A place to call home

By Kali Jo Wolkow

Haven House celebrates 30 years of helping Lansing’s homeless

It’s a warm summer afternoon and all is quiet at Haven House. The rush to get in the doors has subsided at the East Lansing homeless shelter for one- and two-parent families. All vacancies have been filled and residents are out on their daily search for houses.

However, down the hall in a conference room lined with storage boxes sits José, a former resident who is in the Partners in Progress program. It assists Haven House residents with the transition into their new homes.

“I moved out from here on Feb. 14,” he said. “That was my Valentine’s gift.”

You’d probably never guess that the cheerful, middle-aged man in the red t-shirt had been homeless only months before. His dependence on his black walking stick is the only indicator that life hasn’t made his smile easy.

Two-and-a-half years ago, José, who asked to not have his last name used, had a stroke. He was left with a mound of medical bills and expectations to complete months of physical and speech therapy with no means to pay for it.

For a while, his former boss helped pay his bills and his brother gave him a temporary place to stay. But their generosity could only last so long. José couldn’t work. Although his three youngest children were able to stay with their mother, he had his two oldest boys to support.

Which is how he ended up at Haven House, the only shelter in the Lansing area that would allow him and his 14- and 16-year-old boys to stay together as a family.

Haven House Director Angie Mayeaux said that because of safety issues, boys older than 12 are typically not allowed in shelters that have women and children, which makes getting into Haven House even more important for some families.

“If I didn’t have kids, they were gonna take me,” José said, referring to a local adult shelter. “But I said, ‘I got two boys. What am I supposed to do with ‘em?’ And all they would say was: ‘Sorry, we can’t take them, just you.’”

Although José and his sons were able to get into Haven House, many aren’t. It’s not just because Haven House lacks the space: It doesn’t have the funds to help families transition into other housing as quickly as it can keep up with the number of families trying to get into the shelter every week.

Donations are spread over a large arena of services and supplies. Beyond just housing, Haven House offers families personal items such as blankets and toothpaste, three daily meals, bus tokens for house hunting and parenting workshops. Birthday parties are celebrated; children have a playroom and a playground. The new jungle gym — the result of a local Eagle Scout’s donation — is Haven House’s newest addition.

Improvements to the housing and programs have continued since Haven House’s earliest beginnings 30 years ago on M.A.C. Avenue. Having been transplanted to a newer, larger building on Whitehills Drive, it has seven rooms that can house 28 people, 16 more than its old location. Haven House sees approximately 150 families come through its doors each year, although the number fluctuates in direct proportion to the funds available. Last year, its budget was about $600,000.

In recent years, the duration of residents’ stays has decreased from approximately 30 days to somewhere closer to two weeks. Since half of the annual budget depends on community support, the number of families that can be helped by Haven House is restricted by the amount of funds raised and the number of grants received. On average, the other half of funding comes from grants.

Meghan Rhoades, Haven House’s traditional housing coordinator, said it also pays for families’ security deposits and helps with the first month’s rent in their new home. Then, for six to 12 months after leaving Haven House, families receive monthly money management practices. They also receive assistance with purchasing any cleaning or personal items that aren’t covered by food stamps.

“The whole point is to get them in affordable, permanent housing,” she said.

In 1983, a group of East Lansing residents had the same goal: to help Lansing’s homeless acquire the skills necessary for being financially stable, self-sufficient individuals ready to make their houses permanent.

“The goal has always been in finding rehousing for families,” Mayeaux said. “We have continued to grow our programs that support families while they are here and after they are gone.”

Those who work at Haven House help make this happen by providing those in need with more than just personal amenities. They do this by forcing residents to make a change and to work toward a worthwhile goal.

“You’re in this situation,” José said. “You have to do what you got to do. They made us go out in snow, rain, blizzards. But how else you gonna get it if you don’t look for it?

“If you want something, you have to go get it. And you have people here to help you out.”

“30 for 30” campaign

As part of Haven House’s 30th anniversary, a year-long fundraiser allows donors to contribute $30 a month for 30 months. Proceeds go toward upkeep and improvements at the shelter, including new flooring, waterproofing and fencing.

Donate online at havenhouseel.org