Street Voice is a one-time student publication by The Washtenaw Voice that examines homelessness in Washtenaw County.
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Welcome to the first and only issue of Street Voice, a newspaper produced by the students enrolled in Feature Writing 216, a journalism course offered by Washtenaw Community College.
The publication is the result of a story-development discussion about articles that might raise awareness of the growing problem of homelessness in Washtenaw County by writing about it. The result was a long list of feature stories, personality profiles and photo essays that highlight the myriad big-hearted agencies, organizations and volunteers who lately have been overwhelmed by the unprecedented need by so many in our community.
Some of our students immersed themselves in their projects, none more than Washtenaw Voice Photo Editor Jared Angle, who has spent many hours over many months documenting life at Camp Take Notice, the tent city set up just outside of Ann Arbor. Some students, like writer/photographer Bob Conradi, spent hours interviewing the many doctors and other medical professionals who volunteer their time at the Hope Clinic, where those who have nowhere else to go turn to when they need help.
As the adviser to these journalists, I thank all those at all the various who gave a little of their precious time to our students learning the craft of journalism.
The Voice is printing several thousand copies of this newspaper, underwritten in large part by our printer, the Adrian Daily Telegraph. We planned to spread copies around campus on our newsstands as well as to some of the agencies we feature in this paper. But the bulk of them we hope to get into the hands of those on the street who will pass them out for free, or for donations. And if you happened to reach into your pocket to help them out a little bit, we thank you, too.
With sincerest gratitude to all who made Street Voice possible.
Jeff unzipped his tent and quickly looked around to make sure his belongings were safe – not an easy task against the constant struggle of protecting his food from mice and other woodland animals. In a home without walls, windows, or a sturdy front door, Jeff can’t stow his clothing in a dresser or store his food in a pantry. Instead, everything he owns is contained in a stack of plastic milk crates, and he sleeps in a sleeping bag on a thin mat on the ground.
Even in the summertime, Jeff said, sleeping in a tent isn’t the ideal lifestyle, but it’s far more comfortable, and safer, than the impending winter. His tent suffices in the summer with its thin mosquito net, rain cover, and impromptu shelves of crates. But once the snow begins to fly, he’ll have to winterize his tent and hope he’ll be able to stay warm throughout the night.
“It’s a big blow to your self-esteem to be here,” said Jeff, who asked that his last name not be used for this story. “I mean look at it, it’s not exactly home.”
By fall, Jeff started receiving Social Security disability payments and found a home. He was one of the lucky ones.
Many more — up to 50 in the summer and between 15 and 20 in the winter — call Camp Take Notice home.
This is their story.
A view of tents around the central path of Camp Take Notice. Residents have learned to tolerate automobile noise because of the camp’s proximity to two highways.
Just temporary — but for how long?
“Tent City” — a phrase that might evoke images of the infamous jail facility in Maricopa County, Ariz., where thousands of inmates serve their time in the unforgiving desert heat. But in Ann Arbor, it has an entirely different meaning. It’s a community where some of the thousands of homeless people in Washtenaw County can rest while they struggle to get their lives back on track.
Nestled in a triangular plot of trees about the length of three football fields and bordered by I-94, M-14 and Wagner Road, Camp Take Notice offers a drug-free environment where the homeless can set up a tent, away from the busy streets of downtown Ann Arbor. Originally formed in 2008, Camp Take Notice has existed in five previous locations in Ann Arbor before setting up on the city’s west side in 2010.
Caleb Poirier, 34, brought the tent city concept to Ann Arbor after spending time in similar camps near Seattle. While smaller than similar tent cities Poirier visited in other states, Camp Take Notice was designed to have a similar governing structure.
An impromptu set of railroad tie stairs winds its way from Wagner Road into the camp’s main path. M-14 can be seen in the distance.
While CTN offers solace to between 15 and 50 of Washtenaw County’s estimated 4,000 homeless people depending on the time of year, it is not universally embraced. The camp’s close proximity to Elizabeth Street, a small, unpaved street with about 15 single-family homes, has some residents concerned. Kat Miller, 31, lives in Ann Arbor and frequently parks her car at a relative’s home on the street.
Miller said that on two separate occasions, she came to the home and found a man searching for food in the garage. The second time, she told the man that he had to leave, or she would call the police to report him for trespassing.
Suspecting that someone has intruded on the property at least “five or six times” and defecated on the lawn since the second incident, she no longer parks her car at her relative’s home to ride the bus.
Further down the street, Melissa Sheffer, 30, relates her experience with the camp, which has been much more positive. She says the residents of Camp Take Notice don’t draw attention to themselves. In fact, she had only recently learned of the camp’s existence. She hasn’t had any problems with camp residents, and isn’t aware of any crime happening near her home.
Sheffer admires the willingness of the campers to seek employment and advance themselves, adding that they appear to be hard-working. “They take the bus, shower at the ymca, and go to work,” says Sheffer.
Caleb Poirer, 34, talks to a camp visitor.
When it comes to such issues in the neighborhood, Caleb Poirier and some of the more experienced residents offer important advice to new residents: “Don’t go on Elizabeth Street.”
Vernon Grob, 61, believes the concerns voiced by Elizabeth Street residents stem from a “not-in-my-backyard” mentality.
To rule out the possibility of complaints from the nearby communities, members of the camp adopted a strict panhandling policy that prohibits asking for handouts within a one-mile radius. Additionally, the camp’s leadership decided that other than walking to or from the camp, or waiting at the nearby bus stop on Wagner Road, camp residents should not loiter near the camp or surrounding neighborhoods.
Referred by a friend, David Williams, 57, is using Camp Take Notice to get back on his feet. Currently he has a job and is saving paychecks to rent an apartment.
Getting back on their feet — hopefully
David Williams, 57, is one of the hard-working people that Sheffer references. Originally from Inkster, a friend told Williams about Camp Take Notice, recommending it as a place to live while saving up for a home.
Williams used to receive unemployment checks until they ran out five months ago. He said he prayed that he would find a job before October so he could have a chance of finding a home before winter.
And his prayers came true. He was hired to a new job in mid-September. Now he’s pursuing his friend’s advice of saving his paychecks so he can find an apartment.
Williams has a word of warning, though: Some campers get comfortable with life in the camp and stop looking for employment and lodging. He says that the camp “is a great way to get back on your feet – as long as you don’t get stuck here.” He says that those campers who stay for too long can find themselves in a cycle of apathy and alcohol abuse.
Jeff displays the inside of his tent.
Another camper, Jeff, was able to leave the camp after waiting over a year to start receiving Social Security benefits. In the preceding months, Jeff talked about how finding work was difficult without a permanent address. Instead it was easier to find a temporary job lasting a few weeks, and to save paychecks from the various jobs with the hope of raising the money for rent payments on an inexpensive apartment.
