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Locals: Help for the homeless

Carlos Backstrom cuts a birthday cake at the Mission of Hope homeless shelter as Gene Perkins and Archie McClain (seated) look on. In the background, from left, are ALisa Griel, Jan Pasteiner and Jordan Spear, members of Lakeview Community Church. Photo by Susan Bromley. (click for larger version)
February 02, 2011 - Jan Pasteiner kneels down next to a black tarp covered structure about six feet long and three feet high under a towering pine tree in Flint on a recent Friday morning. What the tarp covers is impossible to tell to a casual observer, but the Ortonville resident knows.

"Alan? This is Jan. Are you in there? Can you hear me?" asks Pasteiner. "Alan? Are you OK?"

A voice, just barely audible above the wind and sound of city traffic, responds, "I'm here, I'm OK."

Pasteiner asks if he is warm, if he has his boots on. It is 9:30 a.m., Jan. 21, and the temperature is a frigid 7 degrees, minus 6 degrees with the wind chill. She asks if there is anything she can do for him or anything he needs. She tells him she is leaving some things for him and sets a bag of food outside the tarp. Nearby is a package wrapped in festive red Christmas paper, and a camping chair.

As she walks away, Pasteiner points out boot tracks in the snow.

"He has been out today," she says to her companions, Alisa Griel and Jordan Spear. All are members of Lakeview Community Church in Goodrich.

Alan has lived on this empty city lot for at least the past two years, maybe longer. Pasteiner has been coming to visit him every Friday since last spring, always accompanied by another churchmember or friend. She brings Alan a weekly care package, and, she prays, hope.

The members of Lakeview Community Church adopted three homeless men last year after they assisted in the Point in Time count in Genesee County. The count attempts to discover how many homeless there are on a given night and is used to determine state and federal funding. This year's count was Jan. 26 and Lakeview was a host site.

After the 2010 count, churchmembers brainstormed on what else they could do to help.

"We could throw money at the situation, but that's not enough for us," said Pasteiner. "We wanted to do something personal. We wanted to find out what they needed and connect with them on a more emotional level. We wanted to let them know someone out there cares."

Alan was one of the men the church "adopted," along with a man who is now being assisted by another church, and Dan, whom they helped to get a new bicycle to get to his job. Dan spends time at the Mission of Hope North, a daytime warming shelter in Flint, which the Lakeview members also go to every Friday.

Today—after visiting Alan— Pasteiner, Griel, and Spear travel to Mission of Hope, a plain, cement-block building that was formerly a doctor's office. Standing outside on the steps are two men, smoking. They smile as the churchmembers unload fruit and other items from Pasteiner's vehicle.

"You were waiting for us, weren't you?" asks Pasteiner. The men laugh and nod.

Inside the shelter, men are seated on couches that are covered with sheets. A few watch a courtroom show on the television in the corner, another man sleeps while sitting up, yet another reads the newspaper.

More men sit at a table where Pasteiner places a birthday cake she has made for those at the shelter with January birthdays. She has also brought several envelopes that contain $5 McDonald's gift cards, as well as birthday messages printed on paper with balloons on the borders and signed "Your Family at Lakeview Community Church."

This is the first time the Lakeview group has brought birthday gifts, but a month ago, they came bearing 20 Christmas presents, boxes wrapped and filled with fruit and clothes and blankets for the men who were at the shelter Christmas Eve.

"One of the men said, 'There really is a Santa Claus,'" recalls Griel. "They are so grateful. They seem like they have no family and it's nice to let them know they're not forgotten and someone out there does care."

Pastor Bobby Jackson founded Mission of Hope nearly two years ago.

"There is no work in Flint anyway, so I started working for the Lord," laughs the big man with the friendly smile. Then, more seriously: "To me, this is what Christians are all about— reaching out to help one another."

Mission of Hope is a daytime warming shelter, open from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, a place, Jackson says, where people can "just sit and be." Indeed, a flyer for the shelter advertises "Whether you are hungry, in need of a shower, or just some place to go to during the day, Mission of Hope is just the place for you!!! No one should ever be without some place to go."

The shelter is more than just "some place to go," however. In addition to offering meals and showers, the shelter has a washer and dryer, a church sanctuary in the basement where services are offered once a week, a library room, and offers counseling, tutoring, work opportunities, and more.

Jackson said 68 people are currently using the shelter as a mailing address, and the facility had 777 visits in November alone.

"We see 30-40 people per day," he said. "Thirty-three percent of the homeless are mentally ill, and 30 percent of the homeless are substance abusers. Fifteen percent are women. Veterans are a disproportionate percentage... We accept people unconditionally."

