31 December 2009

So It Goes

Georgine cried for half an hour in my office after Patrick died, even though he had just gotten out of jail for beating her up. "I don't know why he wouldn't get out of the way of the train. Wonderful... bull-headed... idiot."


Gary was the second person to almost die from a heroine overdose in the left stall of the bathroom. But through the climbing under the stall to get him out, the 9-1-1 call, the CPR, the AED, and the EMS team, Pete just kept washing his hands in the sink.


(Pete has cancer, and has been dying for months. Dying with impeccable hygiene.)

29 December 2009


When George went to prison, Ford was president, 'Micro-soft' came up with a name, Bruce Springsteen came out with "Born to Run", and Tiger Woods was... born.

And now he's out.
He told me that his first week has been a continuous panic attack.
"It's like stepping onto another planet," he says.

When George was arrested in '75, he was one of the only people he knew with a car phone. He says he has yet to see someone who is not physically touching something technological that he doesn't recognize.

George is an engineering graduate from the east coast, and says that all of his academic training, all of his knowlege of the world is entirely useless. Back then, he said, he was ahead of the curve, deservedly cocky, "and", he says, "I had hair." And all of it has changed. Although, he comments on the irony of disappearing from a recession into a recession.

"I seriously think I need to collect government benefits for being emotionally handicapped. I've already begged them to take me back to prison. In this new world, all I know how to do is re-offend."

George is an eloquent, homeless, unemployed engineering graduate, paralyzed by time travel. At least, that's what he says he's putting on his application for government assistance.

21 December 2009

Anyone Can

My co-worker and I once watched Gerald walk down the street, bracing himself against the brick wall in between stumbles, hardly able to hold onto his bag-covered bottle... it took him five minutes to travel each shop-length... and we said "If Gerald can make it out of here alive, anyone can."

He asked me to help him fill out a medical examination with him once, since he couldn't see through his greasy, chin-length blonde bangs, and since he couldn't see anyway, or maneuver a writing utensil. We came to the question "How much alcohol do you drink each day?" and in between hysterical fits of laughter, he finally manages to tell me that seriously, it was usually more than 2 gallons, depending on how much he could pan-handle.

Even his drinking buddies tried to refuse him a drink sometimes: "Gerry, even though we have to watch you die, we're not going to help you."


We hadn't seen Gerald in a while, and we assumed the worst, but there was rumors going around that he went to rehab (which were usually met by sarcasm: "Like he could walk that far.") We still talked about him, thought about him, wondered about him, hoping the rumors were true.

Last week, a man walked through the door: clean shaven, hair cut, clean clothes, walking straight, and in clear, un-slurred speech said to us: "Merry Christmas. I love you." He gave us each a hug, gave us each a wrapped Christmas present with the strict instructions not to open it until Christmas morning, and left.

We looked at each other in disbelief and said, "Anyone can."

16 December 2009

It Must Be a Sign

Currently, I have two signs on the window of my office, right next to my sign-in sheet.
They read:
"We currently do not have any winter coats or boots at our facility at this time"
"ID appointments are full for the month of December. We will have walk-in hours on Mondays and Wednesdays beginning in January"

This morning, I have been asked 8 times if we have any coats or boots available, and 5 people have signed up to inquire about an ID appointment. I even had one woman point to the sign that said we had no winter gear available, and ask, "Do you still have these?" Not knowing how to reply to that question, I said "Yes, we still do not have any more coats or boots available." Wrong answer, probably.

We have signs saying what our hours are. We have signs stating the purpose of each office. We have signs advertising events. We put up signs to answer what we predict to be the most commonly asked questions, and yet they remain the most commonly asked questions.

This may be due to illiteracy, due to lack of attention, due to the fact that may of the minds are on other things, many of these eyes have been trained to skim over surroundings to find life, or to find other eyes.

But sometimes I know they have read the signs. Sometimes, I will tell the same person the same information every day, and then I begin to see that the information itself is less relevant, but the human connection is key. I am beginning to think that our signs serve less to avoid questions, but sometimes start them; act as conversation pieces.
When there's nothing to talk about, you talk about whatever is on the walls.
When you don't have a reason to meet with someone, you look for one... and find it right next to the sign-in sheet.

10 December 2009

Door, way

This morning I walked to work in the blizzard because I knew people were sleeping in it.

Yesterday, I tried to convince all of the regular campers, the die-hard-below-the-bridge-dwellers, to stay inside for the night. I told Gary and The Girl that they would only have to be apart for 10 hours, and they would be unconcious for most of them. I told Mr. Bentley he could make it a night without a drink. In insufficient Spanish, I argued with Guillermo that sleeping around a lot of other dudes wasn't so bad, and they would leave him alone. The funny thing was, they all seemed to be trying to talk each other into staying in as well--either caring more for each other than they did for themselves, or claiming that their reasons were better, that their addictions and phobias were stronger.
When I left, I hadn't pursuaded anyone.

So I walked to work this morning, with one specific detour in mind: Guillermo's doorway. I imagined finding him blue and cold and breathless, half-covered in snow. I imagined this so vividly and consistently that by the time I was on his block, in front of his hole, I just stood in the wind and the snow and stared at the mass of blue and white blankets, hardly believing he was there. Standing on the sidewalk, in the way of the relentless weather, I was so mad that he did this, that he insisted on staying here, that he was so stubborn and foolish. And then I stepped in his doorway, around the bottles and the box of doughnuts, and a shoe, and it was... warm. I turned my back to the door and looked out at the blowing snow and realized how safe a doorway could feel, especially when it was yours, and just yours. I bent down close enough to make sure Guillermo was snoring, and left him to sleep.

02 December 2009


We want to give what we think is important for us. This helps us to recieve the purest simplest feelings of productivity because we can imagine what it feels like to not have these things, in the situation that we are currently in. But how is it to not have these things when we've learned to live without them? When we are in a different culture?

We volunteer to serve ourselves. I mean this in two ways: we volunteer our time in order to fulfill a need we have--a need to feel like we are making a difference, serving God, bringing good into the world, changing lives... whatever you want to call it. Humans have this need to affect positive change (at least some of them do). In my opinion, this isn't a wrong or impure motive at all. In fact, I think God created us in His image, and God is love. We are made to want to serve.

But. What we do about it is another thing. We volunteer to serve ourselves--to provide things that we can imagine ourselves needing and appreciating (to assure ourselves that we are being needed and appreciated). But we are not serving people like 'us'... and somehow we can know that and be totally unaware of the reality of that at the same time. Or... maybe we just have a very hard time liking things we don't really like.

Today's example: a wonderful, sweet older woman spent all summer and fall knitting hats for those staying in the shelters down town. Most of the people staying in shelters are men. Most of the hats would be perfect for a wonderful, sweet older woman.

This is not an isolated or unique example. So often, I watch volunteers start facilitating activities that they enjoy, serving food that they love to make, and having conversations based on their own curiousity. These are such good things, but they so often miss the mark.

It is so possible to give people what they need, but it does require sometimes sacrificing what we want, and what feels the best for us to give. We can remedy this by educating ourselves, buiding relationships and knowing who we are serving. I have heard a lot of very valid arguments that have realized that the barrier between the donor and the recipient only grows when money is donated, but as long as that barrier exists in any degree, money donated to an organization that recognizes the needs and culture of the people it serves will always be used better than if it was used by those who don't.

