By Kelsey Ronan

In a city of the unemployed and the underemployed, need runs high for compassionate and committed care of the homeless and those on the tipping point of homelessness. For 28 years, Shelter of Flint has maintained a holistic approach to housing, educating and healing the homeless . Executive Director Anne Grantner said despite the challenges of funding and increased need in the community, the organization continues its services.

Shelter of Flint has four housing programs. The emergency shelter provides accommodation and food for up to 30 days. Transitional housing provides housing for up to 24 months, until residents transition to independent living. Permanent supportive housing consists of four apartment communities in the Flint area for clients with emotional, mental or physical disabilities. Finally, Shelter of Flint provides rental assistance, advocating on the issue of landlord/tenant rights and helping clients maintain safe and affordable housing.

Funding for the Shelter comes from many places, Grantner said: state and federal grants, United Way, private donors, corporations, family trusts, the Ruth Mott Foundation and the C.S. Mott Foundation.

At all levels, service users work with case managers to meet their needs, whether setting up doctor’s appointments, interviews or providing rides and referrals.

The facility for emergency and transitional housing at 1917 Delaware houses 50-60 people on any given night and serves about 800 people a year. Half of its service users are children. The building was a gift in 1991 from the Lansing Diocese and previously served as a convent for the nuns of St. Mary’s Church.

The Shelter offers a variety of services to educate service users and prepare them for the next step in their lives. G.E.D classes are available and Grantner said many service users have gone on to local colleges.

“We provide security while they go out and better themselves,” she said. “It’s all about helping people help themselves.”

The Shelter has a nutritionist on its staff who cooks and provides training in cooking and nutrition. “Many of our clients have dietary issues and health issues. We see a lot of child obesity. Unfortunately, vegetables are a lot more expensive than mac and cheese,” Grantner explained. The Shelter has a “biggest loser”-style contest for its clients and staff and daily guided exercises. Workshops on maintaining a home—from weatherizing to managing bills—are also offered. Previous Shelter clients often return and give presentations about their lives and recovery from homelessness. “It helps affirm to others that they can make it,” Grantner said.

Programs for children include tutoring, classes in literacy, creative writing workshops and arts and crafts. The Summer Youth Program, through partnership with the Boys and Girls Club and Camp Kopneconic, teaches skills and confidence through swimming lessons, sports, and the arts.

“Kids come in and say, ‘Wow, this is the nicest place I’ve ever lived.’ It’s sad, but yay for us if we can be a spot of brightness—a place where they made a friend and didn’t have to worry. I hate that there’s homelessness but as long as there is, I want them to have the most positive experience possible,” Grantner said.

The Shelter also has a prevention program aiming to divert people on the tipping point of homelessness. Sometimes all that is standing in the way of a person and homelessness is an overdue water bill or an empty refrigerator. “There are many people on the verge of being homeless but we can keep them in their homes through Department of Human Services, the Salvation Army—many organizations. So many people are in need because of the economy. We can stabilize and make sure people stay in their homes,” Grantner said.

The highest demand, Grantner said, is single mothers with children. “Fifteen years ago, when I was a caseworker, I saw mostly single females, then moms. We don’t see many singles these days.”

Because of communal facilities, the Shelter is only able to take a limited number of men. Yet, Grantner said, the Shelter receives few calls from men, and credits the reputation of Carriage Town Ministries and My Brother’s Keeper as emergency facilities for men while the Shelter is known for its focus on women and families.

Grantner says she believes this is a reflection of the Flint community and the economic reality. When she was a case worker, Grantner said the Shelter housed 20 people a night on average. Now the average is 55, and it is not uncommon to have more than 60 people.

Grantner urges people to look beyond the stereotypes of the homelessness. “Homelessness is far-reaching,” she said. “Given the economics of today, it’s easy to be a payment or two behind and fall into this situation. We need to treat everyone with respect. Often we think of the homeless as people begging on the street, but there’s hidden homelessness—people living with friends and neighbors, children. And these people are amazingly strong. They’re survivors. That’s the underlying note of our clientele.”

“I get asked all the time if it’s sad to work here. It can be emotionally overwhelming, but you have to open your eyes and understand this. You can’t be MIA, off in another world,” Grantner said.

The holistic approach of Shelter of Flint is, to Grantner, essential. “Many of our clients have domestic violence and abuse issues. We can teach them how to live on $500 a month, but if they’re in pain and can’t grow, we’re not really improving their quality of life.”

Volunteers and donations are always greatly appreciated. Volunteers willing to help with cleaning and repairs and donations of houseshold items and personal items (bed linens, towels, pots and pans, small appliances, furniture) are especially needed. For donations drop off, contact Vanessa Morris at 239.9169, ext. 0. To volunteer, contact Gary Haggart at 238.4711 ext. 303.

© Kelsey Ronan, 2011