On A Mission

March 27, 2007
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As registered nurses serving Mel Trotter Ministries, Janice Keesman and Becky Ettinger see the human suffering caused by drug and alcohol addiction every day. The two women minister to the “hardest cases” — the intoxicated individuals who pass out on the street and are brought to the mission’s public inebriate shelter for overnight care.

Those individuals typically don’t belong in a hospital and usually don’t belong in a detox facility because they refuse treatment. They just need a safe place to sleep it off.

Since its inception Aug. 21, 2002, the inebriate center at 225 Commerce Ave. SW has provided humane care for public inebriates in the core city; they get medical supervision, meals, a shower, clothing and substance abuse treatment referrals if they choose.

Previously, ambulance or police personnel took those individuals to a hospital emergency room where they stayed until they sobered up, but the hospitals and ambulance companies typically had to foot the bill because most of the inebriates didn’t have insurance. Since inebriates began receiving care at the shelter instead of hospitals, the shelter has saved the community an estimated $3.1 million in traditional emergency room costs, based on 2004 cost estimates, said Sandra Enders, development assistant for Mel Trotter. Ettinger noted that police department personnel and ambulance attendants from all over the area now are familiar with the shelter.

Typically, the individuals not only don’t have medical insurance, they can’t buy the meds they need because everything goes toward their addiction, Keesman observed. They’ve literally burnt every bridge they’ve ever built.

“People get this picture of a scruffy old man with a beard living on the street,” she said. “We have master-degree level people who come in here. Many of the inebriates are skilled people who once had their own businesses. We have 18-year-old and 30-year-old guys here. We’re dealing with people who have had good lives, good homes and businesses but fell into an addiction.”

Keesman has been with the inebriate shelter since the start. Ettinger has worked there for three years. She graduated from Mel Trotter’s long-term residential Substance Abuse Recovery Program three years ago, took a front desk job at Mel Trotter temporarily, then came on board full-time after she was re-licensed as an LPN. In February she took the state boards for her RN license. Like Keesman, she too enjoys having a place of work where she can “share her faith and pray with others.”

When an individual arrives at the inebriate shelter, the nurses do a head-to-toe medical assessment, look for injuries and frostbite, take vital signs, and check on each individual every 15 to 30 minutes during the night.

“So many of the people here are broken and hopeless,” Ettinger reflected. “As I look at it, we might be the only people who smile at them or offer a kind word. We might be the only people who care about them. Our office is kind of like a safe haven. We’re not counselors. We’re not police personnel. We’re not the disciplinarians. We see a lot of people who just need somebody to talk to.”

The shelter doesn’t turn anybody away. When the dormitory for inebriates is full, additional mattresses are set up in the chapel to accommodate everyone. On most winter nights, the chapel is full.

Over the years the shelter has built a network among the area’s social agencies, hospitals, dental clinics and community mental health agencies such as Network 180, formerly known as Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Network of West Michigan. The network includes organizations such as God’s Kitchen, Guiding Light Mission, Heartside Clinic and the Salvation Army, among others.

“One of our goals with the (public inebriate) program is to talk with them when they’ve sobered up and try to get them plugged back into the system, or in this program or another program that will help them get reconnected,” Keesman explained.

Some of those who have used the shelter do decide to enter Mel Trotter’s year-long residential program, which includes mentoring, classes, chapel services and work assignments to help individuals develop the life skills and spiritual discipline they’ll need to return to independent living. Graduates of the program can get further assistance in finding employment or pursuing an education through Mel Trotter’s aftercare program.

The organization’s residential program is full of people from out of state, Keesman pointed out. Part of the reason for the out-of-towners is that it’s preferable for an individual to do rehab in another city so he’s far removed from his usual circumstances and influences. The other reason is word of mouth; graduates of the program recommend it to others.

“We’ve had guys from down south that have heard about the program,” Keesman noted. “Over the last few years, we’ve had a lot of people referred from South Bend because people who have graduated from the program live there.”

The inebriate shelter is well known around town now, too; some individuals are dropped off by their families, some are walk-ins, and a lot of street people bring their buddies in these days. Unlike a lot of large cities, visitors to downtown Grand Rapids don’t encounter people sleeping in doorways.

“We accomplished that,” Enders said. “People on the street know the inebriate shelter is here and it really serves this community in a good way. We did this as a pilot project; nobody else has done this. It took a lot of pieces to make it work — it took the ambulances, the police, the hospitals, the social agencies and mental health agencies actively participating to make it work.”

Nursing professionals are in high demand today. So why do Keesman and Ettinger choose to work at the inebriate center? The job appeals to both women because it’s meaningful and allows them to apply their Christian faith on a daily basis, they said.

“The people who come here become our friends,” Keesman said. “I have learned so much from them, just hearing their stories and talking to their families. We’re like a family.”

Some days the job can be frustrating, Ettinger acknowledged.

“We’re working with a clientele that can be demanding and difficult, and we do have our moments,” she said. “We voice our complaints to one another, but at the same time, there are those extra special people who really touch our hearts. I love everybody here; that’s what keeps me coming back. Mel Trotter has a piece of my heart.”

This year’s budget for the Public Inebriate Shelter is $257,432. In 2006, the shelter had a total of 455 visitors, of which 192 were repeat clients.  HQX

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