Look at it this way: You have a Grandma that lives in Florida who you never get to see, but she loves you like crazy. Every Christmas and birthday, she sends you a porcelain figurine of a little boy fishing or playing baseball or petting his dog, along with a framed picture of a peaceful cottage in a forest. You would rather have the money. She doesn't know you very well anymore, but she loves you, and wants to show you that. Perhaps you still feel the love, but resource-wise, the situation would be much better if you just told her what you needed, and she listened.

This is to say that the love is there, and the intentions are good, but as much as the thought counts, there is an opportunity for more: helpful contributions, educated gifts, connection.

A friend of mine once told me that it is difficult to love someone if you are focused on what you can receive.
A science fiction novel once taught me that you cannot love someone well unless you can understand them enough to know why they love themself.

I am thankful for the both of them, and for an opportunity to witness why their wisdom is important, and the consequences of not following it.

As volunteerism evolves, so will we.

23 November 2009

Never. Before. (Forgotten. Found.)

Beau had never had a Tootsie Roll Pop before...
So he ate it. 6 teeth-splintering bites.

Jaime had never had a cell phone before...
So he waited half an hour for someone to pick up. He had not pressed the 'Send' button yet.

Paul hadn't been to college before...
He thought the books were extra merchandise, bought by the rich people.

Grace hadn't celebrated her Birthday in 45 years...
She didn't know her age. Or the song.

It was the first time in forever that Joe had seen his chin, and that mole.

Jules had waited 40 years to see Lake Michigan again, and had forgotton you couldn't see the other side.

Kevin spoke to his father in Louisiana, who had not yet forgotten about him (even though he sounded different. Faded accent.)

Rosa received her one and only laminated picture of her son, and realized how much he looked like her.

Gary had never smelled new shoes.

Nobody had ever made Ray a birthday card.

Louise said that it had been months since someone had looked her in the eye.

[I don't realize what I'm doing until I am told what I have done.
We don't see significance until it's verbalized,

19 November 2009


The sign up list for the Referral Desk has two columns:
Name and Need
Both columns vary greatly from day to day.

Name: Need:
Natasha Everything
Carrie Nothing at all

Natasha came in and laughed at her own joke, and then said she really didn't have anything to talk about.
Carrie and I filled out a full FAFSA form.

You never know.

(Other endearing "Needs": Anna. Hugs. A million dollars. A girlfriend.)

10 November 2009

The Obama Phone

In May of 2009, a new internet website was launched that would change all of humanity: http://www.safelinkwireless.com/. This site introduced a program that offered a free cell phone with free monthly minutes available to individuals who were currently recieveing other forms of government assistance (such as food stamps, SSI, Medicaid, etc.)
There are a few other stipulations:
1. You must have the phone sent to a residential address
2. Only one phone will be sent to each address
(There were some more stipulations, but they were in a big paragraph with really small writing.)

This phone, now commonly known as the "Obama Phone", changed my job drastically .

Obama Phone Side-Effect #1.
The Address Scramble

A good number of citizens currently receiving goverment benefits do not have their very own residential address. Many of them have no address at all, many recieve mail at other agencies such as ours (which is not considered a residential address), and some recieve mail at a residents shared with other able-bodied phone-hungry adults. Thus began the Address Scramble of 2009, where everyone claimed their sister's and their mom's and their dogsitter's address to receive The Obama Phone (which resulted in a mobs of complaints two weeks later that the rightful owner of the address surprising received the phone instead of them... and equally surprisingly would not hand it over). Somehow, those complaints ended up aimed at me...

Obama Phone Side-Effect #2.
Incorrectly Directed Death Threats

Since I had assisted approximately 200 people in navegating this website over the past half of a year, I was the only face they could think of when things went wrong. It has become my problem that phones won't charge, free minutes haven't been received, and phones screens have been broken when phones have been used as weapons. When I try to explain that I don't know anything about the phones (and definitely don't have replacements hidden somewhere in my desk), I am often met with verbal violence (and long, fierce detonations of The Look). I have memorized the toll-free Customer Service number, further deepening my association with phone-problems.

Obama Phone Side-Effect #3.
ReachOut Wireless

Sometime after the birth of the Obama Phone (respectively, the First Phone), ReachOut Wireless emerged, with a slightly less professional-looking website, and a shady inquiry for the full Social Security number instead of just the last four digits. I began starting the application with a personal disclaimer that I knew nothing about this cell phone service, and can't repair, refund, or in any other way reconcile the storms you may encounter during cellphonehood. ReachOut had no record of all of the Obama Phone addresses, so everyone who didn't nab an address during the Musical Address episode in the Spring dove for one now (and many who were successful looked forward to further success). Affectionatly called "Not the Obama Phone but the Other One", ReachOut uses phones that sometimes have cameras, making it a fan favorite.

Obama Phone Side-Effect #4.
Phone Juggling

You may be familiar with the "one for drugs, one for girls" multiple cell phone designation, but those aren't your only options. Today, I witnessed a particularly spectacular feat:
Mr. Monty came into my office to use the Long Distance telephone line (a service we offer to anyone needing to call outside of the area, at a limit of three times per month) to call his family in California. During that call, a phone rang somewhere in this jacket. His mother got the "holdonasec" while he answered a call from his case worker, wondering about paper work. His case worker got the next "gimmeaminute" while he gave the iloveyou to his mom. Directly after our line was hung up and he picked up the cell with his case worker, another ring came from his pocket (it was Sweet Home Alabama). His "Boo" was told "donthangup" while he pacified his caseworker. When "Shawty" got sick of waiting, the casworker got "konemoment" while I'm pretty sure "girlyougottachill!" reached both receivers.

It is not uncommon for me to be talking to someone who is talking to someone else, which causes a lot of those "Oops I answered the wrong question--I was wondering why you asked me that" moments.

The teenager in your life will no longer be the only one who only gives you 1/8 of their attention.
Get ready for an Obamaphonation.

05 November 2009

News. Worthy.

I grew up in a place where big things showed up on the news. If your neighbors made a 15-foot snowman in their front yard, it was on the news. If there was a bomb threat at your high school, it was on the news. If something happened that other people should know about, good or bad, rest assured, you would know about it.

Tragedy struck this neighborhood this week -- twice -- and I bet you haven't heard about it. At least not on the news. Earlier in the week, a woman was found dead in an alleyway. She was the sister of one of my co-workers, and at first, it was not known whether or not it was a heart attack, H1N1, accident, homicide, suicide... But this was not reported on the news.

Yesterday, a woman jumped off of a 7-story parking ramp onto the sidewalk a block away from our building. Today, I have heard many different theories as to who she was... but that is all I have heard. Theories. Guesses. No names. Because this was not reported on the news.

We know that the latter of these two women was someone we probably know, or knew. We know that we probably had seen her earlier this week. We know that she has a family, that she has friends, that she lives a life that others remember. But not all of them will know. They will be left, like us, to wonder who it was; she will be left without homage, and without being grieved over--at least in this neighborhood, at least for now.

We all speculated today: What if she had jumped off of Rockford High School? Off of Forest Hills Foods? What if she was white? What if she had a name others recognized? Then, would this have been news-worthy? Would it have been worth reporting to others? Would her life have been valuable enough to merit at it's end?

Many people who live in the Heartside area watch the news every morning--more often than I do. It is always on in our dining room, on more than one screen, every day. When tragedy is not acknowleged in this neighborhood, it sends a message that many already feel: that the rest of the city, and the rest of the world, do not care what happens down here, doesn't care if they are mugged or robbed or if they create something beautiful or destroy it. Their lives are invisible, even when they end.

