Renee Benner is no stranger to sleeping in her car.
Homeless for the second time, the 53-year-old from Shepherd, Michigan hit hard times starting five years ago when the trailer that she owned was condemned.
The ceiling and floors were collapsing in the 30-year-old trailer that Benner owned.
“I’m old and I can’t do everything like they wanted it done in lickety split time,” said Benner. “We just could not get it up to code in the time frame they gave us. When they condemned it, where do you go? It’s November.”
After losing her home Benner lived in her car and continued working her midnight shifts as a Customer Service Manager for Walmart.
“I was still working full-time,” said Benner. “I’d most of the time park my car in the parking lot at work, sleep all day, get up, get ready for work, go into work, get out of work, and then go to the soup kitchen for breakfast.”
Benner said she didn’t worry too much about where she parked to sleep though she said others have complained that police kick them out at night.
“I’ve slept in Mill Pond Park, one of the worst parks there is in this town,” said Benner. “I’ve slept there overnight and cops never disturbed me. They do at other parks because the homeless are not allowed there. The other parks close at 8 at night so they have to kick you out of them. I think the difference is they’re sleeping at night whereas I’m sleeping during the day.”
Benner continued that routine for two and a half months until she started going to the Isabella County Restoration House (ICRH) just before Christmas in 2013. She stayed at the shelter and continued working until she found an apartment in February of 2014.
The ICRH, located at 1114 W. High Street in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, provides temporary shelter and assistance to those in need in Isabella County. It is a rotational shelter and local churches provide shelter overnight and the churches where guests stay changes week to week.
“The first day I was scared out of my wits, I’d never been in that situation before. And Ryan made me feel comfortable,” said Benner.
Ryan Griffus is the Executive Director at the ICRH and has experienced the struggle of living homeless firsthand. He fled from his abusive father at age 12 and was homeless until he was 18 years old.
“My biological father was a monster,” said Griffus. “He was an addict, as violent as they come. There were a lot of events preceding my leaving that made me go, but one particular week, my fifth fistfight with him that week was my sign that I had to go. I packed up a garbage bag and I bolted.”
Griffus said his experiences motivated him to pursue a double major in child development and psychology from Central Michigan University. He later went on to study management at Davenport University.
“There was no way I was going to let what I had walked through for those years left in vain and not utilize that experience,” said Griffus.
“I felt limited so I decided to go get a grad degree. I chose business because I wanted to learn how I could affect a community and the population I care so deeply about on a more macro level,” said Griffus. “It was a perfect storm because all of a sudden the homeless shelter needed an executive director, all the things fell in to place.”
The 2016 U.S. Census Bureau reports that in Isabella County, 23.4% of the 71,282 residents are living in poverty.
Griffus says the night shelter currently has 33 mats, which are essentially foldable mattresses that the overnight guests sleep on. Recently ICRH was awarded a grant for $2,000 that Griffus said will go toward ordering new mats to replace the old ones.
“We have some that are still in pretty decent shape, but they’ve been around for five years and they’re just beat up,” said Griffus. “They’re pretty pricey so that $2,000 I’ll probably use on 15 to 16 mats.”
Griffus said the shelter prefers using mats rather than cots because cots are problematic.
“When we first started this we considered cots and cots were a logistical nightmare,” said Griffus. “We talked with other shelters, visited other sites and talked about what worked good and what didn’t. Cots broke down a lot faster and were replaced constantly. It just wasn’t feasible as far as moving and storing either so we elected to go with the mats that are pretty heavy duty, but they take a beating. If you’re moved every week, you’re slept on every night, you’re going to get worn out.”
Benner says her typical day when she hasn’t been working the night before begins at the overnight shelter.
Guests are woken up at 7 a.m. at the overnight shelter and the bus leaves for the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen (ICSK) at 8 a.m. Benner said the churches feed some sort of breakfast ranging from an entire spread to just breakfast snacks such as doughnuts.
The soup kitchen opens at 8 a.m. and guests can either stay there until the ICRH day shelter opens at 1 p.m. or go wherever they would like at that point.
