Volunteer receptionist Renee Benner greets visitors as they arrive for The Strickler Nonprofit Center open house on Thursday, April 5, 2018.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Renee Benner acquired the keys to something she’s been without for over 18 months: a home. Like many people in her position however, her story of struggle begins much earlier.
Six years ago, the floors and ceiling in Benner’s 30-year-old trailer were collapsing. Local authorities, concerned about Benner’s safety, offered her a thirty day grace period to make repairs, but it wasn’t enough.
“I’m old and I can’t do everything like they wanted it done in lickety split time,” the 54-year old said.
Benner was working midnight shifts full-time as a Customer Service Manager at Walmart back then. Even though she had an income, it often wasn’t enough to make ends meet. So, between money and time constraints she simply couldn’t bring her home out of disrepair. After the grace period was up, the trailer was condemned, and Benner didn’t have enough to afford another place. With nowhere to go home to, she started started living out of her vehicle. Unfortunately, in this arrangement, she was far from alone.
According to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in 2017 48 percent of homeless individuals were staying in unsheltered locations, such as a park or a car.
“Most of the time I’d park my car in the parking lot at work, sleep all day, go to work, get out of work, and then go to the soup kitchen for breakfast,” Benner said.
Located on South Adams Street, the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen operates Monday through Saturday. The doors open at 8 a.m. for breakfast. Lunch is served later, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Since becoming homeless, Benner has been there most days for both, but says she’s been utilizing the soup kitchen’s help here and there for over eight years, since even before her trailer was condemned.
“I’d go a couple times a week to help stretch out groceries,” Benner said. “When my son was still home, there were times that we didn’t have enough so we’d go to the soup kitchen.”
Sarah Adkins, Executive Director at ICSK says the kitchen serves between ninety and one-hundred people most days. “We have a wide variety of people who utilize the service,” said Adkins. “We’re open to everyone. It’s through the generosity of the community that we can provide this service.”
Renee Benner eats lunch at the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen (ICSK) on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017Some of the other people who eat meals alongside Benner at the kitchen are homeless, too. Adkins says not everyone who receives meals at the kitchen is without a place to live though. Others they see often include people with mental disabilities or challenges, single parents, elderly residents, and CMU students with little or no income.
“We try to direct people who need more help to other resources as well,” said Adkins. “And not just food-related help, but housing, and heating assistance... clothing and supplies.”
Some of those resources are just around the corner. Two blocks away from the soup kitchen is the William and Janet Strickler Nonprofit Center, home to the Isabella County Restoration House (ICRH), Community Compassion Network (CCN), Clothing Inc., and The Care Store. All have helped Benner substantially along the way, but first she had to ask.
“Renee is an example of pride sometimes being your biggest downfall,” said Ryan Griffus, Executive Director of ICRH. “Renee wouldn’t ask, she’s proud and she’s capable. From the very minute I met Renee she’s been a mother, a big sister, an advocate, a friend, a supporter of everyone - but she never complained about her own situation.”
For many people in need, getting that initial ask out of the way is the hardest part. Benner had been living out of her car for two and a half months when she first made contact with Griffus. “I was scared out of my wits,” Benner said. “I’d never been in that situation before. And Ryan made me feel comfortable.”
Griffus’ knack for putting people at ease is bolstered by personal experience. He was homeless for a period himself when he left home at age twelve to escape an abusive father. But it’s also a culture of acceptance that is cultivated throughout the organizations operating at The Strickler Nonprofit Center. Dignity is important here.
As Benner worked with Adkins, Griffus and others to get on her feet, Clothing, Inc. provided clean clothing and shoes, while CCN’s Food Pantry provided supplementary food so she wouldn’t go hungry on the nights she had to work. The Care Store supplied products so Benner could maintain her personal hygiene.
The latter of those services can be particularly challenging for women who are living without a home. While homeless, Benner washed her clothes at the laundromat and showered at a friend’s house whenever possible.
“I’d wash up in bathrooms,” Benner said. “You learn to make do with what you can. I kept my hair short for a lot of years so that helped washing in the sink. Long hair is a bit hard.”
In February 2014, with the power of a village of helpers behind her, Benner got an apartment, but the relief didn’t last long. In the summer of 2017 Benner broke her arm and was unable to work. She quickly fell behind on rent and cashed in part of her 401k in the amount of $4,000 to catch up, but says the check never came.
“Somebody had gotten my check delivered to them by mistake and they signed the check and cashed it,” Benner said. “I cashed in extra figuring I’d pay ahead,” Benner said. “It didn’t work in that way. Somebody else got ahead and Renee got further behind.”
Benner’s landlord was understanding and tried to work with her as much as he could.
“I can’t blame him,” Benner said. “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.”
Benner says she ultimately lost her job at Walmart due to absences for illness, her broken arm, and a bee sting to her ear that resulted in hearing loss. She found another job working midnight shifts as a waitress at Legends Diner in the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort. Unfortunately, on New Year’s Eve 2017, Benner began experiencing pain and loss of function in her left arm, which she thought was a heart attack. Though it wasn’t, the problem persisted and she was unable to continue working and hasn’t been able to since.
Renee Benner admires the view from the shared balcony of her new apartment building in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018.Once again homeless and this time unable to work, Benner began looking into housing assistance.
Mt. Pleasant Housing Commission (MPHC) offers affordable housing for Mt. Pleasant residents. MPHC manages two housing sites in Mt. Pleasant: Riverview Apartments and Pheasant Run. Benner signed up with the MPHC a year ago, but had to wait until an apartment became available.
“I recertified, you renew once a year, and I responded yes I was still interested,” Benner said. “I think it was two weeks later they called and asked me if I was still interested and I said yes.”
Benner was given keys to her new apartment on November 27, 2018. The next day, she moved in with only a few personal belongings, a couch, a chair, and a cot to sleep on.
“It means a lot to have a home before the really bad weather hit,” Benner said. “Not having to be in the car dealing with the cold. I’ll still always carry blankets, food, water, a pillow, and a change of clothes in my car. That won’t change. I will probably carry that until I’m dead.”
After having been homeless off and on for six years and sleeping in her car multiple times, necessities and day to day items such as clothing, blankets, food and care items are slowly being removed from Renee Benner's car
Benner’s story highlights a pervading truth about poverty: escape isn’t linear. Most people struggling to overcome difficult circumstances go through periodic rough patches as they work towards a better future. It also demonstrates how the path to stability requires access to a wide variety of resources and support organizations along the way. Fortunately, for Benner and people like her those resources and a robust network of support organizations are available here in Isabella county. If Benner has anything to do with it, they always will be.
In April, while still homeless, Benner began volunteering as a receptionist at The Strickler Nonprofit Center.
“It gave me some place to be when I didn’t have some place to live and a chance to give back after everyone has given me so much,” Benner said.
Benner helps coordinate and manage the day-to-day flow of people coming into the center looking for resources.
“She embodies exactly what you hope for,” Griffus said. “She came in with nothing and no one, and here she is today fully supported, confident, and capable. She’s provided with what she needs and still gives back like she hopes to.”
Benner still volunteers at the center five days a week, but is taking some time to enjoy finally having a home.
“I’m so used to everything just being in a bag to just grab and go,” Benner said. “I’m so used to not getting settled that it’s going to take me a while to get settled now after all this time.”
Correction: A previous version of this story listed the United Way of Gratiot and Isabella Counties among the organizations housed at the William and Janet Strickler Nonprofit Center. The United Way is a supporter of the center, but does not have space within the building itself.