But this is not news to them. I think they've believed it for a while.

04 November 2009

Estrella y mi Oso

Mr. Estrella is a walking paradox. He is a short Spanish-speaking mexican teenager who dresses like a gangster and talks like a retired English professor with a thick accent. He's everybody dude's friend, every girl's "husband". I don't know where he came from, or where he's going, but he sticks out wherever he is, and not just because he wears a fluorescent orange coat.
He really has four names, but Estrella is the one I picked.
Mr. Estrella has been to see me in my office 32 times since September--mostly just to talk. Every conversation ends like this:
"Pues. No se, Anita. Adios"
(And then, he punches my stuffed bear in the face)
"Estrella! Mi oso! Me PresciOso!"
"It's ugly oso."
And so it goes. I am pleased with a pun in my sencond language, and he is pleased with his insult to a bear I was given that was found in a dumpster.
Mr. Estrella got a job painting, which I could tell before he told me. He was covered in it. When he got paid, he bought me three bags of gummy bears. He had never had them before. I gave him some.
"Anita! They are so delicious! I love them! I love them with all of my heart, Anita!"
I looked in every drawer until I found calling card that would work for calls outside of the country. Mr. Estrella has not talked to his mother in a year. There is five minutes left on the calling card, but she never answers. Today, Estrella cried.
Estrella came into my office last week with a string of spanish exclamations that came a little too fast. All I could catch was "Your teacher! Sooo nice! She is going to call!" And then he went to work. An hour later, I answered the phone:
"Anna? Hi! It's Rachel! Your 3rd grade teacher! I met your friend Juan, and I want to give him a Bible in Spanish. Can I drop it off to you?"
She did, and Estrella carries it with him everywhere he goes now. He said he "looks at it every night".
Mr. Estrella looks like Paulie, the native-american/phillipino-looking-19-going-on-11-kid-with-a-dutch-last-name. They both have drinking problems, but Estrella pointed out one very important difference:
"Him, man's body, boy's mind. Me, mind and body both match."
Estrella says after he gets paid next, he will move. He says he has no family here, and that his 7 different supposed wives don't count. "Nobody is sad when I am sad" he says. He thinks he will go to New York.
He told me that he was not going to say goodbye.
I asked him why.
He answered in Spanish, and the best translation I could come up with was:
"For the sake of the bear."

30 October 2009

Beer and Clothing in Las Vegas

Chuck and George sobered up long enough to put on Hawaiian shirts and pack their duffle bags with something useful (which, according to Chuck, means socks and a comb). They're going to Las Vegas.

They made a huge show the entire last week they were here. They ceremoniously gave the rights to their locker (and the rights to paying for it) to lockerless friends. They asked to have a laminated copy of my business card for emergency purposes. They began willing all of their empty bottles and sweaters and half-used deoderants to the noble patrons of our 2nd floor, with all of the dignity and honor of soldiers called to a higher duty. In Las Vegas.

George does it every year--travels far and wide to get people to sign petitions. This year, he invited his favorite comrade in cockeyed crime, Chuck. According to him, Las Vegas ran out of their own homeless dudes to employ. George is actually quite a talented petitioner--when he's sober, he has a nice, polite demeanor, soft voice, good sense of humor and a kind smile. I'd sign his petition. Chuck hasn't strung 4 coherent words together in a week or so. I think he thinks he's going to Las Vegas so that he can sign petitions. But Chuck 'n George have hopelessly fallen into shameless and unconditional bromance, and the honeymoon's in Las Vegas.

Yesterday, they walked out with their bags shouting things like "Goodbye Neverland!" and "Chuck has left the building" (before they left the building). I don't know how they got to the airport, but they called from Las Vegas today:

"We're here! Chucks got beer all over his shirt and he thinks it's so funny. It's sunny here! And we got our first day of work off!"

23 October 2009

Mr. Youell's World of Illusions

"This world, this just don't make no sense. Everything that's happening, all this Halloween, all this rain and storm, all this up in here, it seem like it's not even happening. Seems like it's an illusion--all a crazy crazy illusion where nothin's real and everything's just floating and I can see right through. Like this table. I pound this table and I pound this table and I think I's going to go right through it every time--like my hand will fly right through to the floor. It's all not right and it's all not fair, because everyone else is gettin' away with murder, like they's livin' in a real world but they don't even know it, and they's actin' like nothing'll happen, like nobody'll die, like nobody'll get hurt or nothin' even if they slam they head against a wall. It aint' goin' right through like they think it will, it's gon' stop and hit. It just don't make no sense... don't make no sense..."

20 October 2009


"If we could just remember those damn commandments, this place would be f***ing harmonious."

-A man who recently contracted an STD to a women whose man was in jail for larceny.

08 October 2009

Emergency Contacts

In our office, we have a phone line that is connected to our staff, and also a phone line that is connected to an answering machine with the following message:

"This is an answering service that serves to take messages for many people. Please leave your name, the name of the person you wish to reach, your number, and a brief message, and it will be given to them."

Anyone can use this number to recieve messages from employers, doctor's offices or worried mothers if they do not have a phone of their own. We recieve a wide variety of messages on this line such as...

"Thanks for making me waste a mother f***ing 50 cents. I want to talk to a real f***ing person."

"Hi... um... this is Tasha... I was calling to let Grant Carrol know that he was a father."

"Anna Gretz this is your Grandma. I don't know if I called the right number for you but I was wondering if you would like to come over for dinner tonight."

and the message that we recieved yesterday: "Hello, this is Dave, and I'm calling on behalf of Derek Jordan... you might know him as 'R&B'. He was working for me today on some painting and he... well, he fell off the building. We were trying to contact someone, and this is the number he left for emergencies. Call me back if you can, my number is 5..."

My co-worker and I listened to the message about 5 times, asking other people for 2nd opinions, trying to get the number that Dave left to contact him. Of course we know R&B! And we were scared for his life. I tried at least half of the millions of possible combinations of seven numbers beginning with a 5 asking for Dave, but never got through. Our afternoon was ruined with visions of R&B in a coma (splattered with paint).

Later in the afternoon Derek R&B Jordan waltzed onto the floor, cleaned up (and clean shaven) with all his limbs and faculties intact (which is how he prefers it, thank you very much). There was an immediate spontaneous outburst of gratitude for his life, prompting confusion from R&B.

"What? What's the deal."
"R&B we thought you were dead!"
"I fell off a building."
"We know!"
"How'd you know?"
"Dave called!"
"Dave? Oh... he called you guys? That was real nice. Because you guys are all I've got. This is home base, you know? This is where my stuff's at. This is where my people's at. Who else would I call?"

(We suggested the staff phone number instead of the message line.)

02 October 2009


I have met people who believe in and live on the idea that everything that you need and want in life you can get for free... if you talk to the right people, if you jump through the right hoops, if you present the right argument. This concept is completely foreign to me.

When I first began doing referrals, I was presented with (to me) the strangest requests: Where can I get free tennis shoes? Can you get a free bike? I need some free furniture... clothing... cell phone... medical care... housing... groceries... TV. A free TV? Come on. You guys. You can't get free TV's. I've been here for a while, and if you could get TV's and cell phones for free, I would know.

But you can.

