Helping those who struggle

Light at the Inn broadens aim beyond homeless shelter

LIGHT AT THE INN committee members discuss options for the upcoming year — from left are Sandy Meier, Yvonne Clark, the Rev. Geri Hamlen, Kevin Lee Johnson, and the Rev. Irene White. (Terri Castelaz/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — Although the Light at the Inn no longer uses a system that rotates a homeless shelter among area churches, it remains focused on helping those who are struggling.

The pandemic made it necessary last year for LATI to adapt, at which time they transitioned to serve as the after-hours/weekend point of contact for those facing homelessness in Dickinson and Iron counties.

This season the committee has decided it will continue to operate in the same manner.

“With health safety still a concern, we just couldn’t have churches open up to so many outside people,” said the Rev. Geri Hamlen, LATI administrative committee chair. “Many of our volunteers are elderly and we didn’t want to put them at risk.”

The program allows LATI to issue vouchers for hotel stays on a short-term emergency basis, which is after the Community Action Alger Marquette agency’s normal business hours or on weekends. CAAM serves as the Housing Assessment and Resource Agency for several U.P. counties, including Dickinson and Iron.

LATI volunteers will do a preliminary screening just to get them into a shelter during their time of emergency. “It’s no guarantee that everyone who calls gets a room,” said Yvonne Clark, LATI coordinator liaison.

“The next business day they need to contact CAAM, who at that time will conduct an intensive assessment,” Clark explained. “Those who are eligible, the agency will start the process to seek a more permanent kind of housing.”

While some trade-offs have been needed with the new practices, as with any such change, Hamlen said she thinks the current system is more effective in the long run.

The rotating shelter provided individuals with extended stays, but those clients had little success in finding permanent housing, she noted.

One benefit of the voucher program is LATI now is able to operate year-round, as well as handle families.

“In the past, the shelter was only available four months out of the year and also didn’t allow children under the age of 18,” said Sandy Meier, LATI treasurer. “This is a big plus.”

Currently they only have two hotels that work with them to accept vouchers. “This has been difficult at times where there was no vacancies and for those who are coming from Iron County,” Meier said.

They do provide transportation through local cab companies and volunteers.

In the four seasons operating as a rotating shelter, Light at the Inn served 102 individuals for a total of 561 nights — 2,083 bed nights were provided during that time.

From May through September, under the new system, LATI served 60 adults and 17 children. There were more than 300 phone calls during this time.

“We never expected to have so many requests during the summertime as well,” Clark said.

In addition, CAAM processed 51 vouchers for refunds. LATI provided 65 additional hotel nights for situations that didn’t fit the CAAM voucher program.

LATI feels operating under the new system, has been more effective to actually solving the problem of homelessness. “Referring them to CAAM, is really were people need to get they will help them long term,” Clark said.

LATI’s primary focus is to refer people to other sources, ones that do these services on a full-time basis.

“We are part-time church volunteers who aren’t educated, certified or license on this, but are painfully aware that assistance is needed,” Hamlen said.

LATI — as its own entity — also has broadened its scope on other ways they can help, including intervention for those fearing they might become homeless and assistance for those moving into a stable shelter.

“We want to be able to go beyond just an emergency scenario,” she adds.

Volunteers recently helped someone transition into a permanent place by providing things like furniture and kitchen items, and stocking their cabinets.

They can issue food, gas cards, health kits and child care packages.

“Things that will get someone through their short-term period,” Clark said.

They also can assist in providing a cell phone or buying minutes, as getting connected with the state program would take time.

“Without a phone they don’t have the ability to follow up with services, including job contacts,” said Kevin Lee Johnson, committee member. “This is so important.”

LATI has even purchased a bus ticket for someone who was stuck here — not homeless, just needing help to go back to where they came from.

“We are amazed at the number of different situations that have come up,” Meier said.

LATI committee members said they are unsure how they will continue to operate in the future. “We are taking it year by year,” Hamlin said.

“We would love to be able to buy or build a permanent homeless shelter locally,” Johnson said. “We can have all the ideas in the world, but without the resources and more community support it’s not possible.”

They will continue to research options, Hamlen said.

Light at the Inn is community funded through local churches, businesses, individuals and the Community Foundation.

The Community Action Agency of Marquette can be contacted at 1-800-562-9762, ext. 207, during regular business hours from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Central time Monday through Friday. Individuals will have to leave a message with their phone number and will be called back within one business day. Those calling after 3:30 p.m. and weekends can call the after-hours line at 906-282-0084.


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