Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 30, 2012

Ex-classmates work to give man a home

BY MICHAEL WALTON
mwalton@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — Joe Sersaw is homeless, but he won't be for long.

Members of Traverse City High School's Class of 1987 launched a campaign to find former classmate Sersaw a warm dwelling before winter sets in. Michelle Fehrenbach, one of the campaign's founders, said Sersaw should move into a modest trailer by Saturday.

Sersaw suffers from schizophrenia. He's a familiar face in the downtown, where he shuffles along in worn clothing, his hair matted and face cloaked by a thick beard.

He's also well-known to local law enforcement officials. Sersaw has at least 21 convictions for misdemeanors in district court since 2000. Most stem from trespassing charges, but two are for disorderly conduct and one for attempting to assault, resist, or obstruct a police officer.

Traverse City Police Capt. Steve Morgan said many of the charges result from Sersaw trying to stay warm in places he shouldn't.

"As far as I know, he's not a dangerous person," Morgan said.

Fehrenbach talked about Sersaw, 43, and the project to find him a home — dubbed Operation Joe's Place — as she sipped coffee downtown with John Lopez, another project organizer, and two other members of the '87 class.

Lopez laid the foundation for Operation Joe's Place with a post about Sersaw on a class Facebook page last spring.

"John did a little rant," Fehrenbach said. "'Why is nobody helping? What about our classmate?'"

"Any one of us could be in that situation and not know how to get out of it," said James Smith, another classmate.

The post prompted Fehrenbach, with Lopez's help, to navigate the court system in an effort to gain oversight of Sersaw's financial matters.

The courts appointed her to that role after roughly 5 months of bureaucratic wrangling. Now she receives disability checks on his behalf.

Fehrenbach and Lopez then began to look for a place for Sersaw to live. Fehrenbach found a trailer and decided to buy it; that left Sersaw only with utility bills and property lease payments, which he can afford with his disability checks.

"I didn't have the money for it, but I figured I would go for it," she said.

This month Fehrenbach started pages on Facebook and a website called ChipIn.com to solicit money and in-kind contributions.

Donations easily surpassed $1,500 in about 3 days. They totalled more than $1,800 by late this week.

Additional donations can be made at: operationjoesplace.chipin.com.

Dozens of 1987 classmates and other members of the Traverse City community posted offers to donate paint, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies and more.

Volunteers will spend today cleaning and readying Sersaw's trailer for his arrival.

Whether Sersaw will recognize he has a place to live remains unclear, but one classmate believes he will settle into his new lifestyle.

"Once he realizes it's a safe place that's his, he will start to grasp it," Diane Denoyer said.

Sersaw's support group understands Operation Joe's Place will provide a home for but one of Traverse City's many homeless residents. But they hope their efforts will prompt others to help others in need.

"We can't save the world, but you can make a difference one person at a time," Fehrenbach said.