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Hotel Program Houses Homeless, But Challenges Lie Ahead

Photo provided by Joel Bissell

Hundreds of people in Kalamazoo County do not have a home. Some are couch-surfing, others are staying in shelters, and some have pitched tents by the river on the east side. Fearing the campers could freeze or be swept away by floods, last winter a group of nonprofits tried something new: turning two hotels into temporary homes.

In the first of a three-part series, reported in collaboration with MLive and The Kalamazoo Gazette, we report on how the program has also helped some people move on to permanent housing.

“Anything we need”

For Angie McBride, it was a mental health crisis that led her family to lose their home. McBride, who’s 46, has severe anxiety. She was living in Battle Creek with her husband and two adult daughters, when she went through a bad patch.

“Basically the people where we were staying at didn’t want to deal with me, and we ended up moving out coming here” to Kalamazoo, she said.

McBride found a place for her daughters. But she and her husband ended up living in a tent at a camp on Mills Street. One day a heater got knocked into McBride’s bed and started a fire. She wasn’t there, but her husband was.

“He has PTSD from it now,” she said.

Then they got an offer to move to a hotel, reimagined as a temporary housing and resource center. “We jumped on it because we wanted to be a family and together under the same roof.”

The groups running the hotel asked us not to name it. Style-wise it’s a standard American chain hotel, the sort you’ll find by any roadway. Roughly 150 people are living here right now. McBride’s standing in the hallway on the ground floor as we talk, just around the corner from the bustling lobby.

Food coordinator Tony Lett’s been prepping meals there. He serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and says if you’re hungry, he’ll feed you.

“I never tell anybody no. If I’ve got to go up to my room and slap together a grilled cheese for them what we’ll do, I’ll do that. That’s what we do here – everybody on the team is like that, too,” he added.

Angie McBride, who moved here from the tent city, says she feels safe at the hotel. She recently suffered a devastating loss when her oldest daughter died at 27.

“One of the ladies got me some grief counseling so I’ve been doing that since my daughter’s passed away,” she said.

“Pretty much anything we need, somebody will find a way to get what we need.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere else”

If the Hotel Intervention Program, as it's called by the nonprofit groups that made it a reality, started as a stopgap, now it’s become something more.

“We’ve been able to connect most of the residents here with some sort of voucher or housing, or even just mental health services,”  said Brandon Mion with Integrated Services of Kalamazoo.

Mion is based at the hotel program’s other location, a former Knights Inn Motel on Westnedge Avenue now known as the Lodge. A voucher is a rental subsidy. It helps a person cover the rent on an affordable place. Those are scarce, though. And Mion says, once you’ve found one, the hurdles keep coming.

“There’s application fees they’ve got to pay for, nonrefundable cleaning fees,” he said, adding that churches have covered some of them.

Still, Integrated Services says roughly two-thirds of the Lodgers will leave with a voucher or a permanent home.

Twenty-nine-year-old Kristina Rodriguez has been living with her fiancé and four kids in one room on the first floor. She stands outside the door while her kids play in the parking lot. Rodriguez says they became homeless after a car crash last Christmas.

“We were driving from Sturgis to Benton Harbor where we were staying and in Battle Creek we hit black ice and flipped our truck,” she said.

Credit Photo provided by Joel Bissell /
The Lodge, a former Knights Inn on Westnedge Avenue.

Rodriguez got a bad knee injury. She’s still recovering. But she’s hopeful she’ll be able to return to work soon. And the family’s set to move into a four-bedroom house.

“I prayed on it, because four kids, they need something stable, and after this, this is home.”

Back at the other hotel, Angie McBride says she thinks she’s found a place for her family, an affordable home in Portage. She’s eager to get settled.

“It’s my forever, you know, it’s where I’m going to be. I don’t want to go anywhere else,” she said.

But other guests at the two hotels don’t have a place to go yet. This is a problem, because the Lodge is about to close. And it’s uncertain how long the other one can stay open. We’ll report on what’s next for those guests, in our next story tomorrow.

This story was reported in collaboration with MLive/The Kalamazoo Gazette. For more from MLive’s Ryan Boldrey, click here.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in January 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. Before that she covered a variety of topics, including environmental issues, for Bloomington, Indiana NPR and PBS affiliates WFIU and WTIU. She’s also written and produced stories for the Pacifica Network and WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Sehvilla holds a B.A. in French from Earlham College and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University.
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