ALPENA — In Alpena, a well-trimmed lawn could help a homeless person find a home.
For several years, workers employed by Sunrise Mission in Alpena have cut, sprayed, threshed and tended local lawns, their work providing much needed income to the area’s only homeless shelter.
Some employees of the mission’s lawn care department also live at the shelter. Others live elsewhere in the community, and all stay busy making sure local homes and multiple employers look great, said Mission Director Barbara Mathern.
Business profits, after employee salaries and other expenses, flow directly into the shelter, Mathern said.
With utility bills to pay and residents to keep warm and safe, the lawn care business and other recent efforts to increase funding for the shelter are helping the shelter reduce the number of people living in tents or sleeping in their cars, the director said.
The Northeast Michigan Community Services Agency reports that more than 100 people are currently homeless in the agency’s 11-county service area.
A shortage of affordable housing means that even those able to afford rent may not have a place to live – and with the cold weather fast approaching, all efforts to get people into some kind of shelter are crucial, she said, explaining the urgency of the mission to remain financially strong.
“We have our finger in the dam,” Mathern said of the shelter. “And we just pray that we can do something to help.”
The mission’s lawn care program has grown locally since its launch in 2019.
“Our summer has been slammed,” said Mathern – and the coming winter is also expected to be busy, with customers showing interest in snow removal services.
After offsetting the start-up expenses of the first few years of operation, Mathern expects the lawn care business to provide a good source of revenue, aided by lawn care contracts with public schools in ‘Alpena and other companies.
With the help of a recently hired fundraising assistant, the mission recently set up an eBay store, currently featuring new coats and soon to be vintage toys, funky kitchen utensils and other desirable donated items, Mathern said.
A harvest festival at AJ’s Berry Farm on Friday, with live music, bratwurst and an auction, will serve as a fundraiser for the mission, following a flea market this summer in Alpena.
The mission owns several Alpena buildings where six apartments house tenants. Mathern said she would like to renovate more buildings into apartments, but construction costs keep it out of reach for now.
Costs are high for maintaining the mission, also on Chisholm Street, she said.
“We have 100-year-old plumbing systems. Century-old infrastructure,” Mathern said, detailing the rising utility costs and additional insurance coverage that make operating the building a financial challenge.
Housing many families, including adults and children, in its approximately 30 beds, the mission needs exponentially more household supplies than an ordinary house.
“We don’t use two rolls of paper towels a week,” Mathern said. “We use 25.”
The community supports the mission with donations when asked, but more is always needed, she said.
When new residents arrive, Mathern tells them that the mission is not like other homeless shelters they may have come across.
Residents do not have to leave during the day, but Mathern expects them to seek housing and, if able to work, employment for the 90 days they are allowed to stay.
“I tell them, ‘I’m not going to work harder than you,'” she said. “‘But I will walk by your side.'”
The mission’s goal is not just to provide beds, but to help people make lasting changes that will not only benefit the resident but also the community, Mathern said.
Space limitations, financial resources, and state laws prevent the shelter from accepting some people who request housing, but even those it cannot accommodate can get a blanket or a bowl of hot soup and help find other options, although few exist, she said.
His wish list for Alpena includes the creation of an emergency shelter, where anyone, without restriction, could get a hot supper and a bed for the night.
Only a handful of people would really need such shelter, Mathern thinks, but “when you need it, you need it,” she said.
“We’re just a little house in a little town,” Mathern said, acknowledging the mission’s limitations but wishing it could do more. “If I had the choice, as a mother bear, I would take care of anyone in need.”