"We are not the stigma you believe that we are," One man's story of homelessness
Everyone out here is not a dope-head, a drunk or any of that. Many people are just out here because life happened to them. Then people ask, “explain life,” but how do you explain that to somebody? All art and photography by Mo/Ian
Introduction from a Journalist:
Though my name and picture appear in the byline, I assure you that this story was not written by me.
This past year, we have seen homelessness make headlines in Kalamazoo. I’ve seen so much content about this problem that centers activists and organizations, but it should be noted that these discussions typically excluded input from homeless residents themselves. We look so often at photos of tarps and tents, but do not see their faces or hear their stories. This story is not mine, it is Mo’s, and it is Ian’s.
To clarify, Mo and Ian are two names for the same person, or perhaps more accurately, two different sides to the same person: Mo being an outspoken leader, while Ian is more the type to watch and listen. I met Mo at the start of this year while looking for homeless residents willing to share their stories with me. I was given his name by multiple individuals who cited Mo as a leader in the homeless community (a claim he denies).
Ian, 58, grew up in Portage back when it was a two-lane road, and Crossroads Mall was just a sandpit. He joined the military at 17, and later worked many odd jobs before realizing his love for building and working with his hands. He went into carpentry and construction in his 30’s, and eventually owned his own business.
Written below is not Mo/Ian’s life story, but a peak into his thoughts. All of the words below are his, not mine, either transcribed by me from our recorded conversations, or from written communication he sent me.
I may not be the storyteller, but I would like to briefly offer my thoughts before I let Ian take it away. I hope by reading this you begin to rethink what it means to be an expert. Is the government official or nonprofit organization the expert on homelessness? Or is it the person who has been living it every day? Maybe we should be looking to them for the answers.
Part 1: “I wake up with two choices every morning...”
No one stops to think about what they would do to care for themselves with absolutely nothing. Counting every penny, nickel and dime 20 times to make sure of what they have and what they can get. Knowing where to buy off brand items at the minimal price to stretch a dollar, and then hopefully be able to buy a couple more lemons.
I hope that some good for the homeless community comes from whatever flows from my personal story; of a human-being surviving from life happening to them.
Some of it is Hollywood sounding: wild and crazy. Some of it has a jaw dropping, edge of the seat, no way you want to say some of this bullshit, but you also absolutely know without a doubt that it is the God's above honest truth.
I really want people to understand that we are not a stigma, we are not a freakshow, and that we are just like you.
The Mundanes, as I call them, like when you go to a Renaissance festival, they all complain that they can see us from the road. When people see us coming they say, “Oh god, here comes the dirty people.” Human dignity: People don’t understand how they can take it away from you, by looking at you a certain way, by associating you with certain things.
They want us to be out of sight, out of mind. Well, do you live out of sight out of mind? No. We aren’t trying to be in people’s faces or anything, but we’ve only got so many choices.
I wake up with two choices every morning: life or death. And once I make that choice in the morning, everything else is simple, because I already got rid of the most important choice. Will I live today or die today. From that point on, everything else is easy because I know what I have to do to get through my day.
Every month I have $800 from disability, to live by. A lot of that money is spoken for by bills I need to pay, so I usually end up with about $300 to make it through the next 30 days.
We have to find our food. We go out hunting it basically, or waiting in lines for it. We have to take care of the responsibilities to those around you. I’m just me, but I also have my three dogs. People say, why don’t you just sell your dogs? Well, why don’t you just sell your kids? I want these people to stop and think before they open their mouths and embarrass themselves.
After a while, you’ve survived for so long that you're stuck in survival mode, and I don’t know how to get out of survival mode. When I leave here every day, I still set up a two-day pack. So if I have to walk out that door for good, all I have to do is pick it up and I will have everything I need to get me back on my feet and accumulating again. I can set up camp, have clothing, bathe myself, feed myself; everything is in that backpack, and it weighs about 65 pounds.
I’m tired of surviving. I want to live life again. But some of us are too old. We are so set in our ways and we have patterns that, if we break them, it would kill us.
Some of us don’t want to attend to ourselves because we are afraid to look at ourselves. For many years, I looked at myself, all I saw was whiskers. I didn’t see a person or face. I didn’t see me. When you stop seeing yourself you don’t care anymore.
Right now, I feel safer, more secure, more alive, more free, by accepting it out here. The people around me, I know where they stand, and I know what they will do, or not do, to help me or hinder me. I built this fence around my tent to show where my space begins. Here is the line drawn in the dirt; don’t cross it.
We call this (encampment) the yard. It's like a prison yard really. The only difference is there’s no guard tower, there is barbed wire, and there's no warden. We also get selective enforcement from the police. If it can make the homeless look really bad, oh man, they are right on that for us. But otherwise, not so much. The police tell us to regulate ourselves. If we do, we can catch felonies for that.