If you have a caseworker at the DHS, you can receive a referral for everything you need to fill your house for free.
If you don't currently have an income, you can get a card that allows you to get $200 a month for groceries for free.
You can get clothing for free.
You can get new Patagonia shoes for free.
You can get a cell phone for free, and minutes every month for free.
You can get a voucher that will pay your rent every month for free.
You can receive checks from the government every month for free.

But there things aren't really free--they are paid for by someone else. (Really? Yes.) And that bit of information is about as foreign to the population I work with than the "Economy of Free" is to me. These things don't just ... not cost anything. They are paid for, worked for, and Given. But to those who receive them, they are not Given, just Received.

This could be frustrating.
I have tried to explain this system to many of the people receiving assistance from my desk.
"This is not a piece of paper that waives the fee for your police report. This is a check for $6.00, made out the the Grand Rapids Police Department, paid for you by someone who doesn't even know you--they gave up $6.00 so you could have it... and have the opportunity to attain housing."


This could be the purest form of giving possible, going unrecognized.

When you give, you often Give-Because. You give because you want to know that you are making a different, because you want to make the world better, because you want to know others are happier and taken care of and still alive because of you. Because of you. You get this feeling, this wonderful feeling that you have done good. Now, I believe this is great--that this feeling is God-given and there is no guilt in wanting to desire it.
But what if you Just-Gave. You just gave money and time and resources because that's what people do, and you did not see or know or even consider the outcome. Or maybe you didn't even give, you just lived, and there was a small bit of money that was silently and subtly detracted from each of your paychecks--transformed into something that benefited someone else. You didn't get any satisfaction, and no one felt indebted.


Now, I'm not saying that this is always used in the best way possible, or even used responsibly, but it could be, and it sometimes is, and if we transformed this bitterness and submitted this to God, how would this look different?

Would we feel liberated?

Would we be free?

23 September 2009

Mr. Wu and the Aura of Peace

I met Mr. Wu one month ago, and noticed first his hair. It was short, except for a long, more than a foot long, section in the middle of his back--the kind of section that most elderly asian men would braid, but Mr. Wu left it loose. When I met him, he bowed (lowering his stature from five feet to four), and smiled, and in a thick accent said, "Hello! You are Anna?"

Mr. Wu makes a phone call once a week to a bank somewhere that he believes has cheated him and refused to give him money that he has earned. I don't know the details, but I do know that Mr. Wu treats this banker (and each one that answers when he calls) with the utmost respect and courtesy. He sits at the phone, frustrated out of his socks, and utters "please"s and "thank you"s with his perfectly and calmly cadenced speech. Every time he gets off the phone, I ask him what happened. Each time he says "Not yet, Anna. Thank you Anna. Thank you very kindly, Anna."

I have seen him in the dining room every morning I have come in this month, and he greets me as if he has invited me over for dinner at his house. Everything within a foot radius of this man moves more slowly, sits contentedly, relaxes, at peace. Including me.

Two days ago, Mr. Wu walked softly up to me and asked to speak to me in my office. "Call to the bank?" I asked.

"No, Anna. I recieved a... you call it 'odd-job' today. And I wanted to donate this to you, to Degage, for the loving kindness I have been shown. For the time you allow me on the phone. Thank you. Thank you very kindly."

I know that they say you can buy abstract nouns... you know, happiness, courage, organizational skills... but my hope is that Mr. Wu's $20 bill will somehow bring someone peace.

15 September 2009

Un-Popped Collars

I saw them again this morning on my way to work--we high-fived, actually.

Two guys, dressed as if they were on their way to a Hollywood movie premier: ironed black pants, button-up shirts, shined shoes, slick haircuts, complete with laptop-computer leather briefcases. They're all business. What business? It's none of mine... (they tell me).

I don't know where they get their clothes, but Darrell and Mr. Wilkerson are the best dressed men in town. Seeing them walk through the parkinglot across from Van Andel, the could have been en route from their Lexus to the Bridgewater building.

Darrell: Killer smile. New collared shirt every day--deep blue, crimson, gold. Walks like he has a million dollars in his pocket--not like he's weighed down by it or anything, but just that he knows it's there. He swaggers, he winks, and if he applied for a 9-5 minimum wage job, someone would probably think he'd be too overqualified (though I'm not sure he's applying).

Mr. Wilkerson: Looks like a 70's basketball player at a press conference. He's go the tamed 'fro, the over 6' stature, and a stride that lets him cover the basketball court in 10 steps. Skinny, healthy, and always matching--his pants, his shirt, his socks and shoes, and his swaggering partner.

I can't figure out what they do all day, but I have a feeling that after they take a shower and press their clothes outside my office, they just walk around town looking good. And why not? When you're used to being condescended, pitied, 'served', and sometimes avoided, it'd be nice to draw an attracted eye--to have someone look you up and down and say to themselves, those guys have it all together.

Whether or not they do is their business.

11 September 2009

What Allison's Doing

Allison and Nathaniel have been together for a while now. She's told me a lot of funny stories about them getting caught making out in public--only one charge with indecent exposure, but you know when you're drinking, those are pretty good stats. All in good fun, all in good fun.

But Nathaniel drank so much last week, that when he tried to stand up, he stumbled onto some rocks and fell straight into the Grand River. Yes, kind of funny, would have been funny, but he had to go to the Emergency Room, and they ended up putting a plate in his ankle. They told him that if he tries to stand or walk on his ankle with this plate in it, he will sever vital nerves and muscle tissue, and his leg will have to be amputated. But when you have straight Medicaid and that's it, they don't give you much choice but to walk--they also sometimes forget to serve your meals or ask you if you're in pain. They pretend like you're not going through alcohol withdrawls, and when the DT's get really bad, they don't come around very much.

Allison goes to be with him everyday, and though it bothers her to see him going through the withdrawls, but she understands, because she's 2 1/3 days sober, too. Allison found out she was pregnant two and 1/3 days ago at the pregnancy resource center. She'd 45, but she's going to make sure this baby is okay, even if she doesn't know where it will live when it's born. Nathaniel says he'll marry her, that he'd do anything for her, but there's a lot that he can't do. She has the list--where you start calling when you're homeless expecting a child. It's a thick and tangled system, but after a good cry in the office, she feels more ready for it (If she drinks in the company of her old friends, she know they'll just offer her a drink, and she'll take it. She doesn't want to drink.)

And then, everything was okay, even though Nathaniel was still in the hospital and Allison was coming to terms with her pregnancy, but then someone stole her backpack (translation: someone stole her ID, all the clothing she owned, her shoes, the few letters and scripture passages she had collected).

That was too much.
But that was something I could change.

This morning, Allison took a shower, and armed with a new backpack, pair of shoes, pair of socks, t-shirts and personal hygiene products, walked back to Nathaniel's room to tell him that she was okay.

02 September 2009


Latisha is finally clean.
She has been clean from crack for 6 months;
clean from lying for at least 2.

"When you's addicated, you don't care about nothin but that crack. It's all your damn brain can think about. You's going to say anything, do anything to get more. You even surprise yourself sometimes. You look at yourself, what you're doing, what all's comin out of your mouth, and you do you best to pretend it's not even you, because if if is, you's in big trouble. 'Cause to get crack, you'll say the craziest things, you don't even know how you came up with it.

You'd say you had a newborn baby and no diapers jus' so you could get some cash from some lovin' person who thinks babies is important and special.

