As the need for shelter rises and temps drop, Kalamazoo's drop-in center plans to remain flexible

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to homelessness. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and LISC.

On a recent afternoon, a young woman on a bike lingered outside Kalamazoo’s oldest adult day shelter, unconcerned with her hair or her outfit or the awkward way she pedaled away balancing her backpack bulging with belongings. She had new supplies provided by Ministry With Community.
 
Kelly Henderson is executive director of Ministry With Community.A somber-looking young man with dreadlocks said nothing as he grabbed a take-out lunch at the rear door of the day shelter and resource center. He swept aside his hair and joined a group of others at a picnic table just outside Ministry With Community’s 500 N. Edwards St. building. He seemed to find new energy.
 
That same day, an older man exited the center and headed to his weather-beaten pickup truck. Stuffed with blankets, carpet remnants, plastic milk crates, and other items, the full-sized truck didn’t look quite full-sized anymore. The man waved to others as he climbed inside. He seemed to have new direction.
 
“We’re meeting people where they’re at,” says Kelly Henderson, Executive Director of Ministry With Community, a 44-year-old resource center and day shelter whose mission is “to empower people to make positive life changes.”
 
It helps lots of people who are unhoused. And Henderson says Ministry With Community is seeing more working people who are struggling to put food on the table. The number of people of all kinds who need help is rising.
 
“The price of eggs, the price of milk, it has all gone up,” she says. “It’s tougher to find items and when you’re stretching dollars, you’re looking for food.”
 
The mission of Ministry with Community is to empower people to make positive life changes. It is a daytime shelter and resource center at 500 N. Edwards St. in downtown Kalamazoo.She says that means more people have to ask themselves, “‘Do I buy the food? Or do I pay my rent? Do I wash my clothes? Or do I pay my rent?”’
 
So more of them are finding their way to Ministry With Community’s 25,000-square-foot location on the north side of downtown Kalamazoo, a stone’s throw from Shakespeare’s Pub and other popular downtown entertainment spots.
 
Ministry With Community provides free take-out-style breakfasts and lunches to anyone in need, 365 days a year. Since spring, it has seen an uptick in the number of people coming for breakfasts and lunches. It is serving about 500 free meals a day. That is a jump from about 350 meals provided before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And from June through September of this year, its staff provided a total of 51,173 meals, up 63 percent from 31,440 during the same months of 2021.
 
“It is folks experiencing true, real homelessness,” Henderson says. And it’s also “people who might be couch-surfing, staying with friends or family. It’s also working families, working folks.” 
 
The day center's 35-member staff works with a team of volunteers and visiting medical and social work professionals to offer a range of services to people in need, without passing judgment. “There’s so much that happens here,” Henderson says. 
 
Ministry With Community provides more than 300 meals per day -- breakfasts and lunches. Man are provided to-go.The nonprofit organization offers basic services, which include free breakfast and lunch, mail services (incoming and outgoing), laundry, public phones, (and) public restrooms. Social work and peer support services include employment assistance, substance abuse recovery support, housing assistance, and help with securing birth certificates, state ID, birth certificates, and other vital records. Other agencies are also welcomed on-site to provide services.
 
During the first week of December, Ministry With Community will conduct its annual “underwear party” to collect warm winter clothing such as hats, gloves, scarves, underwear, and thermals.
 
In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the organization allows no more than 100 people inside at any time. That inspires a line at the door when the place opens at 6:30 a.m., even on an unseasonably warm week in November. It also is a cause of concern, as longer lines can be anticipated when the temperature drops this winter.
 
But the organization plans to manage those challenges by remaining flexible and by helping people find resources that may be available from other sources.
 
“It’s pretty optimistic,” Henderson says. “… Ministry With Community has been in Kalamazoo since 1978. This is not our first Michigan winter. The folks that we serve, for some of them this is their first time experiencing homelessness during the winter months. The pandemic has exacerbated a lot of situations for folks. But it’s a really resilient community (in Kalamazoo) and there’s a lot of resource-sharing, a lot of conversation, and helping each other. It’s a powerful community. So I’m always optimistic.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.