Most of us out here wouldn’t have the police records, injuries, violations, you name it, that we have if we didn't happen to be homeless for whatever reason. Simple things really, but they repeat, and there are serious complications from it. Most things they wouldn’t do if they weren’t trying to survive and care for their most important needs: shelter, food, clothing.
We are not the stigma you believe that we are. Yes, there are institutionalized people out here. People are out here for mental health, when they shut down hospitals and stuff, and they shouldn't even be on the street.
Everyone out here is not a dope-head, a drunk or any of that. Many people are just out here because life happened to them. Then people ask, “explain life,” but how do you explain that to somebody?
You lose your job; how long are your family or friends going to take care of that? In this economy how fast can you get another job? Most people will go from there to couch surfing: That’s homelessness. That's life happening to you.
You paid your rent, the landlord didn’t. You just tossed a whole bunch of people out of homes that had a hard enough time getting in in the first place. Even if I could afford a place to live, find me a place that takes 3 dogs, and one is definitely looking like a bully.
I myself made over $85,000 a year framing houses. I was married; I was buying an $85,000 Cape Cod house on Evalyn Street, off of Westnedge. You can do all that you’re supposed to do, and one day something can go wrong and take it away from you.
What do we have that scares everybody so much? We aren’t what you think we are. Not even close. You’ve got maybe around 10 percent that's as bad as you think we all are; indecent exposure, raping women; but not the rest of us. You lump us in with all of them, and how do you think we take that? Some of these people, we don’t want to be around them either, and we are the ones subjected to them without any help from the police.
I’m not a bad person. I’m so frustrated and angry in life and I keep it to myself. No one should feel this like I do.
There are people who hate the homeless that don’t even know us. People who will come in here, that will do stuff to us, trying to hurt us, burn our tents down, and stuff like that. Look at someone the wrong way at the gas station, and get a cup of gas thrown on your tent.
Even charity can feel the same way, because charity, as fast as it's given, it's taken away twice as fast, and they can make you pay for it. A regular citizen doesn’t have to say something, and no matter what we say, we are wrong. I’m already guilty, because I’m homeless. Everyone wants to look good in helping somebody, but what’s your real reason for helping?
Here's the secret about homelessness: they don’t want to find a cure. They don’t want to find a way to stop it, why? Because the money they get from it. All the funding and financing.
The Gospel mission, for example, that's a billion a year industry. $70-80 for someone sleeping on a mattress on the floor from 10 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The system isn’t designed to help us get out of here. We spend most of our days standing around and waiting outside the places where we get services. Then traveling back and forth to a different line to wait in. We go to appointments, and we have to wait because they are triple booked, or they are running behind. They are always running behind for some reason or another.
At 8 o’clock I have to go eat breakfast. If I don’t eat breakfast, there goes my day. Then I have to grab lunch somewhere. You have to maintain these two meals to keep up the energy out here, because you're always walking around. So I stand in line for that. If I don’t come back for lunch, I gotta go wait somewhere else. With all this walking around, there is a greater chance that I don’t look presentable by the end of my day. And how am I supposed to go get a job after all of this?
How am I supposed to get anything done if I always have to wait somewhere? Nothing is designed for us to get up and out and get help, it's designed to keep us here, so they can keep getting money. Our country isn’t run as a country anymore, we all know that. It’s run like a business. Really we are just a giant corporation. Bank accounts, that’s what we are to them.
With knowledge and understanding of the people living in this situation there might be a chance to change things somehow to end homelessness in Kalamazoo. To start setting an example of true community and ways of progress with positive outcomes. Maybe a model for other communities to follow, and come together as one.
A person is never truly forgotten in death till the last person stops telling his story. Then they are truly gone. But having a written word of this time, sharing it with many other people, maybe our story can live on.
I want to be remembered as a person. As a human. Someone who had to struggle in life, not because he loved doing it, but because that's what life handed him, and he could do it.
Part 2: “This is not living; this is survival.”
When you are homeless, weather is a big contributing factor in how our day, week or even month goes for you and your mental state of mind. I have lived in all sorts of weather; looking at it from inside and more often of late, experiencing it outside.
Those that live inside a home, whatever type it may be, are less likely to be affected by long term weather conditions. Heavy or extreme conditions, most people can escape them by stepping inside; simple. But those of us who are not so lucky to have that choice, we live in it, with it and about it.
It is a major influence in what we can accomplish, like going to appointments or job hunting. But then add in five straight days of rain looking at five more on the way.
