TRAVERSE CITY —
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."