Some campers come back to the camp even after successfully leaving, and they share their experiences with new campers, some of whom are homeless for the first time. According to Poirier, this relationship between campers, former campers and charities forms a community bond that helps further the camp’s goal of raising awareness of homelessness.
Needs met by warm hearts
An important factor in getting the majority of the campers organized for Camp Take Notice’s weekly Sunday meetings is the donation of a large, warm meal that can feed everyone adequately. These food donations are provided through a weekly rotation of different charities, churches and private citizens who support the camp.
Karla and Tim Dorweil made a large donation on Oct. 2, consisting of a variety of home-cooked food, including salad, whole grains and fresh strawberries. According to Tim, he and his wife “are careful shoppers,” and wanted to provide the best nutrition possible. Tim estimated the cost of the donation, which fed roughly 20 people with additional food remaining, at $80-$90.
Additional assistance comes from a variety of local churches, including the Zion Lutheran church. Camp residents are able to volunteer for woodcutting and collect their firewood from donors with trees on their property. By using donated firewood instead of cutting down trees in the camp, residents are able to stay warm without destroying MDOT property.
Fires are built with wood cleared from the properties of donors as opposed to fuel gleaned from cutting down trees on MDOT property.
Helping those who help themselves
While Camp Take Notice’s two-year presence on Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT)-owned land is technically illegal, MDOT’s Brighton Transportation Service Center manager Mark Geib, who oversees operations in Livingston, Washtenaw and Monroe Counties, offers a different perspective on the issue.
Geib says that as long as residents maintain a safe and clean environment in the camp and actively search for a permanent housing solution elsewhere, MDOT has no plans to evict the campers. He says that for the most part, there have been few complaints about the camp.
Keeping in accordance with MDOT’s conditions of safety and cleanliness, the residents of Camp Take Notice have turned waste management into a key element of daily life. As trash accumulates, bags are brought to a holding area by the road, where they are picked up on a regular basis by truck.
While the camp enjoys MDOT’s acceptance, some of the campers have been busy giving back to MDOT and highway commuters by volunteering their time in Michigan’s Adopt-a-Highway program. On Oct. 3, some 15 residents, including some sick and injured campers, scoured a three-mile stretch of highway to the west of the camp for garbage, collecting 20 bags by the end of the day.
Since then, camp residents have cleaned the road several times, and have taken the program a step further by cleaning up a section of Wagner Road as well. The spirit of volunteerism has taken hold within the boundaries of the camp as well, with residents undertaking cleaning projects and constructing wooden shelters for generators and trash.
Poirier described a “rent” system that incentivizes residents to take part in community service and camp chores in return for additional weekly bus tokens, which are vital to many residents’ job-seeking process.
Alonzo Young, 46, is a Washtenaw Community College student and has been a resident of Camp Take Notice for several months. His responsibility lies with performing security duties, such preventing theft and fighting, enforcing the drug policy and stopping excessive noise at night.
“I look out for people, I’m a caring person,” Young said regarding his duties. When residents who violate these rules are caught, they risk being evicted from the camp, especially if the offense leads to police intervention, which the camp works to prevent.
In the event that a resident of the camp is evicted for a rule violation, a committee at the camp decides whether the eviction will be temporary (up to two weeks) or permanent. In the event of a two-week eviction, the campers can return, at which point they tell their version of the events that led to their eviction, which can then be rebutted by other campers in a meeting.
After opinions are voiced, the residents are allowed to resume living in the camp. In the case of a permanent eviction, however, a camper must go through an appeals process, which includes a discussion among campers, a group vote by the camp, a decision by camp leaders and, finally, a counseling process to ensure the campers abide by the rules if they are allowed to return.
Additionally, the residents of the camp are required to keep a fire extinguisher near each of the camp’s several firepits, which are used to provide warmth and to cook. Poirier says following these rules and making democratic choices keeps the camp orderly and ensures that the camp is safe from eviction by MDOT.
Common health issues create uncommon hardships
Vernon Grob, 61, a resident of Camp Take Notice.
Brian Durrance, 49, of Ann Arbor, a board member of MISSION, a nonprofit collaboration between homeless and homeful people.
Since the residents of Camp Take Notice don’t have the same access to hospitals and disability services as people with homes and jobs do, staying healthy can be a struggle. Counted among the 30-plus residents of the camp are a pregnant woman and individuals with serious health issues, such as mental illness, diabetes, high blood pressure, broken limbs, and pulled muscles.
Poirier and other members of the camp’s executive committee dedicated a new “office tent” to help relieve some of these problems that residents have. A set of drawers has first-aid supplies for residents, and the office contains paperwork with important information on the residents, which helps keep track of supplies as they are issued to residents, such as tents and sleeping bags.
The residents don’t have the luxury of an elevator, and the stairway leading into camp from Wagner Road is treacherous at best. Constructed from donated railroad ties, the stairway winds down the camp’s dirt path, making the trip downhill safer, especially during rainy and snowy weather.
Improvements to the stairway have been a hot topic at the camp’s Sunday meetings, but the issue is not without controversy. Officially, MDOT has requested that no permanent structures, such as metal railings, be installed in the camp or near Wagner Road. Concerned about a backlash from MDOT, some campers voted against the building of a railing on the stairs, eventually leading to a compromise with the camp’s majority for a less-visible, semi-permanent railing.
Camp residents vote on weekly meeting agenda items, while a University of Michigan School of Social Work student takes notes.
Shelter Association of Washtenaw County
Despite having created a system for waste disposal, drinking water, heating and cooking, the camp still lacks running water and a physical address to receive mail, which is where the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County (SAWC) comes into the picture.
SAWC’s program at the Delonis Center downtown offers showers, laundry, mail, and storage services, which residents of the camp rely on to fulfill the needs that the camp cannot provide. Additionally, the Delonis Center has offered the ‘Warming Center’ program in previous years, where the homeless can stay on the first floor of the five-story structure and away from the biting winter cold.
The future of the Warming Center was in jeopardy, however, according to Shelter Association CEO Ellen Schulmeister. Citing the difficulty of finding donors to fund the program through the winter months, she said that the likelihood of the program being continued was questionable, adding that Shelter Association employees were trying to solve the situation.
As of mid-October, the Warming Center gained the funding it required to operate, albeit at a smaller occupancy of 25 people per night. At Camp Take Notice’s Oct. 23 meeting, a number of residents showed interest in participating in the program, which is open to men and women. At the Warming Center, they will have access to caseworkers and a full night of sleep on a clean mat with blankets in a heated room.