You'd say you had no food or water or anything, and you probably don't, and then when you get a dolla or two, you still don't have no food, but you don't care--you know that dolla ain't goin to buy no sandwich and chips.

You'd say you's stranded and you're whole family's dyin of some aweful disease over in Georgia and you really just want to make it back for their funeral--and you hope maybe they'll give you even part of the money for the ticket so you can be high for a night.

You'd even say that your six kids all have this vision problem where they can't see shit, but they all's want to go to school and make somethin of the world, and won't you support our country's suffering youth so they can get some education? Won't you jus' give some money to get them some glasses?

Sometimes, I'd walk around with that cash in my pocket, and get halfway to an eyeglass place, lookin' for my six kids before I realized I made it all up. Crack makes you crazy, Anna. It makes you downright nuts, and if anyone deserves a crazy check* the most but needs one the least its people like me.

I'm tellin you this so you can see how good'a lies are out there. Somehow, Anna, you gotta see the lies and love the person anyway. But that don't mean you give them no money. That means you love them best by givin them a firm smack in the face.

Anna, maybe you shouldn't smack em in the face after all. I don't want you to get hurt or nothin. But I'm just sayin. I know what I'm talkin about. I tol' ya, I havn't lied for two months."

25 August 2009

Reading Between the Lines

I have always been an advocate for reading.

Ever since my childhood, I have found such a sense of escape, fulfillment, relationship, and challenge from books. I often ask myself the question: If I were not here right now, if I did not have this or that obligation, what books would I read?

Because of this, I have been suprised at how often I observe people staring at the wall in our dining room (or staring at the statue in Veteran's park, or staring at the steps of the library) rather than reading a book. Of course, this has a lot to do with mental and emotional fatigue, illiteracy, personality types that are quite unlike my own, but I realized something today when I heard this comment (while filling out an application for disability):

"Mr. Vroon, what kind of things do you like to read?"

"What do I like to read? Oh man. The newspaper. Classical novels. Heck, I like to read street signs."

"Okay, the next question asks how often you spend time reading every day."



"Girl, now if I had the GLASSES, man, that would go up 100%. But I don't. So, never."

Reading glasses. A man who loves to read never does it, because he doesn't have reading glasses. At first glance, this looks like laziness, like a lack of motivation or drive or energy. But after taking a closer look:

OBTAINING READING GLASSES (without transportation or income):

1. There is one store within walking distance of downtown that sells affordable reading glasses: Family Dollar
2. To get to Family Dollar, you have to walk 1/2 mile (about 10 minutes on average); difficult for you if you do not have adequate walking shoes, or you are not in very good physical health.
3. The reading glasses cost $6.00.
4. To get $6.00, you can...

a. Collect 600 bottles and cans.
b. Spend about 30 minutes asking people you know for money (resulting in possible altercations and strains on these relationships, especially when reading glasses are considered a luxury).
c. Spend about 1 hour asking people you don't know for money (risking insult, arrest, and enduring the a real and constant confrontation with the fact that you are poor).

But wait! There's another way! The Dollar Tree has reading glasses for $1.00!

1. To get $1.00, you can spend your afternoon collecting 10 bottles and cans, and then find a place where you can return them that doesn't give you store credit, but actual cash (I have not researched this piece yet).
2. The two nearest Dollar Trees are:

a. 1220 28th St, 4.1 miles away, approximately an hour and a half walk each way. Or
b. 1621 Leonard, 3.7 miles away, approximately an hour and 15 minutes walk each way.

3. If you cannot walk there and back (due to health, lack of footwear, or lack of sunlight in a day), you could take the bus. Bus tickets cost $1.50 each way. There are no places in the city that will give free bus tickets to run errands or go shopping. Which means...
4. You will have to get $3.00 more, making your reading glasses a $4.00 affiar. This will lengthen the time spend looking for cans, or panhandling (again, putting yourself at risk for arrest).

In summary, if you want the necessary tools to read, you are looking at extensive walking, weeks of can collecting, and the risk of arrest.

This is why Mr. Vroon doesn't read the newspaper.

20 August 2009

Wrong Number

George and his wife were speaking with me about housing today, and our conversation lead to the infamous call to the Salvation Army Housing Assessment Program. George dialed the number, and his wife and I listened, confused, as George had the following conversation:

"Hello? What? Is this the.... what? No... I don't know. Really, I don't know. Okay. Um... thanks... 105.3? Yeah."

We asked him what happened:

"I had the wrong number. I called some radio station and they said I could win a vacation if I answered their question, but heck if I knew what they were talking about. So, can I call the Salvation Army now?"

We laughed for about 105.3 minutes.

17 August 2009

15 Miles

"I had a good day yesterday. You know my friend Brad? Well, Brad and I got to borrow some bikes and ride out to Rockford on the trails. I'm telling you, it was so nice, and we made it all the way there. On the way back, Brad got a flat tire, so we had to walk for about 15 miles. But the way there, that was a special gift for me."

03 August 2009

The Rights That Come With a Roof

Sam's always hated Ron. It's not that unusual; love and hate flow here like they do anywhere else (except people may be more vocal about it here). It was a bit innappropriate how often he would come up to our floor, swagger around with his black-santa-sack full of who-knows-what and talk about how much he hates Ron... but our ideas of what's normal and what's not have changed to the point of being very used to things like this. He was always willing to pause in his rant to greet me (Hey bay-be! I sho' do love ya, bay-be!)

Sam's mental illness has been escalating lately, though. Last time I walked past him on my way in and said "Good morning," he just looked at me, open-mouthed, wild-eyed, and threw his arms in the air as if answering that greeting was far too trivial a task for someone who had his thoughts racing through their brain. Sam's anger was now targeted towards anyone close enough to point a finger at (You kille' my whole family! I'm go burn down yo' house!)

It was soon after that Sam became a danger, not only to himself, but those around him. So many of the people I have met since working here have fallen victim to the twisted grip of mental illness, especially without many places that can assist in paying for psychotropic medication. Sam started attacking people with his fists instead of his usual bomb-threats, and lately, has hardly been discriminating whose jaw they hit.

This weekend, Sam lost it--he beat Joel (peaceful, pony-tailed Joel) until blood flowed from his face faster than obsenities flowed out of Sam's. Of course, we called the police in Joel's (and the rest of the public's) defense, and this was their response:

"I'm sorry, but if it's a homeless person on a homeless person, there's nothing we can do."

I've heard a lot of strange and baffling ideas of the rights of those who are currently without mortgages and rental agreements, but not one of us can make sense of this one. The best I could do was take Joel and his wife into my office today and apologize to him, telling him that we are paying attention, that we want the best of Sam and for him, and we know what happened, and we wish we weren't so powerless when it comes to making our sidewalk safe. Joel just smiled through his black and blue eyes, because he had just recieved word that one of the subsidized housing properties had a space for him and his wife.

"We're going to get a place, Anna. Then we'll be somebody."

31 July 2009

Ricky's 50-Cent Story

I paid 50 cents for the rights to this story (my standard story-rate, unless it's really good, impressively animated, or props and costumes are involved) so I thought I might as well share it.

Story Status: True, Semi-Recent
Body Language: Limited arm movements, some raising of eyebrows, occasional tip back in the chair.
Tone of Voice: Soft, smooth, slow, barely audible at times.
Time: 8:50 A.M.