Computers were recently donated to the day shelter so guests can use the computers to apply and check on job applications, check email, or just keep in touch with friends and family. There are volunteers there throughout the day that are able to assist.
“It’s so important for me the interpersonal care that we’re able to provide and I love that about our organization because you actually get to feel like you’re cared for,” said Griffus. “Then we start hitting the areas of need and services, but first and foremost we just got to love and welcome.”
Nighttime intake, or sign up for those who will be staying overnight at the shelter, begins at the day shelter at 4:30 p.m. and the bus comes to the ICRH between 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. to take the overnight guests to the church. Once they arrive at the church, the guests are not allowed to leave, unless they have permission like Benner for work reasons. This excludes chaperoned smoke breaks. The churches provide dinner for the overnight guests at around 7 p.m. and require lights out at 10 p.m.
During the summer of 2017 Benner found herself in hard times again when she broke her arm and was unable to work. Unable to pay rent, Benner decided to cash in $4,000 of her 401k, but she never received the check.
“There was nothing I could do to catch up. Somebody had gotten my check delivered to them by mistake instead of me and they signed the check and cashed it,” said Benner. “I took six months trying to track it down and they finally told me there was nothing they could do. I cashed in extra figuring I’d pay ahead. Well it didn’t work in that way. It worked in the way that somebody else got ahead and Renee got further behind.”
Benner appreciated her landlord who worked with her for as long as he could while she was unable to pay rent and attempted to track down her stolen check.
“I can’t blame him,” said Benner. “I mean six months with no money, what was he supposed to do? He didn’t evict me but he couldn’t keep letting me stay. I was paying rent but it wasn’t never going to get caught up. I hold no grudges against him. He could have taken me to court during all of this time, it’s been four months. He hasn’t. Sooner or later he’s going to want all of it, nothing I can do, I pay what I can. It isn’t much, but I pay what I can.”
Benner now works midnight shifts as a waitress at Legends Diner in Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and has been there for just under four months. She lost her job at Walmart due to absences which accumulated because of illness, her broken arm, and hearing loss due to a bee sting to her ear.
The schedule of the rotational shelter is hard on Benner because she works midnights.
“It’s hard on the nights I work because unless I sleep in my car, most of the time I don’t get sleep,” said Benner. “Once in a while I can find someplace to curl up and sleep.”
The building for the day shelter has couches, but there are no beds available for Benner to sleep. It is rented from Victory Church on a 3-year lease and they share it with other organizations such as United Way, Clothing, Inc., and The Care Center. Guests who come in to the restoration house and have need for hygiene products can find assistance at The Care Center and if they need clothing or a new pair of shoes Clothing, Inc. can assist them—all under the same roof.
“For the past two or three years we had been talking about what it would look like if we had the opportunity for all of us who deal with similar missions to not work in these silos anymore, you do this over here and you do this at that building,” said Griffus. “Last year I’d come in at intake, ask everybody what they need for clothing, take down these lists, drive down to the clothing closet across town, fill bags and bags of clothes and deliver them. It was labor intensive and cumbersome. That’s one example of how the creation of the center we have is so efficient. You get somebody in who has multiple needs and we can start to chip away within minutes we are addressing very emergent needs. What’s good about that is that it takes that initial worry off of the person who’s coming in, which is the most important, it makes them feel comfortable and cared for immediately, but also frees up our staff to be able to do different things now.”
Griffus said he would love to have a permanent shelter and rotate volunteers rather than buildings.
“When we were researching what it would take to a community of this scale, it is about a quarter of a million dollars a year,” said Griffus. “Currently we are operating at about $117,000 budget per year for this. Some work to be done.”
As for Benner, she has an interview with EightCAP, Inc. on Tuesday, Dec. 4 to see about getting assistance for housing. EightCAP provides a variety of services for those in need, and housing for the homeless is one of them.
Benner said she was put at the top of the list because they prioritize housing assistance for those that are homeless, but it normally could be a five-year wait. She will find out during her interview if they will pay for a portion or all of the housing and will likely be in a home again within a few weeks.