Barry Minowitz, 58, is the Operations Manager from the Shelter Association. He provided a sign-up form for residents to access the Warming Center. He also informed residents of a church-based program known as the Rotating Shelter, where a small amount of Washtenaw County’s homeless can register on a first-come, first-served basis to access shelter in a network of local churches. Deriving its name from the fact that residents will sleep in a different church every night, the Rotating Shelter is offered to men only.
Two covered tents and supplies under a tarp in Camp Take Notice. Many residents shelter their tents with tarps to shield them from wind and rain.
Staying warm and dealing with difficult weather
As the summer months give way to fall, weather that most homeowners wouldn’t bat an eye at has been plaguing residents of Camp Take Notice. Most recently, heavy rains pounded some of the smaller, flimsier tents until they collapsed, soaking through clothing and spoiling food.
The camp’s executive committee has been planning for future rains and inevitable winter snow by stockpiling heavy-duty tarps and receiving donated winter tents which can keep residents warm at temperatures approaching zero degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to sturdier shelter, the campers were able to get a few propane tanks – enough to use sparingly for cooking, but not enough to run propane heaters full-time.
A ‘mega-tent’ of connected tarps encloses smaller tents to protect them from inclement weather.
From October through early spring, residents who find the insides of their tents too cold can move to the community tent, where two wood furnaces burn firewood, which is easier to come by than propane. Additionally, the camp will undergo an organizational change – instead of consisting of many tents spread out over a large distance in the woods, the camp will condense to a small area around the community tent, so the residents can stay close together.
Richard McKendry, 40, gazes at the rest of the camp on a cool October evening.
Richard McKendry, 40, says keeping snow off the ground will be a challenge in the winter. Instead of trying to clear the entire area that the camp currently occupies, the situation will be simplified as the tents move closer together and only a smaller area will require clearing.
Residents have found other ways to beat the cold than huddling together, though. In two different sections of the camp, residents have placed their small tents together between trees, and built a much larger tent around the trees, enclosing the smaller tents. Creating an additional buffer zone between the tents and the outside world, the residents living in these “mega tents” are able to keep items outside of their tents while still protecting them from the elements.
With the camp located on the eastern edge of Scio Township on the border with Ann Arbor, law enforcement responsibilities lies with the Washtenaw County Sheriff Department and the Michigan State Police. While the sheriff’s department denied a Freedom of Information Act request for police records regarding Camp Take Notice, Director of Community Engagement Derrick Jackson confirmed that deputies conduct a weekly patrol of the camp to “check in on folks and see how things are going.”
“It is actually state property, so it’s technically the Michigan State Police [responsibility], but obviously it’s in Scio Township and we want to make sure we keep an eye out and make sure everything is okay out there,” said Jackson.
The Ann Arbor Police Department responded with one police record dating from April 18, 2010, which resulted in no arrests. Residents of the camp attribute Camp Take Notice’s success to the current location on mdot-owned land.
The camp has endured fewer interventions from law enforcement since it moved from the former locations behind Arborland Mall and the Ann Arbor-Saline Road Park and Ride, which were much more visible to the public.
Some furry friends
While for some residents life in Camp Take Notice can be bleak, they are able to take solace in the feeling that they are part of a community that provides a shelter for those who have none. And as the campers have each other to lean on, they have three more close allies — a family of cats, brought to the camp during the summer.
Dashing around playfully and jumping into the laps of residents while they eat their Sunday dinner, the cats bring joy, a little excitement, some warmth and a few smiles. They heighten spirits among the campers.
As nighttime falls and the residents retire one-by-one to their tents, the cats are never far behind. Those residents who leave their tents unzipped are frequently greeted by the cats, which will curl up and make a camper almost feel like home.
When you first meet Shelley, you can’t help but notice her dazzling smile and her positive outlook. You’d never know she was, in her words, “one step from being homeless.”
And she’s not alone.
Like so many people in Washtenaw County, the devastating decline in the economy has forced so many individuals and families into shelters or places like Camp Take Notice – a tent village on state property near Ann Arbor.
For Jeff, a former resident of Camp Take Notice, resources like that have helped him have a place to call home – when he didn’t have one.
“People here normally get their job, they get on their feet, get an apartment and that sort of thing,” he said. “So it’s certainly nothing permanent.”
He said that being in CTN provides a consistent place to live, so it’s easier to stay organized and start the job hunt. Luckily, after being granted Social Security disability payments, he was able to move out of CTN and find an inexpensive living situation.
Both Shelly and Jeff asked that their last names not be used.
In 2004, several partners in Washtenaw County, both public and private along with the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, pledged to end homelessness in 10 years. WHA published a report entitled “A Home for Everyone: A Blueprint to End Homelessness” and was spread through the community with four goals in mind; prevention, housing with services (permanent supportive housing), rectify the system of care and include the community.
In an attempt to have a central location for adults, children, mental illness residents, families, HIV/AIDs residents, WHA created a single point of entry known as Housing Access for Washtenaw County to better serve residents in need.
From 2009-11, WHA coordinated a response plan with the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program. This new pilot was able to prevent homelessness for 583 households granting $2,483 in funds to these households. For 191 families, $1,898 was allocated to get these households back into permanent housing.
Because of resources that WHA has coordinated, people like Robert Salo, formerly of Farmington Hills, was able to find a safe sanctuary in the Delonis Center.
“They (Delonis Center) helped me find my housing through the housing coordinator. They also showed me the survival kit of the resources that were available in Washtenaw County,” said Salo, who acknowledged he came to Ann Arbor because of Washtenaw County’s commitment to helping the disadvantaged. “They had computers so we could find work, because they wanted you to work.”
Despite all these efforts, Washtenaw County’s homeless community is increasing by shocking and disturbing numbers. Nevertheless, Community leaders like Susan Beckett considers Groundcover, a street newspaper dedicated to helping low-income and homeless people, “a small way for me to give back.”
“No one grows up wanting to be homeless,” she said. “And I would like to change that.”
Street Voice staff writers Jared Angle and Adrian Hedden contributed to this report.
Mitch, a homeless Viet Nam veteran, camps alone in an Ann Arbor thicket.
He sleeps in a tent, hidden in the brush. What he hears is not the chirping of birds and wind in the trees; it is the cacophony of heavy traffic, busy people unaware of the homeless man camping nearby.
Mitch (not his real name), is a 61-year-old Vietnam hero with the medal to prove it who grew up in Belleville. He said he served in Vietnam as part of the 51st Infantry from 1969 to 1971.
“It took me 20 years to get that war out of my mind,” he said. “Some days I still think about it.”
Sometime after the war, he took up farming on the family maple grove in Northern Michigan. Then came some bad choices and mounting debt. “I lost everything trying to keep everything I had,” he said.
About six years ago, Mitch was diagnosed with cancer. Disagreements with the Veterans Administration over proposed medical treatment caused him to lose the government support he could have been entitled to.