Any moment of no rain you are supporting your tarps or repairing them or removing them, hoping you can replace them to try to stay dry, warm or cool. Then you have to think about what you can eat or heat it up when the rain forces you back under. You need to think about what cover you have left and what is most important to protect, like phones, any electronics that give you communication or entertainment, and then clothing.
What is left after all of that, is you.
To not be able to dry out is dangerous in more ways than most comprehend. It affects you medically, physically, mentally and so on. You can actually see people retreat inside themselves. People become mentally anguished and depressed, tired emotionally, tired physically from loss of proper sleep, plus much more than the basics listed here.
Imagine a person with problems not just mentally but physically also, then put them in a situation that tests them body and spirit. That is a strong person. Plus, remember that being out here was not our choice, but a circumstance beyond our control for whatever reason.
My belief is this: those people who stigmatize the homeless, when push comes to shove they couldn't survive if it happened to them. And if so, probably at the bare minimum.
Now me, I have been living in this unfortunate situation for too many years now. A few times by choice of my own.
When it's a choice, so to say, you can be more prepared as you step out of comfort and into having to do so for yourself. Those are the times you know you have your own six. But even then, those times still have these days and moments.
Like this rain now, it is like being in the worst flood where you lose it all. Everything you had invested in: building your camp, food, clothing, dog food for your pups, but most of all your tent! The most important piece of equipment to move forward to survive and hopefully live again.
Extreme heat can get bad too. A lot of people don’t realize, being in direct sunlight constantly, what it can do to you (besides melanoma later on in life possibly). I make sure we have water out here. I try to keep a bottle of water for anybody that comes on by, it's free. If you're tired of drinking water, add some Koolaid to it or something, but you’ve gotta get it into you.
In the heat, if you have to go see one of your people, or go for a job, by the time you catch the bus, you’re soaked. How do you think you are gonna look or smell when you get there? It's harder for us to go out and get a shower down here.
This is not living, this is survival. This is not enjoyable, happy nor can you call it living off-grid. Even living off-grid is a more positive and enjoyable way of life than this will ever come close to.
Right now I am trying to figure out how I can get sand bags to put in front of my camp to stop the rain water from flooding my area.
Maybe you are worried about how your yard needs to be cut after the rain. Every moment is filled with choices, I understand, but it shouldn't be like this.
To be homeless is never a lazy moment to enjoy. I have this rain to worry about till it stops later this week. Then it is to rebuild stronger with what I am engineering to keep the elements away from my progression out of homelessness.
I wish I had a normal day just once again like I had. Anything but this for me and my pups.
A day to enjoy and be alive again, with the opportunity of positive choices before me, more than just meeting my needs.
Part 3: “I don’t want shit, but I know what I need…”
There is a simple solution to all this.
People bring all of these donations down here that we can’t use, and create temporary housing programs. What good is that? This doesn’t change them, it just moves them. If all that money went into housing first, we wouldn’t have homeless people.
I would like to see a tiny home community. Help them build their own home, and understand what goes into that. Taking responsibility for yourself.
It's about wants and needs. I don’t want shit, but I know what I need to live. I need to get all these people together, and draw them a picture and ask them what part of this could they help with; with me, not for me. I don’t want it done for me, because I don’t respect it then; I don’t have a commitment to it then, and neither will others.
Some of them have been out here too long, and they become institutionalized to being homeless. Their pattern is set and they can’t change it, but a lot of these people out here are really young, and there's a chance to change their pattern still.
The city wants to show that no matter how much they help, it's not going to make a difference. If we organize their help in the proper way, we can put people back into homes that they can lock. You will see how that makes a big difference in somebody’s life to have that kind of privacy. We’re not allowed that now.
All I want is a piece of property, and be left alone with my dogs, but they don’t want to listen to me. Get them to listen to me. That’s what I need.
They think they know what I want or need; couldn't be farther from it. They believe that their programs work; no they don't and never will. They think that all we have to do is what they say.
Tell you what, I challenge anyone to come live with me for two weeks and see what is like and how we actually live and the choices we have to make daily for ourselves. Two weeks: leave your wallet at home, backpack, minimum clothes, no ID. The money you have in your pocket when you walk out the door is all you can bring with you.
We will show, teach and share with you a life no one should have to live, let alone see. If you want to see if I am real, you can find me easily out here.
I can see the image you have in your mind's eye of me.
I am not a stigma. I am no different than you. If you were to meet me in person, you would have a hard time believing I am homeless.
If even one of you reading this came to meet me and see for yourself, it would be a wonderful start to change the situation I, and many like me, are facing. Only we can end this life, if we choose to stop homelessness from happening.
Thank you for your time in reading this story, a story that could be anyone’s.
As I say to everyone,
Peace and love to you, and as always,
Be safe out there.
All art and photography used in this article were created by Mo/Ian.