"I was in Mt. Pleasant, you know, and out of all the nights that I played the slots with the quarters I found under tables and bars, I won a ton of money that night. Came out to about $20,000. I thought about what I wanted to do with it, and decided I wanted to get the hell out of here, maybe go to Puerto Rico, where they make the rum, you know? So I bought a plane ticket out of Detroit to Puerto Rico, and got on a Greyhound from Mt. Pleasant to Detroit. I was drinking a lot on the bus, you know how I am, and I met this guy in the back of the Greyhound bus. He was a black guy, and he said that he was a truck driver coming back from up north, going back home to Detroit. We were drinking and everything, and he told me I could stay at his place until my flight the next day. He seemed pretty alright, which is what I needed, since I was carrying a couple thousand dollars in my duffel bag. Problem was I couldn't remember if I told him that, I was drinking, you know, so I can't remember what I talked about or what we said to each other. I have a feeling he knew about what was in my bag but what the hell did I care, I was so wasted. We got to his place, and he said we should go to his friend's house, hang out and party and all that. I said I'd go, and I tell you this was no "friend's house". This was an abandoned building that was taken over by some crack dealers, and I tell you Anna I was the only white guy there. That didn't bother me too much, and I was pretty loose at this point, so I started getting it on with all the guys, got into the stuff, you know, the crack and everything. Then they were all going into rooms with the girls, and I got up there and the girl was there with me and I sat there a while thinking about what the hell I was doing here, and I told the girl I didn't want to do it, I was so drunk, and I gave her some money and told her not to feel bad, I was just too drunk.
Well, when I went back downstairs, they guy I came with, he was gone. He left while I was in with the girl. I looked at all these guys by the door, and I looked at the door, and I saw that this door, it had about four padlocks on it and 2x4's in front of it, blocking the door and all. All the windows were covered too, and I started realizing where I was. There was two guys and they had their arms crossed and everything, but I was drunk so I just went up to them and told them that the guy I cam with, I had to go back with him, that I was staying with him. They looked at me for like an hour, then they nodded at each other and opened all those deadbolts for me.

Somehow, even though I couldn't walk straight, I caught up with the other guy in his car. That doesn't make sense now, but I know that's how it was. He was with his wife, and she was cool. I got in and he said he would just bring me straight to the airport. I told him no, because my stuff was at his house, and then he got really mad, and now I knew he was onto what was in it. His wife, though, she understood, and she brought me back to the house for my bag. He was getting kind of excited, now, kind of mean and getting loud, so somehow that wife, she knew what to do, and she left him there, and made me quick get in the car. She brought me to the airport and I got out with my duffel bag safe and everything. I was going to go to Puerto Rico and get away from all this crazy stuff.

But then Anna, I tell you, I saw this firetruck. And then I saw a couple more, and they were all around this plane. And Anna, I couldn't get on a plane after that. I couldn't do it. So I just went to the airport hotel in Detroit and had my own Puerto Rico. I drank and watched movies, and that was my vacation. That was my Casino winning vacation. And I tell you, Anna, at that hotel, they treated me really nice. Real nice."

24 July 2009


Ms. Marron is not a cat lady--that's the problem.

Simultaneously, both of her female cats got pregnant and had their own litters of kittens. Each Mother Cat became very posessive of her kittens, accusing the other of stealing her spawn--and Ms. Marron is finding it hard to separate the two feline families in her studio apartment. The kittens have got to go. Unfortunately, they're not at the cute stage yet (I argue that they never will be), and no one will take a handful 6-day-old kittens. Since she can't afford to pay to get rid of them, Ms. Marron is very grateful that she does not have cat allergies.


Brian always wears a backpack--this is not too unusual.

Like most people, he doesn't open it very frequently, and minds his own business. Yesterday, he decided to tell us his secret (and his passion, and his self-defense weapon). In his backpack, he keeps a 7-foot boa constrictor, as wide around as a 20 oz. soda bottle, and according to him, "very sweet and friendly". It's easier to carry her on his shoulders, which balances the weight better than the backpack, but for some reason, the neighborhood takes up an issue with this. He feeds it mice, which is how it wins points from the tenants of the Herkimer.


Cindy has a pet mouse--I think she caught it at the Herkimer.

She successfully took it up at 20 ft. streetlight pole the other day, and sang its praises to anyone who would listen--they seem to listen more attentively than when it is a few inches from their nose, which was the first method she tried. Her mouse manifesto lasted as long as she got attention for it.
I think she was just protecting it from Brian's boa constrictor.

20 July 2009

Alcoholics Don't Litter Half-Full Beers

They all call Sam "Old Man", including me, because he looks like he's about 98. He's really more likely to be in his 60's, but he's an alcoholic, and it ages you faster than having five kids under the age of five.

Despite his kind-old-decrepid-man appearance, Sam goes to jail weekly (his open-mouthed mugshot is usually good cover-fodder for BUSTED!!! magazine.) They get him for trespassing (watch how far you stumble off the sidewalk, and try to steer yourself street-side), for public intoxication, and most recently, for littering.

Sam was sitting by the statue on Division and Fulton, drinking his favorite beer (any beer). He set the can down on the statue to give his forearm muscles a break, and was arrested for littering. This was how the conversation went:

"Sir, you are under an arrest."

"I'm not done with my beer yet!"

"You seemed like you were done when you left your litter on the statue."

"Litter! Hah! Lady, I'm an alcoholic. Alcoholics don't throw away half-full cans of beer."

"Come with me."

"At least let me finish my beer and then arrest me for public intoxication!"

Sam says the police women wanted the rest of the beer, and though I told him I doubted it, I did wonder what exactly it was she wanted.

17 July 2009

Ben on Panhandling (Anna, I'm not a panhandler. I'm a hustler.)

Ben filled me in today on his panhandling theories and ethics. He claims to be the best in the city--a city in which people can get arrested for panhandling for asking someone to give them the time.

Best place to be: Rosa Park Circle, though the police know it too.

People to ask: College kids, businessmen, couples (especially if they're on a first date, and look like they want to impress eachother)

People not to ask: Elderly folks, people with disabilities, moms with a lot of kids. That's just disrespectful.

Best score, recently: A $50.00 bill

Worst response this week: "Get a job and get off the streets, bum." But at least it wasn't handcuffs.

Worst response ever: A good solid beating.

How to approach a college kid: "Hey man, I really want a beer. Help me out?"

How to approach a business man: "Excuse me, sir, but my girlfriend and I stay under the bridge down here, and we're just looking for a meal. Can you spare some change?" Always use the food thing with the business guys, he says.

How to approach me, personally (we did a test. I pretended to be someone walking by, and critiqued him afterward): "Hello, ma'am. I'm just looking for 50 cents for some french fries. Help me out?"

My follow up questions:

What are you really going to use it for? Booze.

What if I bought you french fries? I'd eat 'em, and then try someone else.

Where can you even get french fries around here? We're in a pretty inconvenient location. That's how I usually get the 50 cents.

My answer: I want something out of this, too. I'll give you 50 cents for a really good story.


He's 275 of pure muscle mass branded with indecipherably menacing tattoos (they're either snakes whipping dragons or barbed wire strangling a sea monster), wearing a dark leather vest and two snarling eyebrows crowned with a do-rag. As he walks to my office door, the floor shakes noticeably, while I hope no one notices the same motion in the clipboard in my hands. Can you say... intimidating? (Better yet, can you spell it?)


