The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Officials report rural homeless less visible


December 9, 2020

Editor’s note: This is a first in a series of stories on homelessness in the region.


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Bessemer — Local leaders described a recent virtual town hall meeting on rural homelessness as “eye opening” after hearing how the problem is less visible but as significant in the smaller communities as it is in urban centers. 

The virtual town hall is a regular series that involves leadership of area cities and townships. The Nov. 24 town hall on homelessness was attended by Wakefield Mayor Dale White, Ironwood Mayor Pro Tem Kim Corcoran; Bessemer Mayor Pro Tem Terry Kryshak and host Charly Loper, Bessemer city manager. The show featured Rochelle Clemens-Ludtke, housing specialist for Gogebic and Ontonagon Community Action Agency, and Sean Flag, housing resource agent facilitating services for the Dickinson-Iron Community Services Agency.

Corcoran started the questioning by asking what are the causes of homelessness and what the situation is at this time in the western Upper Peninsula. 

Flag said there are a variety of factors that lead to homeless. It could be loss of a job, a divorce, an eviction, someone who is new to an area or recently released from jail and without a local support system, he said.

“Homelessness could be someone without a permanent residence or a roof over their head, to someone who resides in a place that is not fit for human occupancy, such as an abandoned building, a condemned facility or the back room of their employment,” Flag said. “Those are places that aren’t suitable so it’s just a different type of homelessness.”

Clemens-Ludtke said the three main causes of homelessness are the lack of affordable housing, unemployment and poverty. Anyone can be at risk of homelessness at one time or another and the pandemic has demonstrated this with the number of people on the verge of eviction as businesses shut down and people are laid off, she said.

Clemens-Ludtke added that the true causes are based on individual experiences and not so much a “cookie-cutter” definition.

“It doesn’t discriminate or care about your situation,” she said. “It’s a very real and scary situation for a lot of people including the people in our community.”

Flag said the homeless people he works with are veterans or family members of veterans who are living in vehicles, tents, campers or live temporarily with friends or family. People who live in a place with no running water or heat creates a life-threatening situation in winter, he said.

Clemens-Ludtke said the first priority are the people who don’t have access to a roof over their heads. The second group are those at-risk of being homeless. These are people without a stable place to live or a family in rental arrears and facing eviction due to loss of employment or some type of trauma such as a death of a provider, she said.

White asked the two specialists if the homeless, the young adults in particular, choose a homeless lifestyle in order to be free of obligations to “see the world” before becoming saddled with responsibilities. He asked if people were also homeless more often due to an addiction or mental illness. 

“I think it’s a myth that people choose to be homeless and within that myth it allows us to ignore the trauma of homelessness and the fact that people are living in cars and tents and trailers without heat or running water,” Clemens-Ludtke said. 

If there are no shelters then the homeless must travel out of the area to find a shelter, she said. Some people may choose to be homeless rather than lose a pet, or they remain to stay with a health care provider. They may be a non-custodial parent who doesn’t want to give up their supervised time with a child.

Some individuals are more at risk of being homeless than others, she said. Some at-risk people have a stable, natural support network of family and friends who help with rent or provide a spare bedroom. But there are others who are very much alone or it may be their only other choice is returning to an abusive relationship that could put themselves or their children in danger.

“There is not always a good choice or a good answer with some of those situations,” Clemens-Ludtke said.

Sometimes assisting the homeless might mean helping them move to another location where they have family or another more stable support system, she said.

Flag said there are clients who choose to be homeless such as an individual who prefers to summer in tents and then winter in traditional housing. 

“He doesn’t consider himself homeless,” Flag said. 

Another individual prefers to live month to month in a hotel rather than rent an apartment, he said. But those are not the typical cases, he said.

“I serve low income veterans and with their information I can match their situation to the guidelines,” Flag said. “That is the only way to find out if he can assist them.”

Substances abuse and mental health are often side effects of homelessness when people who are under great stress undergo a breakdown, Flag said. Other contributing factors to homelessness could be physical limitations that keep someone from working while they try to navigate a disability claim. 

More people are spending a larger percentage of income on housing which creates a destabilizing situation, Clemens-Ludtke said. If someone is spending more than half of their income on housing that will usually mean having to forgo other necessities that also create a risk of eviction.

Of all low income households in Gogebic and Ontonagon counties, 52% are single parent households, she said. A sudden loss of income during the pandemic in a single income home will create an at-risk situation for people living check to check.

Corcoran asked how rural homelessness is different from urban homelessness.

Rural homelessness is often overlooked because it’s not as visual as urban homelessness where individuals come and go from the shelters or they are sleeping in parks or at the beach, Clemens-Ludtke said. The rural homeless are often sleeping in cars, campers, tents or with relatives and friends. The rent is cheaper in rural areas but workers tend to be paid less and there is less affordable housing and longer distances to resources and support.

“The reality is that rural areas experience greater levels of poverty than urban areas per capita,” Clemens-Ludtke said. “Periods of unemployment are longer, job opportunities are fewer and wages are lower.”

The Community Action housing program assisted 150 people in 2019 and 203 people in 2020. The difference was that more people were at-risk of eviction due to loss of income related to the coronavirus pandemic, she said. 

There were more funds to assist people this year due to federal grants related to COVID-19 relief. Around 100 people received assistance through the governor’s eviction diversion problem that provided $110,000 in grant dollars for Gogebic and Ontonagon counties.

Flag said rural homelessness provides its own challenges with fewer services, a lack of jobs and affordable housing. Veterans have been able to avoid homelessness with assistance to remain in their current housing until they find gainful employment. 

“There are options there. There are resources there,” Flag said. “But the rural areas always present more challenges with finding housing than in the cities.”

The cost of groceries have gone up and parents are having to maintain expensive internet costs for kids who are attending school online during pandemic shutdowns, she said. 


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