An aban­doned house near the Baw Beese Trail, which served as a shelter to a homeless couple, burned to the ground in a blaze in Jan. 29. | Facebook

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.”