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From Homeless to Advocate: Meet Terri Ariss

For Livingston County resident Terri Ariss, November is a major month – but not because of the holidays, family gatherings, or the shopping that some associate with this month.

In fact, it’s because November 11-19 is Homeless Awareness Week in Michigan – something she knows quite a bit about, because for the better part of a decade, she lived it.

“It’s hard. It’s definitely using survival instincts every day, all day,” Ariss, 46, said in an interview. “Even when you’re sleeping, you still kind of have one eye open.”

Ariss became homeless at age 18. Right before graduating high school, she was kicked out by her parents as she was now an adult and her parents were about “tough love,” she said.

“I take it as a hidden blessing,” she said. “It was safer out in the streets than in my own house.”

That’s because Ariss grew up in an abusive household, she explained – yet another situation that would not be a first and only in her life. She graduated high school, moved out of state, and came back before becoming pregnant at 23. Slightly more than two years later, she was pregnant again, and had been trying to establish some security on her own.

“We did a lot of camping in the summer; we stayed at hotels. It was better than staying at the shelters, because every time I stayed at a shelter – in Macomb County – my stuff would get ripped off,” she said of trying to raise her boys and being homeless. “I was tired of losing the few things I did have. I (then) ended up in an abusive relationship … and (physically and emotionally) handicapped over that. We were able to run away from him on November 16.”

Her physical disability allowed her to stay at a special place in Adrian (Lenawee County), with her two boys, and build stability for the next six years, eventually marrying her childhood sweetheart.

“I told Beth McCullough, the homeless education liaison for Lenawee County, that I owed them so much and I had no way of repaying it, and if they could think of a way to repay that, I would,” Ariss said.

What started with a couple of speaking engagements became sitting on a Continuum of Care committee (CoC) in Lenawee – a program designed to promote community-wide commitment to the goal of ending homelessness.

Upon moving to Livingston, she became part of the CoC there. Livingston is unique because it is one of the most affluent counties in the state and, while homelessness does exist, there is no homeless shelter not associated with being a child or trying to escape domestic abuse.

“I am quite involved with homeless policies and advocacy. If it’s something I feel will work, I’ll be the biggest cheerleader. If it’s something that’s got too many loopholes … I’ll see what we can do to tweak it,” she said.

As a parent support partner with a Community Mental Health (CMH) agency in Livingston County, Ariss spends her work day helping other parents experiencing similar situations as she did when she was younger.

“I raised my children with CMH services, and now I help other parents improving their household situations using community services and community support,” she said.

When she’s not doing that, she’s doing everything she can to advocate for not only homeless awareness, but ways to help people facing the kinds of situations she herself lived through.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s a single person sleeping in a car or living out in the woods or begging for food on street corners and that’s just not true. It’s mostly families. The average age of a homeless child is 7, and there’s more families with single parents that are homeless,” Ariss said. “It’s not the hobo life where you’re ready to catch a train – I find that to be the biggest misconception.”

Since living in Livingston County and finding a stable home some nine years ago, Ariss sought to lead the efforts in Livingston on an annual Homeless Awareness Week. She’s ramped up efforts in the last two years, traveling to different events and using her platform to talk about homeless issues, sometimes even raising funds to go into schools for agencies that work with homeless populations.

Homeless Bill of Rights

Addressing the lack of shelters in Livingston County, in part, is where Senate Bill 84 would come in, Ariss said. The bill by Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) that would create a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” which, among other things, says a homeless person can go to a shelter or another agency dealing with homelessness and use that address so they can both be registered to vote and get a state identification or driver’s license with that address. It also says that what property these people have on them is their personal property and cannot be taken away from them.

“In a lot of the major cities, if a homeless person is walking around with a backpack and they have a tent in that backpack, that’s a way for them to stay dry and to keep their own property dry,” she said. “You don’t have the convenience of being able to go into a laundromat and wash and dry blankets. Once a blanket is wet, there’s no place to dry it, especially when it’s cold. So, you have a cold, wet blanket to try to stay warm in the winter.”

The legislation would also help homeless people maintain their identification, which can often get lost when police conduct sweeps of homeless people and relocate them prior to major public events. Ariss said she has seen often in her work in downtown Detroit, as well as other major cities.

“Having your property be yours and sacred and untouchable and (them) not able to just throw the blankets, hats and gloves or the backpack away – it’s of vital importance. It’s the difference between saving a life or not.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate Local Government Committee, led by Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida), but has not seen any action otherwise, despite her attempts to contact committee members about its importance.

Events are happening throughout the state to raise awareness about homelessness, and Ariss encourages people to visit a website by the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness to learn more about how they can get involved or support local agencies, as well as get information on advocacy work.

Some of those events include:

  • Homeless Awareness Week in Livingston County
    • Main Event: November 15 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. – Public speakers, student art show, gift basket raffle, proclamation at Howell Opera House, 123 W. Grand River
    • “The Pursuit of Happyness” Viewing: Historic Howell Movie Theater, 315 E. Grand River, starting at 7 p.m., also on November 15
  • Project Homeless Connect:
    • Gogebic-Ontonagon counties: November 15 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Gogebic-Ontonagon Community Agency in Bessemer: Contact Pat Niksich
    • Wayne County: November 15 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Our Lady of the Angels in Taylor: Contact Allison Green
    • Dickinson County: November 17 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., YMCA Iron Mountain, in Iron Mountain: Contact Bonnie Pelto
Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson