For+the+Homeless


Open Door’s men’s crisis shelter and soup kitchen in downtown Midland
Thumbnail photo by Marya; banner courtesy of Open Door
Article by John Palen

With homelessness on the rise in Midland County, a volunteer organization offers a place to sleep and a meal when there’s no place else to go.

Open Door Ministries, which shelters homeless men in Downtown Midland and homeless women and children at an undisclosed location, provided more than 11,000 nights of crisis housing in 2009.

Hot, wholesome meals are available at the soup kitchen six days a week, Monday through Saturday from noon to 1:30 pm. The Open Door served more than 45,000 meals in 2009.

The idea is simple, says Kitchen Coordinator Sue LaBean. “Somebody has to take care of those people who need help. People need a shelter and food.”

With Midland County homeless counts up 50 percent from three years ago, more and more people are showing up at the non-denominational Christian ministry, putting strains on resources.

House of Mercy, the women’s shelter, turns away women almost daily, referring them to shelters in Bay City and Saginaw. Open Door men's crisis shelter at 412 W. Buttles St. is often full, with cots pulled out to handle the overflow. A nearby men’s “restoration house” for longer-term transitional housing is at capacity.

Asked what Open Door needs to continue its work, LaBean didn’t have to search for answers. “We need a bigger women’s house and a bigger restoration house,” she said. “And we need money to finance operations.”

Finances have improved lately, LaBean said, but a year ago the ministry was only a month away from scraping bottom on expenses. “Last August we had to go public, and the community really responded,” LaBean said.

Everyone who works at Open Door Ministries is a volunteer, including LaBean and resident advisers. It takes 500 to 800 volunteer hours a week to run the ministry.

Open Door started 35 years ago when a local church member began visiting jail inmates. Others joined him and soon set up a coffee house in the basement of Shorty’s Pool Hall on Main Street. “People could go for Christian fellowship, a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup,” LaBean said.

Eventually the need for a crisis shelter became clear, she said, and local churches formed an organization to provide one. A women’s shelter was the next expansion, then a clothing ministry. The latest program expansion was a restoration ministry for men and women who are “committed to changing the things in their life that brought them to where they are,” LaBean said.

Although new programs were added, no older ministries were dropped. Volunteers, for example, still visit the Midland County jail, as well as prisons at Freeland and St. Louis.

The crisis shelter on Buttles Street is open at 6pm for walk-ins to stay the night. They have a room and can leave their belongings, but are expected to be out looking for work during the day, with a break for lunch in the soup kitchen. They can stay as long as 30 days, LaBean said, “except anybody making an effort can stay longer.”

The crisis shelter gives some the foothold they need to reestablish themselves. LaBean recalled one woman whose husband lost his job with a local corporation. With the job went two cars and a nice house. “His wife was left with no car, no home, and eight children,” LaBean said.

Shelter volunteers worked with the City of Midland to place the woman and her children in a house she could afford. Now she’s in school and working part-time. “She did nothing wrong and still became homeless,” LaBean said.

With some others, however, the day’s mission is accomplished if the homeless are fed and housed for another night. Open Door has “shelter hoppers,” LaBean said, men who will stay 30 days then move on to shelters in Saginaw or Bay City.

“You’ve got to have a Christian outlook and a certain amount of patience,” said LaBean, who worked for 13 years certifying charity grants and conducting site visits for Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church before she got involved at the Open Door.

“You’ve also got to know where the line is,” LaBean said. Open Door does not tolerate foul language, violence or being on the property under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The picture is different at House of Mercy, where women are pre-screened and restoration and crisis housing are provided in the same facility. Women stay at House of Mercy five to eight months, LaBean said, noting that it’s more difficult for women to find a job.

The soup kitchen demographics have changed in the last four years. In the past clients came daily and the volunteers formed personal relationships with them. The number of meals served has increased about 11 percent with many new faces daily and an increase in young men between 18 and 25. LaBean attributes the change to large-scale demolition of low cost housing in the downtown area.

“Part of it is that many of our regulars don’t live down here anymore,” LaBean said. "Some people were here to eat lunch at the soup kitchen six days a week. Now they have to get here on a bike, walking or if they can afford it Dial-a-Ride, so they have to choose when and how often to come to the soup kitchen .”

Another change is that offers of part-time jobs for the homeless—shoveling snow, raking lawns—have dried up during the recession. “We seldom get a call anymore,” LaBean said.

Open Door Ministries is a non-profit corporation, managed by a volunteer board of directors. It specifically links its activities to Jesus’ ministry to the poor, the hungry, and outcasts of society.

“Some of our biggest success stories have come when people have gotten connected with a church,” LaBean said. “We don’t care which church. We’re non-denominational.”

More information is available at the ministry’s Website The Open Door.

© John Palen, 2011