2017-12-10 / Insight

‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors’ throughout year to help homeless

BY ANDREW DIETDERICH
810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com

LAPEER — Many know Project Homeless Connect through its annual event held in November that aims to help the area’s homeless.

But Ron Belcher, coordinator, says changes are on the way, starting with a new name.

Henceforth called “Neighbors Helping Neighbors,” the program also seeks to work closer with local churches, draw in more volunteers, and establish a permanent warehouse location in 2018.

The overall hope, Belcher said, is to help the area’s homeless throughout the year.

“The bottom line is if we can help one person a year, we’ve done what we’re supposed to do,” Belcher said.

Stats differ on the number of homeless in Lapeer County, especially with various agencies expanding, or considering expanding, the definition to officially include those who aren’t just living on the streets, but also living with others (i.e. “couch surfing”).

But the fact is they’re a reality for Lapeer County and Cheryl Clark, commissioner, Lapeer County, said programs like Neighbors Helping Neighbors, The Refuge, and any others that help address the situation can be beneficial.

“We have them, you just don’t see them like you do in other places,” she said. “So people don’t think we really have homeless people.”

Belcher said the number of people “affected” by the former Project Homeless Connect (now Neighbors Helping Neighbors) has remained relatively consistent for the last decade.

Simply put: The program helps individuals who are homeless, at risk of being homeless or who are low-income and in need of assistance.

Clothing, boxes of food as well as blankets and personal care items have traditionally been among the items taken in and redistributed via the program.

(The event provides information and assistance in finding housing, employment services, job assistance and much more.)

Data collected through the event also helps state-level officials understand the need for resources in the area, Belcher said.

Belcher said about 230 were “affected” via the most recent Project Homeless Connect event in November.

“Affected” is the term used, he said, because those who benefit from others seeking help through the program aren’t limited to the people who walk through the door. For example, a person might be picking up clothes and personal care items for their family.

Further, there were 60 vendors representing various organizations that “routinely supply assistance and relief to those in crisis” that stepped up to help.

In fact, that community support is what’s driven the name change of the former Project Homeless Connect.

“It’s been a project since 2007 and the more you think about and if you really look at what we do, every agency and community service in the county is in that building (during the annual event),” Belcher said. “So it’s literally neighbors helping neighbors.”

“So many people volunteering, so many people donating, and so many people coming together for this event,” he added.

For example, students from the Lapeer High School OMNI Council and members of the North Branch Middle School Student Council helped pack food boxes and load vehicles with food, water, fresh vegetables and other supplies.

The project began through a relatively small grant of $750 that was awarded by the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, which is run by the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority.

At the time, Belcher says he was working as a veterans’ representative with the state of Michigan in the four-county thumb region of the state.

“Each county started their own project, and each county did their own thing,” said Belcher.

Belcher, involved in the program from the beginning and coordinator since 2009, says for the last 10 years he’s been hauling donated clothes in a trailer that’s been stored in a two-car garage.

The new idea is to permanently locate the clothes in a warehouse.

The hope, Belcher said, is to erect a warehouse somewhere close to Love INC on M-24 in Mayfield Township, since the two organizations oftentimes share clients. With that, he said, services would not necessarily be limited to the annual event in November (originally established to help prepare people for winter).

Ideally, churches would donate $25 per quarter ($100 annually) to be a participating member in the organization. In exchange, Belcher said, participating churches would have a key to the warehouse and be able to access it on an as-needed basis to help others.

Belcher said the goal is to create a situation where “any agency, or any church, or any church member that has somebody that’s in need … that we can take care of that need right on the spot.”

“I’m concerned with what happens after the (November) event and I have been for some time,” he said, noting that available resources for homeless people can come up short, especially when demand raises in times of need — like winter.

More information about Neighbors Helping Neighbors, including donation drop-off sites and other ways to get involved with the program, can be found at homelessinlapeermi.com.

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