Yesterday we told you about a program that’s turned two Kalamazoo hotels into a temporary home for people who were homeless. Many are moving on to permanent housing. But not everyone, and time is getting tight. One hotel is closing. The other one may stay open a couple more months. In the second of a three-part series, reported in collaboration with MLive and the Kalamazoo Gazette, the deadlines are causing anxiety for some guests and the people serving them.
The hotel that’s closing is the Lodge. Actually it’s a motel, a former Knights Inn on Westnedge Avenue that’s recently been home to dozens of people. Once closed, Kalamazoo’s LIFT Foundation, which recently bought the building, will set to work transforming it into 60 affordable units, to be known as the LodgeHouse.
That’s great news for a city in need of more affordable housing. But it also means the current residents need to leave. People like Terry Harkness.
Harkness, who’s 57, sits in his room on the second floor of the Lodge. He taps a pack of cigarettes on a table as he recalls an encounter a few months ago with a couple of social workers.
“They met me when I was sleeping on the ground outside and had nowhere to go,” he said.
Eventually they found him a spot here. Harkness is handy. Right now he’s helping renovate an apartment. Two-thirds of his fellow lodgers have either a place to move to, or a voucher they can put toward rent when they leave here. But Harkness says those things haven’t come together for him.
“I’ve been kind of busy trying to do this little stain job and get this done for the guy. How do I want to say…I’m overwhelmed right now…I’m bipolar, I’m quite not knowing how to do certain steps to get a place, to be honest,” he said.
Lodgers are supposed to move out this weekend. When we spoke in early May, Harkness was worried about where he’d go. He’s got a herniated disc in his spine that’s acting up.
“I’m not wanting to be back in the street. I’m not. I’m too old for that stuff, actually I should be in emergency room right now to be honest,” he said.
But the LIFT Foundation also has deadlines to meet, as it seeks to create permanent housing – the kind, it says, that will help turn the tide on in homelessness in Kalamazoo. And LIFT did not know when it set the timeline that it would have people here now. The program that brought Harkness here began as a stopgap.
“We just wanted people to be out of the cold,” said Ahja Surratt with Integrated Services of Kalamazoo.
“On the battlefield”
Surratt works from a makeshift office on the Lodge’s first floor. Finding people homes is her main job, although she also tells them about any resources she can think of – Social Security, and stimulus checks – that they might be able to use.
If most Lodgers now have housing or a voucher, Surratt’s thinking about the third who do not.
“I’m in the midst of the war right now,” she said. “I don’t know how to put into words the success right now. Because I don’t see it. I’m still on the battlefield.”
Battling to get people the papers they need to make rent takes time. Surratt says for many people, unresolved trauma and the fallout from it draws things out even more. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. For now, Surratt’s helping people heading back to the streets to get essentials like tents – and phones, so they can keep looking for housing.
“We have to keep connected, because what if they have a document they need to have submitted?”
Some Lodgers will move to the latest tent camp, in a big grassy lot on the east side. The river runs along one edge, the one where Tim Perry, who’s about the same age as Terry Harkness at the Lodge, has parked his van. On a recent morning, Perry was digging a garden patch, a big one, with a shovel.
Perry’s a builder by trade. He said since his marriage ended about a decade ago, he’s lived with friends or his brother. But he’s been homeless the last few months. The Lodge didn’t appeal to him.
“You can’t have company,” he said, “and it’s like, that’s what I go to the motel for, to get away, you know?”
Perry said the camp’s a rough place. There’s drug use. People will take your stuff if you don’t watch it. He added it’s especially hazardous for female campers.
“When you get women out here, single, and they have mental issues, and they need help, they’re a stray out here," he said. "And there’s some real dogs out here" who will prey on them, he added.
Though he’s not in the hotel program, Perry’s been working with Integrated Services. And he said they seem close to finding him an apartment. If that comes through, he said, he’ll come back to the camp to tend the garden and visit friends. But he’s looking forward to getting out.
This series was reported in collaboration with MLive and the Kalamazoo Gazette. For more from MLive’s Ryan Boldrey, click here. Tomorrow, in our final story, how trauma and a lack of affordable housing have shaped homelessness in Kalamazoo.