Sending out an SOS

By Joyce Wiswell

No one — not her siblings, not her friends, not even her kids — knew that Renee Avery was homeless the summer of 2015.

She had left a good job to care for her ailing father who eventually died. But by then Avery’s job had been filled, she lost her rented townhouse and she was hopelessly behind financially. She sent her teenage kids to live with their father in Westland, Mich., and stayed for a while with her sister, but that situation quickly became untenable. The next thing Avery knew, she was living in her car in a gated lot at Providence Hospital. 

“I would slip into one of the unoccupied rooms and shower. I watched TV in their waiting room. I still had my Planet Fitness membership so I would work out and shower from there,” she says. “I never thought I would be in that situation, not after earning three degrees and paying student loans.”

After nearly four weeks, Avery, now 47, turned to South Oakland Shelter (SOS) in Lathrup Village, Mich., for help. Each week a different congregation hosts an overnight shelter and provides meals, transportation and other services. 

The first few days were very rough. 

“I was still shell-shocked and I just wanted to be by myself,” Avery recalls. “But then I started to feel more comfortable. The people there saw how I was struggling to get back on my feet and they helped me so much.”

Avery told her kids that she was staying with a friend. “I never skipped a beat at being a parent,” she says. “I always went to see them at their dad’s house and made sure they had things.”

Meanwhile, Avery worked at any job she could get and saved every penny. She promised her kids she would have a place for them all back in Oak Park, Mich., by the time school started in September, which was also the 90-day limit SOS imposes for shelter guests. She found a duplex with just a week to spare. 

“SOS helped me with the deposit, gave me vouchers and helped me cover my rent when I got into a bind,” she says. “They made a profound impact on my life. I was so excited to be back in my own space, it was pure bliss.”

Renee Avery attending a Detroit Tigers game with her children.

Renee Avery attending a Detroit Tigers game with her children.

Today, her kids are doing well in high school and Avery is working steadily as a contract employee, but longs to land a permanent managerial position in physician billing or accounts receivable. She has been pre-approved for a mortgage by the non-profit Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of Americaand hopes to buy a home this spring.

None of it would be possible, she says, without SOS. “I want people to know that they actually care — this is not just a job for them. They put their hearts and souls into helping people.”

Recently, Avery summoned the courage to tell her children the truth about that summer. 

“I think,” she says, “they love me a little bit more because of my struggle.”

Homelessness, she says, can happen to anyone. “It can be as simple as you ran out of money. But no one wants to hear that because they want to believe that all the people in a shelter are derelicts. I was very ashamed and thought I was such a loser. But then I said to myself, ‘Renee, how dare you put yourself down! You are still the person you always were — kind and hardworking.’ Now I am quite proud to tell my story.”