“I earned a Bronze Star over there, and I threw it at them over there at the VA. Because I went for a second opinion, because I refused surgery that they were going to give me, and I refused radiation, they say I denounced the government, and I can’t get food stamps, I can’t get SSI (Supplemental Security Income for disabled adults).”
But he still gets help at a local cancer center, he said.
Mitch lives alone with the help of handouts and a sympathetic business nearby. He dislikes the company of fellow homeless people because he believes the majority are addicts and alcoholics. He describes himself as “a dry drunk,” an alcoholic who now abstains.
Winters in the tent can be frighteningly cold. Mitch used to warm the tent by lighting candles. The situation improved when a woman gave him a propane heater.
While feeling blessed by the help he has received, Mitch is often bewildered by the disdain displayed by others. He says people have thrown things at him and that the police once cut up his tent. He says he can partly understand their attitude because so many homeless people are addicts.
Meanwhile, Mitch continues to camp out alone in the middle of a bustling city, a little tent in the bushes that he has called home for the last 5 ½ years.
The homeless, even in Washtenaw County, face great challenges against the wind
Editor’s note: Washtenaw Voice staffer Chuck Denton, no stranger to hardship and homelessness in his life, spent a long autumn day in Ann Arbor seeking shelter ahead of another harsh Michigan winter. What he found should leave everyone chilled.
Turn your card around, so I can see it,” said the bus driver on the No. 5 route working the Packard route to Ann Arbor. That’s how my day began on Friday, Oct. 14, at 8:30 a.m.
Sorry, I didn’t realize my card flipped. It was hanging from my neck and the expiration date on my AATA Fair-Deal discount pass was blocked from view. It allows tokens and 50 cents off a $1.25 fare. Some drivers seem to have attitudes about the discount card, thinking it’s a card for bums.
Do you accept Detroit bus tokens? I asked while showing him that they look similar.
Rainy morning at Blake Transit Center waiting for ‘The Ride’.
“No!” he screamed. And I pulled out the change in my pocket and found an AATA bus token that covers the remaining 75 cents and dropped it into the coin box. I grabbed my gray Nike backpack and moved to the rear of the bus.
Worried about my housing, I decided to check with the Center to find out about getting shelter for the winter. I am glad to be on the bus, it was cold and windy.
Once seated, I pulled two books from my Nike backpack. I couldn’t decide which one to check out first. “Submersion Journalism” from Harpers, or a much smaller book, “John Dewey: The Reconstruction of the Democratic Life,” by Jerome Nathanson. I picked Dewey because it appeared to be a quick read, and my trip to downtown Ann Arbor was going to take about 45 minutes from Ypsilanti.
And so I read and learn that, according to Dewey, people were misled and Darwin himself knew better, too. For the real impact of the evolution theory, the impact of incalculable influence was to be not on theology but on science and philosophy. Dewey’s intellectual labors for a half-century have been concentrated on this question to such an extent that his growth development and education philosophy can be understood only in the light of it.
St. Andrews Church
We arrived at the Blake Transit Center, and I got off the bus and started walking to St. Andrews Church on Catherine, near Kerry Town. I was hoping I might get lucky, and catch a free breakfast – if I walked fast enough.
I see Raymond waiting to get on the bus. He is waiting for the bus driver to lower the handicap ramp. In downtown Ann Arbor, everyone loves Raymond. He is one of the special ones. Despite his condition, he seems to be the happiest, most well-adjusted person around. What is special is talking to Raymond because he has a gift of making just about anyone smile.
He looks up at me gives me a big smile and turns to the bus driver and says, “Please wait, I need to talk to my friend.”
“Raymond, what time does Delonis serve dinner?” I asked.
“Five on week days and 3 on the weekends,” he said. “Can you meet me at Starbucks at noon? I will have more time to talk then.”
“Sure, I will be there.”
Raymond got on the bus and I walked as quickly as I could to get to St. Andrews. I had always wondered what happened to Raymond, but I never asked. He’s a large, 73-year-old black man, but when he talks he makes you feel like he is still a little boy and everything is a wonderful surprise – like it’s always someone’s birthday.
Breakfast at St. Andrews.
St. Andrew’s is a 15-20 minute walk from the Blake Transit Center. Once I got there, I was reminded breakfast is served from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. I missed it, no breakfast! I went to Delonis to check on the process of getting shelter. I had heard there were new rules in place, and I wanted to make sure I got the latest information.
I walked in and asked the receptionist for information on getting shelter.
“Before you can come here, you must go to SOS on River St. in Ypsilanti. After SOS screens you, then they might give you a referral to come here to the Delonis Center. You can also call them and ask for a referral over the phone,” said the receptionist.
SOS is the now the new central entry point to get homeless services in Washtenaw County.
She handed me a one-page list of services at the Delonis Center, saying, “you don’t need SOS to have dinner here.” She also gave me the SOS phone number. I walked out the door headed to Ypsilanti. I could wait for the bus, but I would rather walk the four or five blocks back to the transit center than stand around waiting for the No. 9, inbound Jackson-Dexter route to the transit center.
Now it is cold, windy and raining and I wished I was on the bus.
I got on the No. 4B headed to SOS, and just as I approached the first stop, I realized I would never get back in time to meet Raymond at noon. I remembered I promised, so I jumped off the bus before it left Ann Arbor. SOS can wait. I headed to Starbucks on Main Street.
I got a tea and found a nice chair in the corner. There is always a steady flow of customers, and there are times when you can’t find a seat. I pulled out Dewey from my backpack and wondered why this book draws me. To most people it would be boring, but to me real life is far from boring and Dewey seemed to have a hand in making our modern world.
Raymond. He says he has a PhD in physiology and speaks five languages, that he was educated in Quebec, Canada. He says he is French-Candian-African. He also has set on the board of directors for the homeless programs in Ann Arbor.
As we talked, it seemed many would stop and greet Raymond with a big smile, including the local letter carrier.
We had a wonderful talk, and it made my day – whether or not I find a roof over my head.
I said my goodbyes to Raymond and walked to the Blake Transit Center, about four blocks away. I had about a 15-minute wait before the No. 6 showed up. We all boarded and headed to Ypsilanti.
I tried to call SOS from the bus, but once again I got the machine. I thought it would be best to go into the office to get a face-to-face and see what they have posted on their walls that might be of help. After I hung up the phone, a black man, James, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I see you need shelter for the winter.”
Yes, I am worried about what’s going on in Washington. It seems every other week they keep threatening to close the government and terminate the value of the dollar. So I thought I would find out about shelter options.
“You need to get over to JPORT on fourth. They helped me. You can get mental services, odd jobs like emptying the trash at the court building,” James said. “There is also state money available if you qualify. They will also help you deal with Social Security, too. Make sure you ask for Dr. Nedikinpink, he can help,” James said.
