Janesville nonprofit agencies say Mike Terry was a homeless man they had contact with almost monthly.
Local police and homeless outreach workers recently tried weekly to convince the man to accept help and shelter.
Terry, 58, had declined such services, instead opting to live homeless, sometimes outside, out in the elements, on his own. On Monday, Terry was found dead, his body inside a sleeping bag in the cold of the morning next to trash bins behind a South Main Street business.
Terry’s death comes after the arrival of an early winter and after several Janesville nonprofits joined forces with police, neighborhood services and Rock County crisis workers to create FOCUS, a local task force aimed at responding to homelessness.
The task force over the last year has worked to spur a handful of initiatives to reach out to homeless people and stem homelessness downtown and elsewhere.
The efforts have included overnight car parking for homeless people, more outreach by police and agencies and some emerging housing. But none of those measures helped Terry.
Stephanie Burton, Executive Director of GIFTS Men’s Shelter, a nonprofit shelter and resource center for homeless men, said her agency knew of Terry. She said her agency’s policy is not to divulge specifics about any homeless clients or potential clients, but she characterized Terry as a “kind and sweet-natured” man familiar to many nonprofit workers.
She and Jessica Locher, who oversees ECHO’s homelessness outreach program, both said Terry was among a small percentage of chronic homeless people who decline help offered by nonprofit agencies or Janesville police.
“Mike was one of the individuals that they (Janesville police homeless outreach officers) met every month. And then our (ECHO) outreach team had met with him, too. He never wanted anything from us that we have offered,” Locher said.
“But we just are going to continue to keep reaching out. For those individuals who don’t want the help, we’re still going to be there when they’re ready. Unless something tragic happens, like what just happened.”
It’s not immediately clear whether cold weather Sunday night played a role in Terry’s death. Family members indicated that early signs are that Terry might have died from a heart attack, but medical examiners who performed an autopsy said they must conduct further tests to determine a cause of death.
But the fact Terry was apparently staying outside in the cold when he died is troubling to local officials. The capacity available at local shelters and through emergency housing vouchers only accommodates about 10% of the several hundred people in Rock County who are homeless at any given time, officials say.
And the sudden onset of winter weather has nonprofit leaders concerned about the well being of their clients.
Maj. Thomas McDowell or the Salvation Army of Rock County said he learned the same day the season’s first snow was expected that a frequent visitor to his church’s lunch program was homeless. McDowell said he tried to find the man shelter quickly, but it took a week to find a place he could stay.
All five of the Salvation Army’s transitional apartments are being used, McDowell said. Some agencies say they’re short of either vouchers for emergency housing or spaces available to use the vouchers.
The county’s housing shortage, both of affordable and emergency housing, has struck McDowell as a major concern in his first year working in Janesville.
ECHO plans to place a family in a transitional living house it acquired from the city of Janesville. The home was renovated earlier this year with money from a federal grant program. And Beloit nonprofit Community Action seeks to develop part of a city park on Janesville’s south side with three 600-square-foot homes that would serve as transitional housing for families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
The Salvation Army plans to work with GIFTS this winter by finding volunteers for GIFTS’ overnight shelter, McDowell said.
Burton said GIFTS’ shelter now has enough volunteers to accommodate about 32 homeless men at any given time, and she said the center frequently runs at capacity. If extreme cold warrants, Burton said GIFTS has at times exceeded its threshold for guests.
She said GIFTS plans as early as Dec. 1 to make available an “extreme cold weather” space—essentially a warming center for people who aren’t necessarily GIFTS’ overnight clients.
Burton said GIFTS is still ironing out how it would operate a warming center.
Locher and Burton said the public-private FOCUS homeless task force has met monthly at City Hall since August 2018—the same month a homeless man was found dead in the Rock River downtown. It has made its greatest inroads through an increased focus on outreach to the homeless, they said.
Once a month, Janesville police officers and homeless outreach agents scour out-of-the-way locations in the city to find homeless people. ECHO workers do a search weekly. Locher said the Hedberg Public Library, where many local homeless people tend to congregate, is considering enlisting college students to help with outreach to the homeless.
But as with Terry, Locher said it can be difficult to convince homeless people to accept help.
Locher said a small portion of the homeless people they find don’t want assistance that nonprofits could offer them.
“Sometimes it takes 15, 20 even 30 contacts with a single person before you can convince them to accept that help,” Locher said. “We’ve got to just keep trying.”
The FOCUS task force met Wednesday, a previously scheduled meeting that coincidentally came just days after Terry was found dead. Burton said the task force is awaiting more information on the circumstances of Terry’s death, but his death was a topic the group discussed Wednesday.
“Every time we meet, the bottom line underneath what we talk about is that we hope to prevent something like this from happening. Of course we want to help everyone. No one should sleep on the streets,” Burton said.
“But at the same point, people have the right to say ‘no’ or decline help,” Burton said. “You don’t have the right to grab them by the arm and say, ‘You’re coming with me,’ even if it’s what your heart tells you that’s what you want to do.”
Gazette reporter Ashley McCallum contributed to this story.