Special Report: Living Life Homeless in Traverse City

A harsh reality of homelessness is it really can happen to anyone.

Homelessness affects more people than you may realize, right in our own communities.

Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan says there are more than 600 people experiencing homelessness in the five county region they serve.

In this special report, 9&10’s Caroline Powers and photojournalist Jeremy Erickson found out how some are able to get back on their feet.

“He would sit there and go, ‘well are you ready to go home?’ and I’m like, ‘oh, home’. I had to get used to that word again, it has been so long. It just felt so good,” says Laurie Koelsch.

Home–a place many take for granted.

But hundreds of people in Traverse City long for a place they can call home.

“You know we are all the same. We’re just trying to get into tomorrow to follow that star called home, and many of the people that are on the street are smart, they’re bright, some have lost their way, many just don’t know where to go next, what to do next.”  

Randy Parcher and Laurie Koelsch know what it’s like to experience homelessness.

For nearly eight years they lived out of their van.

“At that point, I realized my odds of getting a job went from zero to none because I became known as a homeless person. And I had a person actually come up to me who knew me for over ten years and said ‘you’re homeless? I never knew you were homeless’,” says Randy.

Randy and Laurie found a way to turn their experience on the street into a chance to reach out to others.

“Writing for the Speak Up Zine it gave me an inside voice that I didn’t know I had, and to try to teach these people what it’s like to be out there so they know we’re just not people with other stigmas and we’re just fun people to be around like everybody else,” explains Laurie.

It’s the stigmas surrounding homelessness that make ending it difficult for many.

“A lot of people think people experiencing homelessness is the typical drunk on the corner who is dirty, or someone who’s lazy and doesn’t want help. But through all my years of working Street Outreach, I’ve never met one person that wanted to be experiencing homelessness on the street,” says Goodwill Street Outreach Coordinator Ryan Hannon.

The Goodwill says each night at least 100 people can be found on the streets experiencing homelessness, and that number includes young children, making it a challenge for people trying to respond to the issue.

“It seems the more people we get off the streets, the more people end up on the street,” says Ryan. “Quite often when people fall into homelessness for the very first time, they don’t know what to expect so it takes a unique approach to reach out to people experiencing homelessness and let them know what the resources are and convince them it’s OK to use them.”

Goodwill says in order to help people get back on their feet, their services don’t end right away.

“Once they get into housing, we continue to follow them and provide supports to them to build upon their strengths, to connect them to resources, work, education, budgeting, utilizing our community partners,” explains Cindy Eveleigh, Goodwill housing services coordinator. “Positive things that we see is the smile on their face when they receive the key to their home, the satisfaction that they get to be able to put that key in their door and call that their own place.”

By using Goodwill services, Randy and Laurie were able to move into their apartment in December.

And they continue to educate the community through a new children’s activity book.

“Hopefully a way to bring an understanding to children that not everyone has a safe place to sleep. As the average age of a homeless person is 9 years old, I think it’s important that this point is brought about, that not everybody has a safe place to sleep,” says Randy.

But not everyone experiencing homelessness has a story like Randy and Laurie.

There are still a lot of people in the community who need help.

“Homelessness really is an issue that can be solved. It’s not a condition of a person,” says Ryan.

Randy’s activity book, “Understanding Homelessness: Where Will Teddy Sleep” is being sold at several Traverse City stores like Gallery Fifty and Horizon Books.

A GoFundMe page has also been set up to help raise money for publishing.