James is a 63-year-old man who just lost his girlfriend, 45, to substance abuse.
“She was a retired hooker and had a million dollars in the bank, and if she liked you she would help anyone. But she had a problem with drugs.”
The bus stopped and James pointed at the apartment complex and said, “I am in apartment 31!”
“Thanks for all the information, it was really helpful,” I told him. “Take care.”
“Don’t stay out in the cold,” he said, and he got off the bus.
A sign at SOS tells visitors it no longer allows walk-ins.
I caught the No. 11 bus to River Street at the Ypsilanti Transit Center. I walked down River Street to find SOS, located in an old Ypsilanti home that was turned into an office in the historic district of Ypsilanti. I get to the door and find a notice posted: “SOS no longer offers walk-in services for housing emergencies. To receive assistance with your housing, call 961-1999 for assistance. I called and left voice mail Friday at 3:15 p.m., and got a call back on Monday at 1 p.m. (The voice-mail message also noted to call 211 in case of emergency.)
Rather than wait for the No. 11 bus, I walked back to the Ypsilanti Transit Center to catch the next bus back to Ann Arbor. While waiting for the bus, I overheard two guys talking about the 30-day Gopass. “A Gopass is golden. Once I traded four Vicodin for a Gopass, and I could ride anywhere. Boy that was sweet!”
The No. 3 was the first bus in that was headed back to Ann Arbor, it follows the Huron River and makes stops at the Veterans Administration Hospital and Washtenaw Community College. I pulled Dewey out again to keep occupied for another 45 minutes.
Dewey makes an appeal to our ongoing experience – When he asks what makes us what we are, he finds the answer in the organization of society, in the culture to which we belong. Human nature is not merely the adaptation of a biological organism to the environment in which it finds itself. One of its distinguishing characteristics, on the contrary, is that it can adapt the environment in which it finds itself. In a measure, it creates its environment, and in doing so, it creates itself. Interesting.
The No. 3 rolls into the Blake Transit center and I catch the No. 9, which will drop me off in front of the Delonis Center. I go back to the receptionist and let them know SOS no longer accepts walk-in’s, so don’t send people over there.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that,” said the receptionist.
When will the Warming Center be open?
“Around mid-November,” she said. “The Warming Center and rotation does not need SOS approvals. Right now, you need to wait outside until the Community Kitchen opens at 5.”
I went across the street to get away from the crowd forming in front of the building.
When the kitchen opens, everyone fills in. I pick table three and sat down. I notice there is a guy sitting across from me. He is missing his right eye and part of his head. If you don’t mind me asking, what happen to your right eye?
“I tried to kill myself,” said Jay, formerly from Toledo.
Do you remember anything, like what was going on in your mind?
“Yes, I had back surgery trying to get rid of the pain and the doctors put me on pain killers. The next thing I know, I am up to 30 pills a day and I need more just to maintain. I had three doctors writing scripts. I felt trapped and wanted out. One day, I decided to end it, and after I had two cigarettes, I pulled the trigger.”
“How do you deal with the pain now?”
“I walk 6-10 miles every day, and I feel good.”
“You better get some shoes; it’s getting cold.” He was wearying sandles, and his feet were black.
“I have shoes, but I love my sandles.”
“Does the walking help the mental side?”
“Yes, plus I meditate with a group and we visualize the earth and it really helps me relax. Hey, if you want to get your food early, they will be calling clean-up volunteers and if you volunteer you get to go first.”
They called for volunteers and I walked up and got a green ticket and got into the food line. They served pork chops, yams, squash, carrots, salad, and corn bread. There were many choices for dessert. I picked carrot cake. Back at the table, I gave Jay my pork chop – no meat for me. The lady one seat away hears me talk about the Springwells area of Detroit and cuts in.
“That is where I am from,” she said. “I was trapped on crack, and couldn’t get out of there until my son came and moved me. Now my kidneys are almost gone because of the crack, but I am happy to be out of there.”
“Well I am glad you got someone to help you,” I said.
I finished and took my tray to the dirty dishes windows. I was first to get up, I wanted to open my seat so someone else could set down. I went past the glass divider to wait for clean up.
“Hey you standing there with the wash rag, come over here. See the wall? Please wipe it down,” said a supervisor in the kitchen.
I finished the wall and the clean-up was done. The tables and chairs were wiped down and the chairs were placed on the tables. I headed for the 7 p.m. “Pizza in the Park” on Friday at Liberty Plaza, a block down from Federal building.
There was the usual large turnout of the givers, along with 50 or so receivers. There are about 10 tables of free stuff, mostly from the local churches. I got two hot pieces of pizza and went over to two young people holding a sign: Occupy Ann Arbor.
“So, what’s the deal,” I asked. “Why are you occupying Ann Arbor?”
“We just got back from New York,” said Eric,19, a former Central Michigan University student planning on enrolling in WCC. “I’m going to Lansing and Detroit next.”
“Listen, I think it is great that you feel you need to make a statement, just be safe,” I said. “And respect authority. They (police) are paid to do a job. There will be some who will be troublemakers.”
“Yes, I know we had to lock arms in New York to block the troublemakers,” Eric said. “They tried to make us look bad in front of the cameras.”
I said good-bye, and I headed toward State Street.
I see a panhandler in front of the former Borders store.
“Hey, where’s Richard? “ I ask, inquiring about another panhandler who likes to camp out in front of Borders.
Daniel at his usual spot downtown, collecting change.
“I don’t know where Richard is. I’m Daniel. Do you have a dollar?”
Sure, I have a dollar. Would it be OK if I sit with you? Any money I get I will give to you.
“Sure, you can sit with me.”
We talked and Daniel said he was 55. He has been on medication for schizophrenia since 1980.
“They keep changing the medication. Last year, I gained 80 pounds, then they switched the meds and I lost 80 pounds. If I don’t go for my treatment, they come and get me, and sometime I shake real bad after treatment.”
“I don’t think the doctors have figured out how to fix schizophrenia,” I said, “and I bet you just do whatever they tell you.”
“I have to,” he said.
“Well if you can manage it, start walking. Try to walk none stop for one or two hours and try to do it every day. After a couple of weeks, you should start to feel stronger, and if you do, keep walking and before you know it, you can tell the doctor to lower your medication. If you keep it up, you should continue to feel improvement. Walking generates special chemicals in the brain that should help you get better.”
I noticed we were not getting any donations. I laid my hat in front of me and Daniel did the same. Soon we got some donations. I gave the U-M hat and the money to Daniel and told him it was nice talking with him.
“I will try the walking,” he said as we bid our good-byes.
Doug, at his usual spot downtown
I headed to State Street, and past Doug, another panhandler. I noticed he had collected more money. He was flying all the colors – USA and sports. He figured out how to get noticed.
