AUTUMN IS HER name. She’s 23 years old, a gal from Nebraska.
She arrived in Alger County a couple of years ago with her father. She hadn’t been able to get along with her mother and stepfather back home so she thought she’d give the U.P. a try with her dad. Start a new life for herself.
Didn’t work out. She and her father had their own problems. After a few months, he drove her to downtown Marquette, dropped her off outside the hospital, and told her to figure out things on her own. He drove off.
Fortunately, she had a couple of friends in town and for a while, she managed to couch-surf. But then she ran out of friends and couches.
“My friend said ‘you can’t stay here anymore,'” Autumn says. “So she helped me find the shelter.”
The shelter. As in Room at the Inn–for dinner and sleeping, and the Warming Center, for morning meals and showers.
Both agencies have run into controversy in recent months. Police, merchants and some residents say the “homeless” have become a major nuisance in town, and, they claim, Room at the Inn and the Warming Center (both run by a group of churches) are aggravating the problem by luring the homeless to Marquette.
Autumn’s story is different. In a very real sense, Room at the Inn helped to save her. There, she found a bed, some meals, a few friends, and people who cared.
“It’s like a community within a community,” she says. “There’s drama and friendships, and a lot of people just trying to get by. Some need more help than others.”
She got help–counseling from Pathways, job-searching from Michigan Works.
But she was scared, she admits it.
“I have a lot of anxiety, especially around people I don’t know,” she explains. “I just listened to my music and looked outside at the trees and the clouds, and told myself I was going to be okay.”
It got better. At the Unitarian-Universalist shelter, she ran into a teenage volunteer, Mac Halley, the son of lawyer Michelle Halley. He urged his mom to take Autumn in and help her get on her feet.
Despite some concerns, Michelle agreed. Autumn moved in with Michelle and her two children, Mac and her daughter Morgan
“At family dinners at first, she wouldn’t speak,” says Morgan. “She didn’t know what to say.”
“We never had family dinners where I came from!” Autumn interjects. “It was really strange!”
Meals back at home, she said, came from fast food bags or cans. They never ate prepared meals together around a table.
“I told her we expected her to do chores around the house, like washing dishes,” Michelle says. “She said, ‘I don’t know how to wash dishes.’ So we gave her a dishwashing lesson.”
And she got an outside job, as a hotel housekeeper. Her very first job ever. Back home, she says, her family had urged her not to bother with regular jobs, and, instead, just apply for disability.
“I was terrified my first day of work,” she says. “I was afraid I might not make it on time. Or that I wouldn’t do a good job. I thought I’d get fired.”
But she didn’t. She worked that first job for more than a year, then moved to a better job, where she’s still employed.
She now rents her own apartment in Marquette. She gets around by walking, biking or bus. She has a few friends, and a little money to spend. A normal life.
“I just want to be able to stand up on my own two feet,” she explains. “I grew up in a pretty crappy situation. So did my parents, and their parents, and their parents. I don’t want to repeat that.”
She’s no longer “homeless” but she doesn’t really care for that term anyway. “It’s just a stereotype. It’s this scruffy old dude with eight layers of clothes and hasn’t showered in eight years and has a cart that he pushes around. It’s not like that. It’s mostly people who are going through a difficult period of life or young people who have fallen through the cracks.”
That’s Autumn in a nutshell. She was falling through the cracks, but she was thrown a lifeline by Room at the Inn, the Warming Center, the Halley family, Pathways, and Michigan Works.
Are there others out on the streets who are seriously mentally ill or hopelessly addicted, and may never be able to live a normal life? And who will remain a “nuisance” to society? Absolutely. It’s something we as a society will have to grapple with.
But there are also plenty of Autumns out there. Down-on-their-luck people who just need a helping hand, a warm meal, a safe bed, a welcoming smile.
There’s a 23 year old gal from Nebraska out there who’s living proof of it.
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