing assistance.

This also allows them to become more familiar with other agencies that work with people who experience homelessness — which is a good thing, Hamlen said. “We get to know them and they get to know us — it’s a coordinated effort,” she said.

Any homeless person or family currently in need of emergency housing now contacts the Alger-Marquette Community Action Agency, which serves as the Housing Assessment and Resource Agency for several U.P. counties, including Dickinson. Those officials then start the application process for state-assisted housing.

If individuals or families have an immediate need for shelter outside of Community Action business hours, which are 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, the Light at the Inn will be able to step in.

“We won’t be able to provide the shelter as we have in the past, but we will be able to provide emergency placement for that night and instructions for contacting Community Action on the next business day,” Hamlen said.

For those who don’t qualify for established program assistance, LATI will seek further assistance for more permanent placement in another area that has operating shelters.

The new policy also allows them to help families with children, which they were unable to do in past years.

“This new way of operating will increase the amount of funds needed for the organization,” Hamlen added. “We are going to do the best we can, just have fewer options and more expenses.”

Over the past four winters, LATI has provided emergency shelter and meals to more than 125 individuals.

“Each year, more and more seek shelter and assistance,” she said. “Some have stayed only a few nights, but others had nowhere else to go and remained at the shelter throughout the winter.”

With the pandemic situation adding to other economic challenges, they have good reason to anticipate a larger-than-usual need for emergency housing this season, which begins Nov. 1 and continue to March.

“At that time, the committee will re-evaluate to see if they need to continue,” Hamlen said.

As in the past, the Light at the Inn still will be able to provide meals.

“We have made plans for meals, even to the point of knowing which restaurants are open into the evening hours and ones that make deliveries,” Hamlen said.

Some details remain to be worked out, she noted, including food voucher cards for McDonald’s restaurant. “With the lobby being closed, we are unsure how those will work at this time,” she said.

LATI volunteers also will provide people in need with basic information on other community agencies and churches that have food pantries, community meals, clothing and counseling.

Anyone in need of shelter can call the Community Action Agency at 1-800-562-9762, ext. 207, during business hours for an automated assessment process. After hours or on weekends and holidays, call Light at the Inn Homeless Shelter at 1-906-282-5860 and a volunteer will assist with available resources.

LATI committee members appreciate the community support they have received in the past and hopes for the same generosity this year, Hamlen said. They could use monetary donations to pay for transportation and temporary lodging expenses.

Those who would like more information on LATI, have suggestions or want to donate can call the shelter at 1-906-282-5860.

“Nobody wants people experiencing homelessness to be out in the cold,” Hamlen said. “For winters in the U.P., having an emergency service of this kind can save lives.”

Terri Castelaz can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 241, or tcastelaz@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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