Our meeting ends like this:

"Oh yeah, I love pastels, but I really prefer watercolor--watercolor detailed with black ink. It's my best medium. In fact, can you write down what kind of pen that was? It flowed so well. I need to get me one of those."

And once again, I am reminded that I don't. Know. Anything.

16 July 2009

8 Crab Ragoons and a Whole Basball Hat of Lo Mein Noodles

Eric has reported that there are strange cults meeting in the graveyard out where he works. He wouldn't know, except the only employment that he could find is too far away from the homeless shelters for him to stay there are night, so he camps in the woods by the graveyard.

"What did they do when they saw you?"

"I didn't let them see me! I covered myself with leaves! Hell, I was scared!"

Because of his new leaf-covered bedroom, Eric has been able to keep his job, and just got paid. Eric hasn't had $400 in his pocket for a long time.

"It's messing with my head. I can't stand it. Anna, I can't carry this much money. I'll drink $100 of it, and by that time, I'll either lose the rest, or someone will steal it. Anna, you have to keep it for me."

We can't keep people's money here--we've talked about it frequently, because it is something that many people request when they recieve large sums of money. They trust us more than they trust themselves... or the banks.

"I can't keep it Eric."

"Then I'm screwed. What have I been working for these last two weeks?"

Eric has a locker here at Degage where he keeps his clothes and hygiene items. I made a deal with Eric. If he would trust me, I would hide his money in his locker, somewhere he couldn't find it, and get it for him when he asked me for it. There's another part of the deal: he has to be sober when he asks.

Eric consented.

It was really hard to find a place to hide a large sum of money in someone's relatively organized rectangular locker. But I found a really good place. I'm not telling you where.

The next three times I saw Eric, he was completely wasted.


"Anna, only $20. Please."


Eric tore apart his locker for three days looking for his money, and couldn't find it (victorious!) He never cursed me, except to say "Damn, Anna, you sure know how to hide!"

He came back two days later, and passed my self-sacrificial breathalizer test. His breath was bad, but non-alcoholic. He was on his way out to dinner, and was taking a friend. He wanted $20. He waited in the bathroom while I got it from him.

After his dinner, Eric came in with a flower--a flower that looked like it was pulled up from the roots. It even had some dirt on it still.

"Thank you, Anna. I'm so glad I can trust you. I had 8 crab ragoons, and a whole baseball hat full of Lo Mein noodles. I would have never been able to have that without you."


And to whomever's garden was ransacked for the sake of Eric's thank you, I apologize. But I really appreciate that flower.

07 July 2009

I Love Paulie, His Staples, His Racoon Eyes

Paulie got so drunk last week, he blacked out in his apartment and had to get staples in his head. He also evidently fell asleep in the sun with his sunglasses on, because when he came to talk to me, his face was impressively tan with the exception of white circles around his eyes.

"It's not all fun and games anymore, Anna. This is for real now, I guess."

Most people wouldn't describe a life of homelessness as "fun and games" at any point, especially not at the beginning. But Paulie is 19, and spent the first year after being kicked out of his parent's house in Holland volunteering to take out the trash at Tini Bikini's so he could hang out with some of the girls. That was fun.

Then he got bored, so he got a job. He got a job by smiling. He's cute.
He worked at the Bistro and got to eat the "best food ever. All the time. You would like it." That was fun.

Then he decided to go back to school, so he applied and recieved a Pell grant. He registered for four classes at Community College, dropped three, and barely attended one. Not as fun.

Then he got sick of sleeping by other dudes--older dudes who weren't as good at gelling their hair as he was. So he applied for an apartment at Verne Barry Place, subsidized government housing reserved for those with physical and mental disabilities. Paulie turned in his ADD diagnosis, and got a nice, newly furnished, studio apartment for free. The girls from Tini Bikini's weren't allowed to come up and visit, though, so he got bored.

So he started drinking again (he never stopped drinking, but at least he got distracted during the daytime). There's a rule downtown that any sort of voucher (bus tickets, Degage Dollars, food stamps) were worth half their price in cash. Instead of $150 in shrimp and potato chips (Paulie's favorite foodstamp expenditures), he could get at least $70 in alcohol. Sounds like fun.

But last week, sporting staples in his head, Paulie smiles less. Time to do something about it, he guesses. Time to look into detox, rehab, maybe a more supportive group of friends.

But this week, he forgot the fear he felt when he woke up on the floor of his apartment, his head bleeding. This week, he's back to his MP3 player, asking me to look up the dates of the concerts at Van Andel.

This week, I hope that the love I show Paulie (I love Paulie) is not as helpless as it feels.

01 July 2009


When we were applying for Sandra's birth certificate, a document she needed to obtain housing, she was pretty sensitive when I was asking her for information about her mother and father to put on the birth certificate application. She had never met her mother, she told me, and she didn't really like thinking about her because she didn't know how to think about her. She didn't know what she was like, or if they looked similar, or if they had a voice that sounded the same, or anything. She didn't know how to think about her, so she didn't think about her.

A month later, Sandra's birth certificate came to us in the mail. She had never seen it before, so after signing it out, she looked at it very closely. Suddenly, torrents of tears started streaming down her face. Unable to speak, she pointed at her signiture on the sign-out sheet for the document, and then pointed at her mother's signiture on her birth record. They made their S's exactly the same.

After that point, Sandra fantasized about her mother, speculating that they probably had exactly everything in common. With this one hint, Sandra now felt that she knew how to think about her mother, and somehow, just because of her handwriting, she forgave her.

16 June 2009

Summer Vacation (and) "How Come the Beach Pavilion Don't Take Bridge Cards?"

Currently, my husband, my parents, and my siblings are all on Summer Vacation. For the last couple of weeks, they have been singing the praises of leisure free time (except for AJ, who prefers packed schedules), forgetting that I don't have summer vacation at all. This is the first summer of my post-kindergarten life in which I haven't undergone a significant schedule change at the beginning of June. I was reminded today that I was not alone in this.

Today was Beach Day.

Today was Beautiful.

"I've never been to the beach before!!"

(Then she had a panic attack.)

(Then she recovered!)

"Do you want something to eat?"
"Yeah, I will. But I haven't seen this lake for 40 years, and I'm really enjoying it."

And here I was, feeling that I was shackled by my job.

Today, I realized that I am not shackled, but liberated.

10 June 2009

Y'all's Good People

Jarrone and I have always been fond of each other, in a sort of "quit doing that or I'll kill you" sort of way. It's the classic relationship between the half-intentional rule breaker and the hyper-attentive hand of order (can that be classic?) He mutters, he cheats and cuts in line. I don't stand for foolishness like that. We're friends.

Jarrone came in my office yesterday morning at eight o'clock, and sits down. He didn't sign up, I didn't call him, but he got lucky this time. My list was empty.

"Y'all got me my ID. You know, that's the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me. I aint kidding. Hold on."

He dials a number on his cell phone, and slaps it on my desk. He jams in one of the buttons, and I hear ringing coming out of the speaker.


"Christina. Wake up. Dj'you ever thank these people? These Degage people?"

"What? Jerrone, it's so early. I need coffee first."

"No you aint. You say thank you. Right now. Anna, say something."

"Ahh... I didn't tell him to call you."

"Oh, yeah, hi Anna. Sorry. Thank you. Y'all real nice."

"Okay that's enough. Go get you coffee."

He hangs up the phone.

"Y'all's good people. Hold on."

