For many community members, 2020 is synonymous with COVID lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. From March through June, Michiganders only left home for essential items in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

However, a shelter-in-place order is incredibly hard to follow if someone doesn’t have a shelter to go to. This was the reality for many of the people in Calhoun County who were already experiencing homelessness before the pandemic hit. As more and more community members became aware of this struggle, it became clear that something needed to be done.

That’s where the Homeless Day Shelter Task Force comes in.

Exterior view of the new Homeless Day Shelter

The Need for a Low-Barrier Day Shelter

Before the Day Shelter Task Force was formed, Calhoun County had few options for people experiencing homelessness—they could visit a night shelter, or they could stay in a high-barrier day shelter.

A night shelter is a place where people experiencing homelessness can sleep, but they often don’t open until the evening, and they close in the morning. In most cases, patrons must leave the shelter for the better part of the day and can only return at night. These shelters are very helpful for people who need a safe place to sleep, but they cannot offer services throughout the day.

Unlike night shelters, high-barrier day shelters allow their participants to stay throughout the day. However, high-barrier shelters (also known as abstinence-based or “dry” shelters) require guests to match a series of requirements. Those criteria often include abstaining from alcohol and illegal substances, actively attending addiction counseling, actively searching for employment, and other specifics based on the individual shelter.

Back in 2020, there was no low-barrier day shelter for people to turn to in Calhoun County. A low-barrier day shelter offers space to anyone, regardless of employment status, substance use, etc. Additionally, it’s somewhere people can stay throughout the day, as opposed to needing to vacate during certain hours.

COVID’s Impact on Homelessness

Shower facilities at the new Homeless Day Shelter

As the pandemic and lockdowns continued, more and more people were losing their jobs and their homes across the country. That meant there was an increased focus across the nation on homelessness.

As people saw the impacts layoffs had on their own families, they began to become increasingly aware of how rampant homelessness is in practically every community. In fact, the unemployment rate in Calhoun County reached an all-time-high of 24.2% in April of 2020, just one month after the first lockdown. As fears rose about the future of housing, community members began to realize how desperately Calhoun County needed a low-barrier day shelter—and how it had needed it for years.

The Homeless Day Shelter Task Force

Once the need for a low-barrier day shelter was established and communicated, community members and organizations came in droves to help. The newly formed Homeless Day Shelter Task Force took on the mission of finding a viable building, purchasing that building, renovating it, and organizing the resources and staffing required to make a low-barrier day shelter a reality.

At its inception, the Homeless Day Shelter Task Force included members from:

The Population Health Alliance (known then as the Regional Health Alliance) worked underneath the Battle Creek Community Foundation to help coordinate efforts and found the day shelter.

A Long Road to Success

The task force identified 209 E. Michigan Avenue as the future site of the day shelter. With collaboration from over ten funding sources, they purchased the building and began renovating what was once an old gym into a place for people to stay. To mitigate the costs of renovation, the task force was careful in choosing a building that required little demolition. That way, funds could go towards creating rather than destroying.

The next hurdle was staffing. While people were more than willing to work as staff, there were other obstacles to hiring. The shelter needed a business plan and budget, and it had to do all this outside of typical grant schedules. BCCF was critical to the establishment of these resources so the day shelter could officially open in September 2020.

Looking Towards the Future

From September 2020 to January 2022, the Battle Creek Shelter has served over 7,000 people experiencing homelessness in Calhoun County. Now classified as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the shelter is run by a board which meets monthly to determine upcoming initiatives. In fact, at the end of 2021, the shelter, under this leadership, was able to expand services to women, in addition to men.

Still, their mission isn’t complete. Of the 12 beds reserved for women, an average of 10-11 are filled each night. Meanwhile, of the 55 reserved for men, 48-52 are filled. However, the Battle Creek Shelter is aware that there’s even greater need in the community. To address this, the board is looking to create family units in the near future.

What once began as an observation by community leaders has transformed into a task force and then a completely separate nonprofit that employs a full-time staff.

The Battle Creek Homeless Shelter is open 24/7, 365 days a year. You can learn more about the current iteration of the shelter by visiting their website or calling (269)309-6143.