BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Renee Rop stood inside the State Theatre's main entrance and smiled at those who streamed in to watch the recent presidential debate.
Rop, 48, appeared no different than several other volunteers who buzzed about selling tickets or serving popcorn in the historic downtown Traverse City venue. Much needed to be done for the busy event, and Rop was more than happy to help.
But as the rest of those volunteers went home to warm beds, Rop and her boyfriend trudged across town in the pouring rain and went to sleep on the concrete, sheathed in well-worn sleeping bags to ward off the cold.
Rop and boyfriend Richard DeWitt, 53, don't have a home. But they don't fit the homeless stereotype.
"We've been painted with a relatively broad brush. The average citizen who isn't in the homeless community, what they notice are the ones who are panhandling, loitering, drinking in public, urinating in the bushes, they're unkempt, unshaven. That's what they see," DeWitt said. "They don't notice Renee and myself. They don't see that side."
Homeless people are at the center of considerable public attention following several drunken disturbances downtown. Some city officials recently discussed ways to push homeless people from public parks and discourage street people from frequenting highly visible downtown areas.
At last count, the Grand Traverse region played host to roughly 330 people who primarily live on the street or in homeless shelters. Several hundred more don't have a permanent residence or are at immediate risk of becoming homeless.
But for every homeless person who makes a scene, dozens more are all but invisible.
"Most of them, you don't see," said Ryan Hannon, street outreach coordinator for Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan. "Most of them aren't causing problems. They're doing the best they can ... and they don't want to make waves."
Wet, cold and tired
Rop and DeWitt are homeless in large part because of chronic alcoholism. Rop, a Kalamazoo-area native, said she has a master's degree in counseling from Michigan State University. She worked for more than a decade as a counselor in Lansing and Mount Pleasant before alcohol abuse caused her to lose everything by the time she arrived here in 2005.
DeWitt, a Traverse City native, worked for various land surveying and oil companies. He always struggled with alcohol, but his problems grew severe after a close family member died in 2004. Alcohol abuse cost him his job and played a role in several run-ins with the law, and he's been homeless for about four years.
"I dug myself so deep. It's really easy to get into that hole, but it's 10 times harder to get back out," he said.
Rop and DeWitt don't want to be "lumped in the stereotype" when it comes to homeless individuals.
"Not every homeless person is uneducated," Rop said. "Most of the homeless people have held respectable jobs."
Hannon, the Goodwill outreach coordinator, said homeless people don't fit a ready-made mold.
"Homelessness knows no boundaries," he said. "There's no age limit, no demographic. It affects all types of people."
During the winter, Rop and DeWitt can sleep in various churches that open their doors to the homeless as part of a project called Safe Harbor. They also can stay at the Goodwill Inn if there's room, but there often isn't. So they sleep where they can.
"We were on the beach for a while, and then we moved to a grassy spot but the dew got really bad," Rop said. "We found that the concrete's not as comfortable, but it's dry."
Meals are offered by various churches and community groups, so they make the rounds in an effort to eat. They keep clean with the help of showers at Jubilee House, a Traverse City spot where homeless people can wash clothes, shower and receive mail. Even though Rop and DeWitt don't look homeless, they feel the prying eyes.
"It's cold in the morning, and it gets cold before we can lay down at night, so we carry our winter coats with us," Rop said. "And then we have to carry them with us when it warms up during the day, and that's kind of a giveaway ... people start to look at us odd, or we feel like they are."
It's a physically draining life, DeWitt said.
"Being homeless is a full-time job. We're always wet and cold and tired and sore. Try sleeping on concrete for a week, let alone a month. My hips and shoulders just ache — hers, too — and we carry all of these heavy backpacks," he said. "And we may put on anywhere from 5 to 10 miles a day. There may be a meal on the other side of Garfield, or by Tom's West Bay, and that's a hike."
But if you're going to be homeless, Traverse City is the place to be.
"We've met a lot of people who are professional homeless people, and they've done it all over the country. From them relating their experiences to me, Traverse City is an A+," DeWitt said. "There are so many compassionate people who are willing to help us without an agenda ... other than generosity and compassion."
Hannon hopes the Traverse City area finds a way to house more homeless people.
"There's a lot of services for people experiencing homelessness," he said. "The biggest lacking thing is a place to go for shelter and housing."
Jobs and a long-term plan evade Rop and DeWitt, for now.
"People will say, 'Why don't you just get a job?'" DeWitt said. "Well, when you're homeless, where do you shower? Or prepare meals? Or sleep? What do you do about transportation? It's just so difficult if you don't have a roof over your head."
A job would provide income for a place to stay, but finding work is difficult without that place.
"You can't look too far ahead, because it just becomes so overwhelming," DeWitt said. "You have to address your most immediate needs, and that's shelter, food, a place to shower, then employment. If you try to put employment first, it's not going to work, and people don't understand that."
The homeless way of life also makes it hard to be presentable.
"When you're on the street, it's really difficult to keep job interview clothes dry and unwrinkled," Rop said. "If it rains, and you have your resumé in your backpack and your backpack gets wet, your resumé is ruined."
State and federal laws prevent employers from discriminating based on age, appearance and other factors. But doesn't mean it doesn't happen, Rop and DeWitt said. And with the current economic climate, they're competing with plenty of nonhomeless people for work.
"With the job market the way it is, and the amount of people who are out there looking for work, I'm not a very good candidate. There are hundreds of people who are more stable, who have a driver's license, a car, a home," DeWitt said. "I'm starting from below bottom. Who would hire me?"
The job hunt will continue until Rop and DeWitt land on their feet. Some homeless people don't much mind being that way, but they don't share that state of mind.
"They're content; it's something that they've accepted. The street is their home now," Rop said. "One of the things that has kept us going is we simply refuse to accept this as our lot in life."
"We're not happy with our situation," DeWitt said. "We've been people who had responsibility, and we were proud of ourselves, and other people were proud of us. I miss it, and I want it back," he said. "I put myself in this situation, but I'm damn well trying to get out of it. I'm not complacent."
Besides Rop's volunteer work at the State Theatre, both Rop and DeWitt volunteer their time beautifying areas of town known to collect trash, cigarette butts and liquor bottles. Recently, they went to the Jay Smith walkway in Traverse City — a spot notorious for problem-causing homeless people — and cleaned it up.
"Just because we're homeless doesn't mean we don't value our community," Rop said. "It's our home as much as it is anyone else's, it's just that we're on the street right now."
"We would like to be a part of this community, this society, and we would like to earn a reputation," DeWitt said. "It's not just for the community, it's also good for us."
Some homeless people will continue to cause problems, but Rop and DeWitt try not to judge.
"It's annoying to me, but I don't know their backgrounds, their history, their story, so I have to pull myself back because It's very easy to become judgmental," DeWitt said. "Becoming homeless is a humbling experience, and it's given me a completely different perspective."