An abandoned house near the Baw Beese Trail, which served as a shelter to a homeless couple, burned to the ground in a blaze on Jan. 29. No one was in the home at the time of the fire.
The couple had been living in the house long-term, though without any utilities, according to Hillsdale Police and Fire Chief Scott Hephner. He said it’s likely that the fire either started because the couple left a kerosene heater on, or potentially from a lit cigarette. Hephner said they will not be able to determine the cause with certainty.
The fire, however, brings to light a larger demon in the Hillsdale community: homelessness.
According to the Community Action Agency’s Jan. 29 Point in Time survey, approximately 87 people, 19 of which are members of families, are currently homeless in Hillsdale.
Jessica Harrison, a housing advocate at the CAA, said that Hillsdale’s homeless tend to congregate around Baw Beese Lake, in public campgrounds, behind Kroger, and sometimes in abandoned railroad cars.
This particular couple had been homeless for “a very long time,” according to Harrison, and that made it hard for CAA to help them find housing prior to the fire. The agency put them up in a hotel for a few days after the fire. Harrison, however, said it will be difficult to situate them into permanent housing because the agency has used up all of its applicable funding for the fiscal year. Until October 2020, CAA can only help with referrals and make connections.
In the past few years, the number of recorded homeless people in the city has increased, according to Harris. She said that this increase in recorded homeless residents is likely due in large part to the additional team members the CAA hired. Two CAA outreach employees work in the field five days a week to record the number of homeless in the city and to bring them aid.
While the official number of homeless has increased, Harrison said this indicates that the CAA is better able to help Hillsdale’s homeless community.
Meanwhile, there are other ways Hillsdale’s resources for the homeless are growing. Last Tuesday, Mayor Adam Stockford met with CAA and other homeless aid groups to begin discussions for developing new and better means of aiding the homeless.
Furthermore, Harrison said that in just one year, she gained a $50,000 grant for her program, which offers permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless — those who have spent 12 months in the past years verifiably homeless — and the disabled.
Current CAA procedure favors a “housing first” approach. But Harrison said the “housing first” model can also be difficult because the homeless often don’t believe that finding a home is their most pressing concern.
Renae Shircliff, director of Hillsdale County Veteran Affairs emphasized that, though the CAA follows a “housing first” model, it also provides for imminent needs. The agency offers warming centers for homeless people to stay on cold nights, and partners with the Salvation Army and Hillsdale Community to provide warm meals and warm clothes.
This outreach, in particular, is crucial because it builds trust between the homeless and CAA workers. According to Schircliff, homeless, especially veterans, sometimes refuse housing either because they are used to living outside or because they don’t want to have any kind of responsibility — even if it is just filling out a form each month.
“I had a gentleman who I had housed shortly after I began, and he was chronically homeless and had been living outside for a few years,” Harrison said. “I got him out, and in about a month, he wouldn’t sleep in his house. It felt very unnatural to him to sleep inside and he ended up leaving his housing because he couldn’t acclimate to not sleeping outside and he is still homeless outside.”
According to Harrison, this type of behavior is sometimes due to traumatic experiences with different people who have tried and failed to help them, or because of bad experiences in community housing. This trauma, however, does not have to be permanent.
“We have one guy who has been homeless since 2011, and he sleeps in a storage unit. He has for a long time,” Harrison said. “He finally actually came to us and reached out and said he does want housing help now. We were able to get him housing.”
Ultimately, both Schircliff and Harrison emphasized that the mindset of the community can be detrimental to offering necessary help. Shircliff said people in the community often have no idea that homelessness — especially homelessness on this scale — exists in Hillsdale.
“I think that people in Hillsdale are definitely coming around to the idea that homelessness in Hillsdale is very real, but there is something we can do about it: volunteering with us, donating,” Harrison said. “There are so many things that people can do when they do encounter someone homeless, and some positive information around homelessness will really make some big changes.”