MARINETTE — The Marinette County Association for Home & Community Education (MCAHCE) held a panel discussion about the homeless population in the community last week at UW-Marinette.

The discussion titled “Homeless Not Hopeless” consisted of two panelists — the Rev. Dave Pennell and John Reinke — who talked last Tuesday about children in the community who don’t have a permanent place to live and what agencies in the area are doing to help them.

Pennell, originally from lower Michigan, is currently serving as the Director of Abundant Life Mission, while Reinke — who is retired from Stephenson National Bank & Trust — is a volunteer for St. Vincent de Paul, and helps with home visits.

“My community service has always involved the bank,” Reinke said. “They had an enviable record and they still do. In spite of all that, I didn’t really have an idea of the whole homeless situation in the area until I began volunteering with St. Vincent’s. My home visits have really provided me with a great hands-on opportunity to view that issue. Saying I was oblivious was the best way to describe it.”

Pennell described the efforts of the shelter and what drove him to come to Menominee.

“It was God’s will,” he explained. “When I first came here we could only house 24 people at the old shelter on U.S. 41 (in Menominee). Three years ago, when there was a really cold winter, I had to tell a family of four that were living in their car that I couldn’t take them in because we were at the max limit.

“That was about the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. I vowed right there that we needed to find a better place.”

Currently, the shelter can house 88 people and since the beginning of the year has already served 100 people.

“We’re expecting about 400 people this year,” Pennell said.

While 80 percent of the shelter’s population come from Marinette and Menominee, the other 20 percent are from other places in northern Wisconsin and the entire Upper Peninsula.

“We are the only full-time, 24 hour a day, seven days a week shelter in the whole U.P. that takes men, women, families and veterans,” Pennell said. “Many places don’t allow children. I’m not going to refuse anyone. I look at the biblical standpoint, did Jesus ever say no to someone in need? No.”

Last year, the shelter served a total of 299 people, which included 76 kids and 20 veterans.

Along with being able to work with agencies to provide medical, dental and psychological help to those who are in the shelter, Pennell said he is driven to make sure the kids get an education. Students who are of the Marinette School District aren’t required to change to Michigan schools because the Abundant Life Mission provides rides to those students.

“I even went out and got a background check because one child was having issues in school and they used me as the threat,” Pennell said. “I would have sat in school with him all day long, if thats what it would have taken for him to get going again. Especially for the kids, I’ll take time out. I’ll work at night to get my stuff done; I have to make sure these kids get an education.”

Pennell and Reinke spoke about the stereotypes often portrayed and what causes people to become homeless.

According to Pennell, only 10 percent of the homeless population come out of the drug scene, while another 5 percent abuse alcohol.

What he said causes homelessness is lack of jobs, lack of education and generational poverty.

“There are a lot of variations of what brings people to the mission or be defined as homeless,” Pennell said. “Is homelessness a problem? Yes. Has it always been a problem? Yes. Until I got here it was something nobody wanted to talk about — like the white elephant in the room.”

“Did you know that most people are only one or two paychecks away from being homeless?” Pennell asked. “Nothing will get better until you address the issue.”

For more information on services being provided by each organization, people can call: The Salvation Army at 715-735-7448; St. Vincent de Paul at 715-735-9100 or the Abundant Life Mission at 906-424-4429.