TRAVERSE CITY — Mona Alpers looks forward to Wednesdays at the Salvation Army, where she helps the needy and sees her “peeps.”
Mona takes her lunch break away from her banking job once a week to serve lunch during the Salvation Army’s community meal program. She stood behind the line Wednesday, serving a smile with steaming helpings of turkey, mashed potatoes, corn and green beans.
Volunteering with the Salvation Army for about three years helped her become familiar with some of those who frequent the Barlow Street building for lunch. Alpers smiled as she looked around the cafeteria, recognizing a man she knows will want his lunch to-go.
“I absolutely love working with these folks,” she said.
Charitable organizations in the region help those in need. That population includes a growing number of people and families that either find themselves in poverty or struggling to cover the area’s steep cost of living.
Information from Poverty Solutions — a University of Michigan initiative created to help prevent and alleviate poverty — show about 24 percent of northwest Michigan’s population — including Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties — find themselves at ALICE levels, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
ALICE statistics track families and individuals who are employed, but struggle to make ends meet. Residents find themselves in this category across the state, said Julia Weinert, assistant director for the Poverty Solutions initiative.
“Michigan really only saw economic growth in the past few years and that’s making it difficult for households to improve their financial status because wages aren’t going up,” she said.
United Way officials oversee the ALICE project and research the statistics. Ranae McCauley, United Way of Northwest Michigan’s executive director, provided further numbers outlining the number of regional residents at ALICE levels or below.
About 43 percent of Kalkaska County households find themselves at or below those levels, in addition to 35 percent of Grand Traverse County households, 41 percent of Antrim County households, 37 percent of Benzie County households and 28 percent of Leelanau County households, she said.
Kalkaska County leads the region and most of the state in ALICE cases. McCauley said the number of county residents at or below those levels equates to approximately 43 percent.
Many residents find themselves below the poverty level, including 11.7 percent of Antrim County residents, 15.3 percent in Kalkaska County, 10 percent in Grand Traverse County, 10.8 percent in Benzie County and 8.1 percent in Leelanau County, according to Poverty Solutions information.
The lack of many high-paying jobs, coupled with high childcare and housing costs put huge strains on these families, McCauley said. Manufacturing job opportunities continue to dry up in the region, leaving workers to seek lower-paying service jobs lacking healthcare benefits and paid time off. Those working in the service industry often have to work two jobs to cover their costs, she said.
Those families also lack the ability to save money, making emergency car maintenance, home repairs and other emergencies especially burdensome, McCauley said.
“These are things that we don’t always think about,” she said. “It takes once emergency to flip them over to a place that is very difficult to recover from.”
McCauley said she was happy to hear some companies and businesses in the region have implemented pay increases for employees, but more needs to be done.
Kalkaska Area Interfaith Resources staff offers assistance to struggling county residents.
The organization's food pantry serves about 900 people each month and offers heat and utility help, including nearly $120,000 in assistance last year, said KAIR Executive Director Cathy Some.
Staffers also refer residents to the Salvation Army, Father Fred Foundation and other organizations to receive vouchers for furniture, clothing and other items.
“Without the services that KAIR provided, people wouldn’t have food in their home, they wouldn’t have heat and electric in their homes,” Some said. “They wouldn’t have their basic needs met.”
Salvation Army runs a food pantry and offers lunches on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday.
A good neighbor fund also helps working-class people pays for things like emergency car and furnace repairs, said Major Jeff Russell. About $72,000 to $80,000 is set aside each year for the fund, he said. Officials earmark some of the donations collected during the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign for the fund.
“We know there are a lot of people out there living paycheck to paycheck,” Russell said. “Through the community support, we are able to help those people get by with the crisis.”
Poverty Solutions officials are already looking at a transportation initiative to measure how people commute and use the information to develop more efficient public transportation systems, Weinert said. She hopes more projects will continue to grow to help those in need.
Alpers’ mother once was one of those people who struggled to escape poverty’s grip.
Her mother’s journey pushed Alpers to volunteer with the Salvation Army, a relationship that’s grown to include serving on the organization’s advisory board and volunteer in other forms, like bell ringing.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “It’s a no-brainer; you want to be involved.”
Percent of population at or below ALICE
Kalkaska County: 43 percent
Antrim County: 41 percent
Benzie County: 37 percent
Grand Traverse County: 35 percent
Leelanau County: 28 percent
(Source: 2017 United Way ALICE report)
Percent of residents below poverty level
Kalkaska County: 15.3 percent
Antrim County: 11.7 percent
Benzie County: 10.8 percent
Grand Traverse County: 10 percent
Leelanau County: 8.1 percent
(Source: Poverty Solutions)