TRAVERSE CITY—The first time Michelle Fehrenbach took Joe Sersaw to the grocery store, shoppers nervously looked away.
Sersaw looked like a mountain man, his thick blond hair and beard badly matted after decades of homelessness. Fehrenbach protectively took Sersaw's arm, saying, "Come on Joe, let's go this way."
A man approached Fehrenbach, thanked her, and slipped her a $20 bill.
"Someone realized there was something special going on instead of ignoring us like we were invisible," she said.
Sersaw, 45, just marked his one-year anniversary of moving into a mobile home that his former high school classmates bought for $2,500, fixed up and furnished.
John Lopez, who's known Sersaw since third grade, said he was upset about his former classmate's hopeless plight and posted a Facebook shout-out to 1987 Traverse City Senior High classmates for help.
"Michelle gave me a call and took the ball," he said. "She did more for Joey than any agency could possibly do."
Fehrenbach now runs the Facebook page, "Friends of Joe," and frequently asks for help.
"Joe's pipes are frozen. UGH! I am planning on putting plastic fencing around his skirting to stop the wind from coming in. ... CAN ANYONE ELSE HELP ME???" she wrote.
She describes Sersaw, a schizophrenic with a long history of heavy drinking, as a "gentle soul" who still can't remember her name. A few weeks after moving him in, she and a couple of friends tackled his hair.
“We were just shaking, seeing the condition he was in," she said. "His feet had black mildew all over them. His toes are still bad. Fungus on them. He was in a very sad condition. His hair, his feet. It was horrifying actually. How in the hell do people let people live like this? We don't let dogs live like this.”
Fehrenbach, like scores of others who help area homeless, first confronted the scarcity of affordable housing. She came up with a plan for Sersaw to buy a mobile home, and have him pay the $300 lot rent with his Social Security benefits, which had to be reinstated. She ended up pleading with Grand Traverse County Jail officials to get a copy of his intake card for identification, she said.
Fehrenbach now worries about his medication side effects and occasional walk-aways. In October, he went into a 7-Eleven store on Barlow Street, though store managers previously had banned him, and was arrested for trespassing, his fifth such arrest this year.
He recently appeared in 86th District Court, his face clean shaven and his hair combed smooth. His former classmate and pro bono attorney, Wilson "Bill" Brott, stood beside him.
“You went into 7-Eleven after being notified not to go back?” asked Judge Michael Stepka.
“I just thought I could go back there,” Sersaw said quietly.
Stepka complimented Sersaw on his progress, waived all fines, but still levied mandatory fees of $125.
Sersaw used to suffer worse consequences. He was booked 43 times from 1993 to 2012, mostly for trespassing, and spent 520 days in jail. Half the arrests resulted in misdemeanors, according to court records.
After the brief hearing ended, Fehrenbach, now his guardian and conservator, broke down.
“There’s not a lot of help out there,” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do with him; I don’t see a lot of things improving. I wish there were more places in the community to place him besides a trailer. There is nothing for him.”
Sersaw can take care of himself, but can't make meals, grocery shop or pay bills. Fehrenbach tried to get support for Sersaw, but his case didn't fit agencies' funding guidelines. Finally, she found state funding to pay a friend, Anne O'Donnell, to help out, an hour or two each day.
O'Donnell works twice the number of hours for which she's paid, but she doesn't mind.
"I love that Joe," O'Donnell said. "He really grabs your heart."
Sersaw needs what's called supportive housing. But a key agency that could help him — Northwest Michigan Supportive Housing — has 270 families or individuals on the waiting list, said Executive Director Emilee Syrewicze.
"I think the problem is we're bottle-necking. There are no funds to be found and too many people to be served," Syrewicze said.
Stepka promised to find resources and so did a Northern Lakes Community Mental Health social worker who spoke with Fehrenbach.
Fehrenbach complained the agency makes only half of the promised six visits a week, lasting 10 minutes at most. One worker won't even go inside because of the cigarette smell. She plans to file a grievance.
Northern Lakes CMH no longer receives funding to provide housing, but transports Sersaw to medical appointments that include a monthly shot of medication. Fehrenbach was upset that a CMH worker dropped him off on the street after picking him up from a mental institution a few years ago.
"I understand they have their hands tied with legalities. The system makes the rules; they have to abide by them. But where is the humanity?" she said.
Sersaw continues to drink alcohol, although less than before, thanks to O'Donnell. She believes it would kill him to quit.
"There are only a few I can think of who did stop drinking," said Roger Dunigan, former executive director of Great Lakes Community Mental Health. "... For some it was a way to deal with their illness. What people would do is drink to numb the voices, primarily with schizophrenia."
Community members are working toward solutions, such as Dann's House, which would house homeless, chronic alcoholics. Volunteers recently started an initiative with Goodwill and Safe Harbor to mentor the homeless one-on-one. And Tina Allen, head of Continuum of Care, which coordinates efforts of area agencies, was inspired by Fehrenbach's story to do community brainstorming
"I would love to bring about some unique ideas for solutions," Allen said.