It was dark. I decided to walk a few miles to Packard, rather than stand waiting for a bus. I got to the Packard bus stop and noticed a young lady. I ask her, “What are you doing out here in the dark. You know we have a bad guy on the loose?”
“Yes, I know that is why I left the law school early.”
The No. 5 bus stops, and it’s my last bus ride for the day. It’s 9:05 p.m. when I arrive “home” to spend a few more hours with Dewey. On Monday, I’ll be back at it, seeking my winter refuge.
Be an educated giver
Washtenaw County is no stranger to panhandling, but where it is most prevalent, in downtown Ann Arbor, businesses are not wary of beggars.
Russ Collins runs one of those businesses. The executive director and CEO of the Michigan Theater, located in the heart of Downtown Ann Arbor at the corner of Liberty and South State Street, stands firm that panhandling is a natural part of his environment and that business will continue to proceed undeterred.
“It’s part of an urban landscape,” Collins said. “The good thing is that panhandling represents a human dynamic. The bad thing is that it’s kind of annoying. I don’t perceive that it is affecting business negatively.”
Collins looks to the tight-knit nature of Washtenaw County as having contributed to local fear of the destitute.
“An interesting conundrum is that Washtenaw County doesn’t have a big city,” Collins said. Most people in the county are nice suburban types who think of home as a house and a yard; a downtown is not like that.”
Perceiving a peak in neighborhood begging coinciding with the high volume of students returning during late August and early September, Collins believes that panhandlers may have found greater success during this period. Collins sees students as an easy target for panhandlers.
“Here you have young, optimistic people with a lot of pocket money in the area,” Collins said. They know students are easy pickings.
Ellen Shulmeister worries about pedestrian exploitation as well. The executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County cautions generosity for a people she believes are seldom to be trusted.
“Be an educated giver,” Shulmeister said. “People tell stories while panhandling that are not necessarily true. Most are trying to get extra money for alcohol and drug use.”
Citing a supportive community as providing unwitting support for street hustlers, Shulmeister is adamant that beggars are usually not in need. Shulmeister contends that 95 percent of panhandlers are not homeless.
“Panhandling is a problem because people think they are all homeless,” Shulmeister said. “It’s an extremely caring community, but when people are panhandling for money, it is essentially their job. People often have a hard time saying no.”
Shulmeister is certain that needs are being met. Looking to Washtenaw County’s many public services for those in need, Shulmeister challenges the idea that the destitute need petty cash.
“In Ann Arbor, people can eat. There is no reason why anyone would be hungry in Ann Arbor, with the feeding programs offered,” Shulmeister said. “It’s good to be a little suspicious. If you give money, do it with your eyes open.”
Like Collins, Shulmeister worries about misconceptions from wealthy pedestrians and students on the downtown, UM campus.
“A big concentration is on campus or in the campus area,” Shulmeister said. “I’ve even heard rumors that panhandlers view the area as quite lucrative.”
For Abraham Hegazi, owner of Allure Boutique on West Liberty Street, 15 years of working in that very area has revealed two distinct categories of panhandlers.
“Some people, they really can’t walk; I would love to help them.” Hegazi said. “But we have to watch out for certain aggressive panhandlers.”
Hegazi also holds Shulmeisters fears of substance abuse as motivation for this aggressive panhandling.
“People out panhandling to buy crack – I am concerned about them,” Hegazi said. “Maybe a guy asks you for a dollar and he really needs it, but there are other kinds of panhandlers who only want to continue their bad habits.”
Like Collins, Hegazi is unafraid of the pressure created by doing business among the needy. Hegazi sees broader, national problems as cause for any slight to operations of commerce in Washtenaw County.
“I can’t blame panhandling for business being bad with this economy today,” Hegazi said.
Furthermore, Collins believes local hysteria to be the result of a society built on sensationalism.
“Fear sells; comfort doesn’t,” Collins said. “That’s why we have the government we do.”
After making it up the steps and veering off into the small room just outside a maze of cubicles where a woman punched at the keys on her computer, Jeff L. had his head in hand, wondering if this would be the place he would finally get housing and make it through recovery.
The man had fallen on hard times and had been homeless for 15 months. He waved with his hands and explained the frustration he had with other organizations trying to get the help that he needed just to find a place to live. He was a young man wearing fairly trendy clothing, but he appeared disheveled. He hadn’t shaved in some time and he seemed nervous as he fidgeted in the plastic chair in the small office.
Seeing those people on the side of the road talking to themselves or seeing something that the rest of the world doesn’t makes people nervous. Those who are mentally ill have a more difficult time reaching out for help on their own, and many find it hard to trust those who have dealt with substance abuse. For the man dealing with recovery from substance abuse, hunched over in the chair in the corner of the office room, finding help from government agencies hasn’t been easy.
“It’s not easy, I’ve been trying to get a state ID,” Jeff began. “I’m here for recovery. I’ve been homeless since Aug.1 of last year. Resources in Ann Arbor have been no help.”
He was at the Homeless Project Outreach Team (PORT) in Ann Arbor, an organization that helps the mentally ill and homeless to get housing and other services they need such as case management and medication management. It provides ongoing psychiatric services to those who are mentally ill and involved in the justice system as well. The building is located in a large group of office buildings on 110 N. Fourth Street, and those who desperately need their help can drop in and get started.
The supervisor for the homeless PORT, John Loring, explained that this program works through many channels and other agencies to get the mentally ill and chronically homeless the help they need. They work with other programs such as the Department of Human Services and the Department of Mental Health.
“I work supervising the H-PORT team. We have two teams. J-PORT offers jail diversion,” Loring began. “PORT started in 2000; I’ve been working here ever since.”
PORT has helped Jana get to a place in her life where she is now able to give back to her community that once helped to bring her back from the brink. One in need of their services, she shook her head and described some of the problems she worked through.
Her fingers moved across the keyboard and she laughed with other workers who came in and out of the little room. Now she volunteers at PORT, she helps these people reach out to the numbers of homeless in Ann Arbor that suffer from the same problems she once did.
“There’s a heavy caseload. People are invited to come in as needed, but it’s better to make an appointment,” Jana explained. “The services are for people who have mental illnesses or are homeless. They even helped me find housing.”
For the people who make it up the steps and follow the signs to the first door on the right, finding themselves with somebody like Jana who has been in their situation is a way to make them feel more comfortable. PORT has the approach of positive engagement to help people in their own personal situations.
Those who need help can find pamphlets that give information about many other places that offer help for those who homeless. The “Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Street Survival Guide” offers information about places that offer employment assistance, financial assistance, medical care, food assistance, transportation and other places that the homeless can turn to for help. It also offers information about what types of rights and privacy the mentally have in their offices, and pricing information as well.