Carlos Backstrom, 29, has been coming to the shelter since it opened. He has a house in Flint, but no heat, electricity, water or phone. His utilities were shut off and he says the furnace and hot water heater are no good, anyway. He was working, but it was seasonal employment and he was laid off three months ago.

"I get food stamps, but it's really not enough," said Backstrom. "It helps me eat throughout the month, but I can't keep up with my property taxes. When I worked, I had no problem paying my bills, but now I'm unemployed and it's a heavy burden."

Backstrom, who sleeps at an overnight shelter, has an 8-year-old daughter who lives with her mother. He visits with her at his sister's home. He won't ask to stay with his sister, however, or any other family.

"I have relatives, but I'm grown and don't want to put weight on anybody," he said. "I'll stay put at the shelter... I've been job searching and trying to find reliable transportation. My day here goes by pretty good. I get to watch tv and stay warm. It's too cold to be outside. You freeze to death."

De'Angelo Adams, 41, has also been coming to Mission of Hope since it opened. He has a friend's home he goes to at night. Like Backstrom, he has a house, but no utilities. He is also struggling to pay the property taxes.

"I want to knock these bills down, raise my three boys and my girl and let them know they have a Daddy," said Adams. "I'm not trying to get rich, I just want to be comfortable."

Adams has two sets of twins, ages 10 and 8, who live with their mother in Florida. He hasn't seen them since 2004. He speaks to them by phone at the holidays and his children ask when they are coming to Michigan to see him.

Adams is trying to "get it together," but he struggles to find employment, especially in light of a past in which he used and sold drugs. He is a convicted felon, but said when he became a father, he changed his life around.

"I was the only one in prison who admitted I should be there," he says now. "There wasn't anyone who did this to me, I did it to myself."

Both he and Backstrom are grateful for the Mission of Hope shelter and for churchmembers like Pasteiner, Griel and Spear who visit and show they care.

"It means we're not forgotten," said Adams. "They come in to help, but we're helping them as well. A lot of churches come through here and learn you can't judge a book by its cover."

Patty Schulze, a Groveland Township resident and Lakeview Community Church member and volunteer, says it is not for them to judge.

"The Bible says we are to go out and help," she said. "I have learned how blessed I am and to not take for granted the next meal on your table or the shoes or your feet, water to drink, clothes on your back. The things we all take for granted."

Spear, 18, also notes how lucky he is and was surprised by what he saw at the shelter and when he went with Pasteiner to where Alan lives.

"I learned that people who live within 10 minutes of me are like people I thought were only overseas— people who don't have anything," he said. "I thought those kind of people were far away, but they are close. These are people I can help."

Jackson said visits like the ones by members of the Lakeview Community Church are great, because they show the shelter visitors that people are all the same, no matter their race or ethnicity.

"We all have hopes, dreams, aspirations," he said.

Jackson also takes the homeless on "field trips." They visited Goodrich to attend a pig roast at Lakeview Community Church and have also gone to a Tigers game. They are currently planning a trip to see a Detroit Pistons game.

"It's important to acclimate them into society," said Jackson. "It's better to give them socialization, show them another way.... People think of the homeless as shiftless, or that they don't want to work, but we ask for them to help and they volunteer."

Jackson keeps track of the amount of people who use the shelter's facilities and services, but out of all his statistics, he is most proud of the number of volunteer hours contributed by those who come to Mission of Hope. They seek help, but they also give back. Many of those volunteer hours are spent working in the large vegetable gardens the shelter maintains— one on a lot next to the building, another on a lot around the corner from the facility.

When the Lakeview Community Church members leave the shelter, David Alston hugs Pasteiner.

"I think she's a blessing," he says simply. "She comes and brings us stuff. She is encouraging to us and a blessing."

They say goodbye and Pasteiner drives back to where Alan is, bringing a cup of hot soup. This time when she calls his name, there is no answer. The tarp is loosened around what are large cardboard boxes underneath. Alan is out somewhere.

Pasteiner notes that Alan never asks for anything. In fact, he barely speaks, answering questions with mostly 'yes' or 'no.' It took a month of visits for him to do even that. Sometimes, she said, his speech is garbled. She tries to have a conversation with him, whether it makes sense or not, noting that everyone needs some form of communication and socialization. She has invited him to her home for dinner and he declines. Pasteiner and others have tried to get him to go to a shelter, to no avail.

"Is he content the way he is?" she wonders. "That's what I can't wrap my mind around... I just feel like we all need each other, our lives are all intertwined. If I am the only person these people have to show them that someone cares, that it doesn't matter what mistakes they've made, or what they've done, I will be that person. We all need one person to care, whether they know us or not."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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