Lake Orion parishioner honored with Governor's Service Award for work with homeless

Mary Ann Ryan, front, holds a certificate from the state of Michigan honoring her as one of seven recipients for the Governor's Service Award as Senior Volunteer of the Year during a banquet at the Detroit Opera House on Sept. 5. Ryan was nominated by leaders of the Oakland County Health Division and Hope Warming Center for her volunteer work at the Pontiac shelter, where she helped start a recuperative care center for homeless individuals after hospitalization. (Courtesy photo)

Mary Ann Ryan helped start recuperative care center at Pontiac warming center to care for post-hospitalization patients

LAKE ORION — A few hours after first volunteering at the Hope Warming Center in 2009, Mary Ann Ryan, a retired nurse and member of Christ the Redeemer Parish in Lake Orion, informed the center’s director she was there to stay.

Since then, Ryan has dedicated almost every Thursday evening to helping the homeless at the Pontiac shelter — a dedication to service that recently earned her recognition as one of seven recipients of the Michigan Governor's Service Award for Senior Volunteer of the Year.

Ryan said she was humbled — and a little embarrassed — by the honor. When she first signed up to serve, she just wanted to be there for others.

“I was much more interested in meeting those people who were homeless than I was serving dinner,” Ryan said of her first outing with a group from Christ the Redeemer in 2009.

It didn't take her long to start chatting with a man who came in with a limp. She asked to see his foot and discovered he had frostbite. Later that night, he died in the bathroom of a heart attack; it was the first time a guest had passed away at the center.

The man had been discharged from a hospital a few weeks prior, after being treated for a heart condition, Ryan recalled. For homeless individuals, going to the emergency room is often the only option for care. While some have health insurance, most do not have money for co-pays or prescriptions, so medical attention is sought only during emergencies.

“When they go to the hospital, they would be discharged to home,” Ryan said. “Well, there was no home.”

Volunteers from St. Mary Parish in Milford serve food at the Hope Warming Center in Pontiac in December 2017. The year-round shelter added a recuperative care center in 2015, a project spearheaded by volunteer Mary Ann Ryan. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

After learning the center did not have any medical professionals on staff, Ryan volunteered to join the team. In her work at Hope, Ryan advises guests who have medical questions, explains how to take medications and treats minor injuries such as cuts and scrapes. 

Hope was founded in 1998 as a seasonal warming center that operated out of the Baldwin Center in Pontiac. The organization bought an old church in 2011, renovated, and opened as a year-round shelter in 2012.

The shelter, which has 62 beds and is low-barrier — meaning there is no sobriety test or background check to stay — is the largest emergency shelter in Oakland County, according to Elizabeth Kelly, Hope's executive director. 

Filling a need in Oakland County

By 2012, county leaders were discussing how to end homelessness in Oakland County, and Kelly and Ryan saw a need to help homeless individuals who had been discharged after hospitalizations. 

Once, Ryan recalled, two men had come into the shelter just before the warming center opened. Both had frostbite on their toes, and Ryan sent them to the hospital.

One had to have part of his foot amputated. While in the hospital, he contracted an infection and, over the course of six months, was readmitted to the hospital for five or six more amputations. By the time he was frostbite- and infection-free, he was an above-the-knee amputee on both legs, had severe depression, and his addiction issues had worsened. He had no money to fill prescriptions he was supposed to be taking, and his case cost the hospital more than $1 million, Ryan said.

The other man, who went through a similar experience, cost the hospital about $500,000. Neither lived more than a year after their last surgery.

While hospitals aren't designed to provide housing for homeless individuals post-care, Ryan and Kelly pointed out that hospitals were losing money when homeless people had to continually return for the same issues.

After attending county-wide meetings to discuss the issue, their conversation was the catalyst for opening the next stage of Hope in 2015 — a recuperative care center. It was the first of its kind in Michigan.

When the center first opened, it was housed in rented space in Pontiac’s New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. It moved into its own space in 2018 and now has 15 beds. Each hospital gives grant money to maintain beds for a year for the homeless patients they discharge.

Ryan was an employee of the recuperative care center for more than three years.

Anyone can be homeless, Ryan said, regardless of education level and former jobs. Homeless individuals want human interaction, love, care and respect as much as anyone.

“We have seen miracle after miracle after miracle,” Ryan said of the way the centers have come together over the years. Any time Hope has needed supplies or funding, someone sends some, she added.

'It's impossible not to talk about God'

While God has provided, Hope has seen its share of challenges throughout the years. Kelly said Ryan finds a way to solve problems and is not discouraged when someone says no. She holds herself and others to a high standard, and her passion for social justice keeps everyone on track, reminding workers and volunteers that every person in important and deserving of help.

“For Mary Ann, the path is always clear,” said Kelly, a parishioner of St. John Fisher Chapel University Parish in Auburn Hills. “She just says, ‘Well, we have to do something about it,’ and then we do.”

Volunteers prepare food in the kitchen of the Hope Warming Center in December 2017. In addition to the soup kitchen and low-barrier homeless shelter, Hope seeks to engage guests in conversation and serve as many needs as possible, including job resources, medical care and basic necessities. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

Ryan also works with hospitals and insurance companies to get homeless individuals the care and treatment plans that work best for them. Because the treatments work better, the hospitals and insurance companies also save money by avoiding repeated trips to the emergency room.

The work done at Hope is the mandate of Jesus, Ryan said. She said all of the nurses and social workers feel the same way. Volunteers come from all walks of life, and Ryan said they’re a happy group.

“It’s impossible not to talk about God at the recuperative center,” Ryan said. “That’s all the homeless have.”

The shelters are more than a place to warm up, sleep and shower. Guests are happy that they have other people to talk to and are safe. Many homeless people have post-traumatic stress disorder because life on the streets is dangerous.

In addition to emergency medical care, Hope also works to help lift people out of homelessness by partnering with housing organizations and other agencies to bring services directly to the center. The more help Hope brings to its guests, the less the guests have to pay for phone calls and transportation.

Hope guests have 90 days to find housing and can use computers at the shelter to aid their research. While the rule isn’t set in stone, Kelly said individuals stay for an average of 43 days, and only 2 percent of Hope’s visitors come back because things don’t work out. 

“When folks come to Hope, we want this to be the last time they’re homeless,” Kelly said.