By Robert Tomlinson
THREE RIVERS — Casey Tobias has had a caring heart for almost all of her life.
She recalled, as a child in the 1970s, loading brown paper bags full of food and supplies and taking them to soldiers who were getting off buses coming home from Vietnam. In more recent times, she recalls that every Sunday during her time working at the local Sunoco gas station, she would take a crock pot of food and feed those who were underprivileged or experiencing homelessness because she believed “we should all have a hot meal on Sunday.”
“I saw a lot of homeless people or needy or underprivileged people,” Tobias said. “Then I knew they needed coats, they needed hats, gloves, scarves, a ride to get their ID, and it progressed.”
That caring heart led her this year to start Homeless Outreach Practiced Everyday (HOPE), a local organization of community members dedicated, as she put it, to “working with other community members seriously to overcome any kind of struggle or obstacle they might be facing with dignity and respect,” geared heavily toward the most vulnerable in the community.
The organization, which is a domestic non-profit corporation through the State of Michigan but not officially a federal non-profit organization as of yet, mainly works with those experiencing homelessness in Three Rivers, giving out food boxes, hygiene boxes, personal care items, and acting as a liaison between local resources and the homeless population.
“We’re zero-barrier, and we’re all-inclusive. You can walk through our door no matter what the circumstances are,” Tobias said. “You’re still a human being who in our belief deserves the right to be fed, treated with dignity, and there’s no person in this world who is born that isn’t housing-ready.”
HOPE has its roots in Tobias’ generosity, going back to shortly after Tobias’ days serving food at Sunoco. She quit her job after the gas station was robbed twice within two months, and soon after that her car’s transmission died. So, she started feeding people from the front yard of her home three days a week, which had grown to at least 21 people per day before the local health department shut down the operation.
One moment that catapulted Tobias into starting the organization fully was one day eight months ago when she was helping out of her garage some time after they stopped serving food. After helping a lady set up appointments for some different services, another person came up to Tobias and asked her, as Tobias recalled, “Are all these people for you?”
“I live in a cul-de-sac, and when I walked out of my garage, I couldn’t see the end of the cars past my garage, past my driveway. They weren’t people that wanted help. They were people who had boxes and boxes of food and baby formula and blankets and tents,” Tobias said. “That was the day I knew I couldn’t quit. It’s not the people in the community that need the help, it’s the people in the community who want the help.”
The issue of homelessness is something that while Tobias hasn’t faced it herself, she knows people who have, and that was one reason she was passionate about taking up the issue.
“It affected me every day at work [at the gas station]. I saw how people were struggling, and it honestly hurt my heart,” Tobias said. “Second, I have one aunt that’s my mother’s twin who is paranoid schizophrenic, and she was an LPN and worked at the state prison, who is now choosing to live on the street, and I’ve been dealing with that for 30 years. I’ve been through a lot of the systems with her, I’ve watched her fight them, we’ve struggled, we’ve seen what works, what fails, what takes Medicaid, what doesn’t, what’s in-service, what’s not.”
So far, she said many of the people she’s helped through HOPE have begun or are in the process of getting the assistance they need to try to get themselves through the situation they’ve been faced with. While she says every case is different, she said things have been going well so far.
“I know that we have restored people with dignity and humanity to some form of belief in themself in the community they live in. A lot of them walk in here and don’t have that; they’ve been failed by a lot of the systems we have,” Tobias said.
She recalled that the police at one point brought three people to the resource center, two of which she helped get into rehab facilities for drugs and alcohol after talking with them for a lengthy period of time, hearing their stories and helping get them the help they needed and wanted, while she is in the process of helping out the third person.
Elsewhere, she said she recently assisted a family of six with getting into the Edgewater apartment complex, which had been living at a local campground for the past four months, despite one of the parents working 10-hour days. Tobias said roughly 24 percent of the people she works with are homeless not because they don’t have jobs, but because “there aren’t any houses to put them in.”
Recently, Tobias acquired a building space at 2 Water St. in Three Rivers, behind North Main Street, with the help of local business owner Candy Zeismer. The organization and its 80 volunteers have worked out of the space for the past three weeks, and are in the process of turning the basement-like area into a resource center for not just the homeless population, but for anybody in need.
“I’d like it to be not just for homeless or those transitioning from homeless, but for those who are needy,” Tobias said. “I want it to be a place where community flows out of, where we all come together, treat each other with respect and dignity, and we are lifting each other up.”
Some of the other resources HOPE provides, aside from the food and hygiene baskets, include being a place for those in need to meet rides to go to the Secretary of State’s office to get licenses or Michigan IDs or to go to the RESET Day Center in Centreville to get assistance with housing applications, employment applications, cell phones and more. Sometimes, Tobias said local companies assist with getting people experiencing homelessness day jobs and paying them for their work.
“We have a couple contractors, we have a couple other business owners who’ll pick them up, they’re doing clean-outs of lockers and rental units and stuff like that, gardening, but it’s day labor,” Tobias said. “They’re not hanging out in front of the library, they’re getting paid daily, and if they stay with that person for an extension of time, the people they’re working for will get them a job reference.”
In the future, Tobias said she is looking to have Elwood Staffing of Sturgis come to the center once a week to help those in need build resumes and put them in their system to help them get jobs, and is looking to create a workspace with computers to help the people they’re helping look for jobs and make appointments with the Secretary of State and other agencies.
Once it’s fully operational, Tobias said the center would be open from 8-9 a.m. to have those either homeless or in need come in and get essential things done, such as getting something to eat, getting a clean shirt, brushing their teeth, and maybe going to a job interview and meeting rides to Secretary of State or RESET. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the center would be open for regular business doing intake, helping people get food baskets, get clothes, and more. From 6-10 p.m., the space would become a place to hold meetings and activities if people wish to do so.
Tobias thanked Zeismer for helping her out with getting a space.
“It was packed to the ceiling with stuff, but she said if you can empty it out and make it workable, I will give you the space, and all you have to pay is for gas, electric, water and whatever else you have going in there,” Tobias said, adding that she’s been working with contractors to fix up the inside and outside of the space to get it up to snuff.
While the organization is open to anyone in need, one of the stipulations for receiving assistance through HOPE, Tobias said, is signing a contract that includes clauses such as ensuring that they won’t steal anything from the resource center and treating volunteers and others receiving assistance through the organization with “dignity and respect.” While it may seem like tough love, she said it helps to give those experiencing homelessness a sense of accountability for themselves and for others.
“They have to treat each other with dignity and respect, they have to be willing to help, and they have to be willing to do better for themselves. If they can’t do that, there’s no reason for us to put anything else into them,” Tobias said.
“If I walk up to you and I see you struggling, and you know I’m a member of HOPE, we are accountable to each other. We have to lift each other up, we have to help each other.”
She said the community has been very supportive of her work thus far, and that many business owners downtown have been for the most part receptive to HOPE’s presence near downtown. However, there have been some business owners that have expressed some concerns to Tobias about the organization being where it is, mainly concerns about possible loitering at the center and possibly attracting more people experiencing homelessness to the downtown area.
When it came to the possibility of loitering, Tobias said that if people come to the resource center, they “have to have a purpose,” whether it be for getting on the computer and looking for a job or for other legitimate reasons.
“They’re not just hanging out, they’re learning skills, they’re staying sober, they’re getting mentoring from people who’ve struggled through a lot of what they’ve been struggling through, and they’re doing it in a safe place,” Tobias said. “They’re not in front of the library wasting time and energy … they’re being put to work.”
All in all, Tobias said while there’s been “legitimate” questions and concerns brought to her in the past few weeks, there hasn’t been much in the way of dissent, anger or animosity.
She said making the resources being offered to people was “immense” for the people she’s been helping.
“Most of these people don’t even believe in themselves. They don’t know when they get up this morning where they’re going to the bathroom. They haven’t made a real life-choice decision in years because their life decision is, if we get kicked out tonight, what if. If it rains tonight, what if. If we get caught by the police tonight, what if,” Tobias said, adding that having the mentality of having worth to themselves is also a big part of possibly turning around their situation, since many people have a negative perception of the homeless community.
HOPE has begun to take non-tax-deductible donations, and currently has a GoFundMe page at https://gofund.me/1659ecc8. They are currently looking to raise the $600 needed to apply for 501(c)3 nonprofit status from the federal government, something she said she will apply for “right away” once she raises the necessary amount. She is also in the process of attempting to apply for a grant from the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People to help support the organization in its efforts. The organization has also helped serve meals at the Community Kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church on Thursdays, and is organizing community cleanup once a week.
Those who want to donate are asked to stop by the center to drop off food, clothes and hygiene items.
HOPE is planning on hosting a Halloween event at its resource center on Tuesday, Oct. 31 from 4-7 p.m., which will feature a trunk-or-treat, food vendors and activities. It’ll also serve as the first big fundraiser event for the organization, and are hopeful to raise plenty during the event to get to the amount where she can apply for non-profit status.
Overall, in the future, Tobias says she hopes the resource center can be someplace where people who are in need can go to get assistance.
“It’s about fixing stuff happening right now for what’s in our community to our people,” Tobias said.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.