The Justice PORT offers assistance to those who are both mentally ill and have been involved with the justice system. It uses a sequential intercept model to help these people, which gives these people the opportunity to be engaged and treated. The Project Outreach website also includes lists of services for those who are homeless or low income.
“I supervise the team helping those who are chronically homeless, we offer them engagement,” Loring explained. “We offer them engagement, we work on housing, we offer psychiatric services and substance abuse counseling. We try to get people into the long term programs.”
For Jeff L., back in that room, sitting in that corner chair, wondering if he’s going to make it through with this agency, getting that counseling and making it through recovery is something that PORT strives to make happen.
He is Vendor 17, homeless, poor, in recovery – and hawking news to make a meager living.
For Robert Salo, 56, from Farmington Hills, making a small living off of selling the monthly street newspaper, Groundcover, for $1 apiece is better than nothing.
The newspaper, dedicated to the homeless population in Ann Arbor, has 25 regular vendors, but has trained 75 potential vendors since its start-up about a year ago.
Shelley, 50, a vendor for The Groundcover News helps unload the latest edition published November 2011.
Anybody that falls in the low-income bracket or is homeless can apply to be a vendor and upon completion of the training, they will be given 10 free papers as a start-up. Once vendors sell the newspapers, they have to purchase more at 25 cents apiece, and suddenly they become entrepreneurs.
Susan Beckett, 50, of Ann Arbor, is the publisher of Groundcover, who got it started in July 2010 by contacting the North American Street Newspaper Association. She was granted a $1,000 start-up donation by 1Matters, which also funded street newspapers in Detroit and parts of Ohio including Toledo.
But her idea was not initially well-received.
“After a lot of discouragement, I couldn’t ignore 1Matters help,” Beckett said. “I thought ‘how could I not do this?’”
Groundcover’s content ranges from features on community members to addressing several homelessness aspects such as trash hopping and can collecting.
Beckett describes the content as “eclectic,” and leaves most story ideas up to the contributors. But she makes it a point to profile the vendors and keeps most content homeless-based.
For now, all contributors donate their work for the sake of the newspaper, and the editor, Laurie Lounsbury, works on a volunteer basis as well.
“At this point, nobody makes any money off of Groundcover except for the vendors and the printer,” Beckett said.
Originally from Waterford, Salo came to Ann Arbor especially for the recovery community and the help Ann Arbor offers the homelessness. After staying at the Delonis Center, Salo was referred to Beckett to find work.
“I thought this would be a good chance for me to get on the ground to meet people in Ann Arbor and become financially independent, too,” he said. “I was in a new community and needed get myself out there in a positive light.”
Latest edition hot off the presses.
She hopes it fills a niche for which it was intended.
“There was a lot of concern about people who were excluded from traditional shelters because they wouldn’t follow the rules,” she said. “They were addicted to drugs or alcohol and they wouldn’t refrain from use. And also, there was concern about people particularly during bad weather, during the hours where shelter wasn’t available. People for instance at the Delonis Center, they have to be out by 7:30 in the morning. They can’t come back until 5 p.m., so that’s a lot of hours to just be out on the streets.”
Selling newspapers gives them a mission, a little cash, and some hope.
With the obligation of selling papers to make a living, Groundcover vendors also have to follow a code of conduct in order to sell the paper. In each print paper, Groundcover encourages readers and residents to report violations of the code of conduct.
“Even though we don’t ask about a vendor’s background, we do have rules for the vendors to abide by so we have a framework for the vendors to work with,” Beckett said. “Vendors are allowed to receive more than the $1 for the paper, but are not allowed to ask for more.
And the community for the most part has been more than welcoming of the project.
The Tecumseh Herald, the printer of the paper has provided deeply discounted rates to print. Elmo’s t-shirt shop has donated aprons and T-shirts to the vendors to be worn while distributing the publication.
“Once the vendor completes orientation, they go to Elmo’s and pick out the two colors (of T-shirts) they would like and an apron,” Beckett said. “We provide advertising for their generosity.”
Shelley, 50, a vendor for Groundcover who doesn’t want her last name disclosed, has been selling for a few months. She described her living situation as “one step from homelessness,” admitting that she needs the extra cash from Groundcover to scrape by.
“It’s helped me pick up the tail ends of bills and I can buy essentials like groceries and toilet paper,” she said. “It’s also helped me come out of my shell in a more personal way to.”
For more information on Groundcover, visit: http://groundcovernews.com/index.htm
To support themselves, most people spend their days working for a paycheck. At the Delonis Center, Marty Roberts labors out of basic compassion.
As he folds sheets, stacks boxes of donated clothes, and washes laundry, Roberts watches over residents of the homeless shelter, ears open. Conversation fuels his compassion.
“It’s about empathy,” Roberts said. “Really, what you need to do is just listen. I try to make it as good of a morning as I can be for these people.”
In his efforts to care for the underprivileged, Roberts, 40, of Saline, has always felt closeness through associations to his fellow man in treatment.
“If you work here long enough, you may actually be able to help with their cases.” Roberts said. “Mingling is a big part of it.”
The front of the Delonis Center
After donating to Food Gatherers with his wife, Roberts discovered volunteer opportunities available at the center through the Washtenaw Shelter Association and immediately set to work, volunteering eight, 5-8 hour shifts in the past month alone.
“The necessary work has to be done,” Roberts said. “This floor needs to be swept.”
To do so, Roberts often takes time off from his family and job as a project manager for a software company, but Roberts enjoys his work at Delonis more than most things.
“There is nothing I don’t like about it,” Roberts said. “I like it more than my day job.”
Passionately purposeful sacrifices of volunteers like Roberts have not been wasted. For the first time in 20 years, Robert Salo’s life is showing signs of repair.
“They helped me get my housing through the housing coordinator,” Salo said. At the time, I was in AA, when I went homeless because things were missing. I went to the Delonis Shelter. They wanted you to be self-sufficient.”
Walking the streets of Ann Arbor, year-round selling copies of Ground Cover, a local newspaper by and for the homeless, Salo, 56, formerly of Farmington Hills, didn’t get to where he was on his own. At the Delonis Center, Salo was treated to the singular care he needed to begin taking care of himself again – a focus that sets Delonis apart in his eyes.
“What makes them unique is they’re working to help those get off the streets and be independent for themselves, and they do it one individual at a time,” Salo said. “Other communities, you go there, they try to help, but they don’t have the resources.”
In providing destitute residents with temporary housing and intensive case management, the Delonis Center is not a typical shelter. It’s mission to solve homelessness, one person at a time, the Delonis Center endeavors to provide more than a simple room and board.
“We don’t just bring people in and give them a bed,” said Diana Neering, director of Development and Communications for the Shelter Association.
“We have case managers who work directly with them to help them find income and find affordable housing, and move on.”
A sign at the Delonis Center Community Kitchen shows the day’s menu.
Neering views mission-style shelters as inadequate to solve the homeless situation.
“A mission-style shelter is where people just basically come in from the cold,” Neering said. “They give you a bed and maybe some food, and that’s it. That’s all the service you would receive. It really doesn’t attempt to solve the problem.”
Run by the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, The Delonis Center, located on Huron Street near the corner of First and Huron, offers much more to people in need than just a mere haven.
Agreeing to abstain from substance abuse, clients who are ready to make a change in their lives are given access to a residential program and community kitchen in addition to the thorough case work.
“They have to be clean and sober, and be ready to change their circumstances for us to take on the case,” Neering said.
The Delonis Center houses adult-only clients on an average of 44 days, a faster pace than the 50-60 day programs that transpired in the past.
“The thing is, we’re now better at it,” Neering said.
Encouraging residents to advance rapidly through the programs, Neering claims that the philosophy of speedy recovery has always been a focal point of the Delonis Center’s agenda. Neering has recently been encouraged by positive results.
“We try to get people to move as quickly as possible.” Neering said. “The quicker we can move people through, the more people we can help.”
And the Delonis Center does intend to help as many people as possible. Allowing non-residents access to its many resources and services, Delonis bands together with more than 30 other organizations in the county, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, the Veteran’s Administration and Michigan Works, to provide the needy with the help and treatment they need to become self-supporting.
“We have psychiatrists, therapists, just a huge variety,” Neering said. “And they all come here.”
As a client of the Delonis Center, Salo was delighted at the wide assortment of amenities offered to clients.
“There’s always a variety. I really enjoyed my treatment there,” Salo said. “It was very comfortable. There’s plenty of food.”
Partnering with local sustenance charity, Food Gatherers, the Shelter Association provides three square meals as well. The community kitchen in the Delonis Center, serves lunch and dinner from Monday through Sunday every week. Breakfast is provided at St. Andrew’s Church on South Division Street.
“Volunteers at these meals can help to make a tangible difference in our community,” said Brady West, a volunteer in the kitchen who worked last year as the Volunteer Coordinator for First Presbyterian Church. “It’s a great way for people to help out those living amongst us who are less fortunate.”
According to Neering, every year more than 5,000 people in Washtenaw County are experiencing homelessness. Of those 5,000, most are children. The Delonis Center treats 1,300-1,400 of the 1,700 remaining adults. With the recent financial crisis of the past two years, Neering has seen an enormous increase in volume of clients.
“Most of them come through our door at one point or another,” Neering said. “Since 2007, when the economy went bad, we started seeing 60 percent more people in need of care.
Salo looks to the communal nature as instrumental to the success of Washtenaw County’s accommodations for the homeless situation.
“It’s like if everyone puts and effort forward to volunteer, things can get done,” Salo said. “I see that the outside community has come together as a whole to help. I see that all around.”
“I just went down a wrong road and made some poor choices, but you live and you learn. I have gained respect for myself, and I feel that respect mirrored back in other people. My kids mean the world to me, and I’m glad to be able to do better for them,” said Nicole Morgan, 30, of Ypsilanti.
Nicole Morgan, of Ypsilanti, with her children Jasper, Eric, and Haley.
Homeless, Morgan had been living in her aunt’s house for about nine months with her husband, Eric, 30, and children: Jasper, 6, Haley, 4, and baby Eric who was barely 5 months old. Her husband, Eric, didn’t have a job and soon arguments about money became a daily battle.
“He never worked the whole time we were together. It was always me,” said Morgan.
Receiving state assistance at the time, her faith became troubled when she found herself not only kicked out of her aunt’s home, but also without a husband.
“We went to the Staples Center and it took a week for a space to open up for us. About two months in, Eric got kicked out of the shelter for breaking curfew,” said Morgan. “He was drunk, and had been cheating.”
Apparently, the two-year marriage had shown signs of difficulty from the very beginning. Eric wasn’t the employable type, and would not look for work actively. Still, she was beside herself when it ended.
As hard as it was without her husband there, Morgan had more pressing matters to be concerned about. The rule of the shelter was that if one family member was kicked out of the program, then the rest of the family had to go too. To Morgan’s relief, however, the Staples Center allowed her and the children stay. At that point, she truly felt as if she had lost everything.
“It was so embarrassing to me, and I was hurt that I had no other family members to take me in,” Morgan said.
Meanwhile, Jasper and Haley were still attending school in the Willow Run School District.
The shelter had a program set up where a taxi would pick up the children, and take them to school. Morgan, having no transportation of her own, was grateful and remarked that the same driver came every day, which she feels helped the children remain more comfortable.
She said the children handled everything really well. They didn’t know the shame she felt. Jasper even remembers feeling like it was fun; like being on an adventure.
“There were a lot of other kids there,” he said. “We played a lot.”
Morgan must have longed to see her next obstacle through the eyes of her child.
The limit of a familial stay in the Staples Center was only three months, so Morgan, who still had no place to go, had to move her family to another shelter. This time they would reside at Alpha House, and this is where Morgan could finally take some positive steps forward.
“It was a much nicer and more organized facility,” she said.
Alpha House had strategies that would help Morgan put herself and her children in a stable living situation. She said the staff was really supportive, and every week someone would meet with her to put together a plan and establish goals—like saving money.
“In a month’s time, I managed to save $1,000, which really helped,” she said.
After a month and a week at Alpha House, Morgan got the break she had been hoping for. The SOS Crisis Center in Ann Arbor had an apartment that would be coming available. The way a family is chosen for eligibility is through an interviewing process, in which every family residing in the shelter is involved.
“I thought, there is no way we will be chosen, but we were,” Morgan said.
It was like a weight lifted off of her shoulders, and after the initial high of making some headway, she crashed into a depression unlike she had ever experienced.
After going through the last four months of uncertainty, and working as diligently as she could to take care of her family, she had reached her breaking point. The stress had finally caught up with her. Therapy and medication became necessary for her to function.
“The toll it took on me was immense, both mentally and physically. I had to push myself, and I wasn’t eating. Everything I was doing was just a blur at this point,” she said. “But I was doing it for the kids.”
And once out of the shelter and into her coveted apartment, her life started to improve with the ongoing care of three separate social workers – one who helped with employment, one who helped with the Department of Social Services, and one who helped with the children’s needs.
“I don’t know what I would have done without them (social workers),” said Morgan. “I just felt like I couldn’t go on anymore.”
But, faithfully, Morgan has gone on, and three years later looking back at her struggle, she is grateful for her children, and the drive that they gave her to put her future in perspective.
Morgan and her family in happier times.