I 'held on' for 45 minutes... and continued working. Sometime mid-morning, Jerrone walks into my office, without signing up to see me, again. He slams two A&W Root Beers on my desk and says, "Y'all have a good day." And that's it.

04 June 2009

The Caveman

The Caveman loves the cold.
The Caveman chases down the mailman.
The Caveman prepares the elevator when he sees me coming up the street.
The Caveman hates showering.
The Caveman hoards old broken things and open jars of peanut butter.
The Caveman has a grey beard.
The Caveman rides his bike into oncoming traffic.
The Caveman eats three cheeseburgers.
The Caveman is always on time for a job he's not even hired to do.
The Caveman is from the Upper Peninsula.
The Caveman signals instead of talks.
The Caveman wore camouflage all winter.
The Caveman tells the best jokes.
The Caveman guards my bike.
The Caveman is in charge.
The Caveman may or may not have carved his name onto the Cherry St. sidewalk.

I call him by his real name, but he would argue that's not his real name at all. He's Degage's very own voluntary handyman, elevator man, garbage man, mail man, security man, door man man. I don't know what we'd do without him.

29 May 2009

Six-Dollar Trust

Celia came in, shifty eyed, and asked to speak with us in private. We shut the door.

"I want to let you guys know that when you give people $6.00 for police reports for housing at Dwelling Place, they reimburse them when they turn it in. Sometimes.... sometimes people just apply for Dwelling Place to get the free $6.00. Don't tell anyone I told you. I just thought it was something you should know."

Yes, Celia, we know. We've known.
Dwelling Place subsidized housing properties, many of which are located in or near the Heartside area, require that each applicant present a copy of their criminal record, provided by the Grand Rapids Police Department for $6.00. We have, and will continue to, assist individuals with this $6.00 fee in order to encourage the process of applying for subsidized housing, a great option for the Heartside population (your own room surrounded by the same community). The Dwelling Place office has the same idea--they will pay back the $6.00 fee that someone pays for their police report.

When we discovered this, we tried to work out a system with Dwelling Place in which they refund us for the money for the report, if we were in fact the initial funder. It has been a strangely difficult process, and we finally agreed that if a Degage staff member (myself) turns in the police report on behalf of an individual, they will refund it to us.

So. We currently rely on patrons to return the police reports to us (so that we can turn them in) even though they know they could do it themselves, and get the money. Everyone knows. My 50% success rate makes sense--it's better than nothing.

I went through this routine with BobbyJoel last week... "I will write a check to the police department for your police report. Please return it to me, and I will turn it into the Dwelling Place office for you" .... please?
BobbyJoel saw it.
"Anna, I know why you want me to bring it back."
I know you do.

The next day, I found an envelope on my desk from BobbyJoel.
'To Anna. Thanks you. BobbyJoel.'
Inside, there was six dollars.
The first six dollars I have ever recieved from anyone for a reimbursed police report.

Later, BobbyJoel told me he turned it in himself because he wanted me to know that I could trust him.

26 May 2009

Of Course.

Rob is more depressed than usual lately, and we ask why.

"I'm having a hard time getting over the loss of my son," he says, "He was killed in an automobile accident."

Of course, of course you're having a hard time getting over the loss of your son.

"But you know, it's just hard, because I'm reminded of him every time I pay child support. Because I still pay child support for him, even though he's gone. I mean, I know I owe her something, but when will it be enough?"

14 May 2009

Class, Dismissed

I do not understand any other class than my own.

I don't understand why anyone would pursue matching Nike's and painted pointed studded nails, let alone chandeliers and convertibles. I can't imagine another set of rules where a patient, obedient, polite demeanor can't get you exactly what you're going for.

I used to think Maslow's "Survival Needs" category held a pool of universally understood resources, but I started to question that when I realized that a well-placed punch to the face didn't fall under mine.

The budget where I work is dwindling--no surprise there--and we need to figure out how to serve the people around us in the most responsible and helpful way with what we have. The problem is, the answer to the question changes drastically depending on who you're asking. If you ask us (the white ladies, born and bred middle class and well versed in the language of our own culture), we'll assume that medication co-pays and government-issued identification are going to be top priorities for anyone, and so if someone comes to us for assistance with that need, we can safely say that if they don't have money to pay for these things (after taking care of their housing costs), they don't have the money. Our problem (my problem) is that we are placing the class that we predominantly serve (the lower class) under the values of the class we participate in. We readily project the "what would I do in this situation" onto everyone we meet, thinking that humanity is humanity.

If we ever suspect that those we serve have spent a hundred dollars on a purse, we call them foolish, we call them irresponsible, lazy, manipulative, and tell them they should have thought of their asthma inhaler when they bought the purse.

I am learning. They are not foolish: they know where they are. They are not irresponsible: they are making sacrifices. They are not lazy: they are living. In a culture completely different than my own, completely foreign to me, it is more important to have a brand named bag than an inhaler. I don't understand this, because where I live, status symbols take the form of interesting conversation sooner than they take the form of a certain material or print. Let's face it, no one forgets they have asthma. Somewhere else, a purse means belonging--a more basic need than breathing.

This is the same reason that kids in poor families in America ask for donated Ipods while kids in poor families in Ghana ask for school uniforms. We all want the gift of participating in the communities we live in.

So, as we evaluate how to put guidelines on our services, we have to figure out how to help across class, which means completely challenging the way I look at service, at necessity, at a world that I have only seen through middle-class logic. I want to learn to love what I don't know.

12 May 2009

No Room at the Grand Rapids Inn

Rita is beautiful.

She has long, straight black hair, huge eyes, an incredibly wide smile, and a wonderfully pleasent and joyful demeanor. She doesn't talk very often because she is not very familiar with the English language, but she radiates light in a way that convinces you that speech is hardly important at all. Lately, she has been even more excited than usual; she is eight months pregnant with her first child, and needs to prepare a place for herself and her baby before it arrives.

The father of Rita's child, Greg, has frequented 144 South Division for over a year, requesting medical help, making long distance phone calls, and translating for Rita whenever she has any questions. Rita has been staying in the Women's Drop-In shelter, while Greg has been in a recovery house for men. I have never seen him smile, especially not today, when he escorted Rita, considerably further along than she was last time I saw her. I was happy to see Rita, but her silent smile seemed to mock the gravity of the situation, as Greg's straight face mirrored it--Rita had nowhere to go--she has no Social Security number.

Greg called the DHS about a month ago, when their options seemed to be pretty slim as to how they would care for their child when it was born. They filled out all of the applications for State Emergency Relief, but were turned down because the blank next to the prompt "SS#" had not been filled. They then called the Salvation Army, who informed Rita that if she had no income, they could not find a place for her to stay. They didn't even know about her Social Security Number.

Greg and Rita are left to beg agencies and churches to help them, somehow, to have a place for their child--putting aside any thought of the joy of pregnancy, or the excitement of starting a new family.

While Greg bangs the phone against his forehead, Rita just smiles; perhaps she can see past the situation, and can only feel the joy of life inside of her... or perhaps she knows exactly what is going on, but she only knows how to smile.

07 May 2009

Life and Death in the Men's Bathroom

On Tuesday, my supervisor walked into my office while I was meeting someone and asked me to follow her out into the hall.

"There is someone dying in the men's bathroom," she said, "I thought you might like to know."

There have been a number of dramatic death imitations in the past year (Robert slumped to the floor after repeatedly calling me a son of a bitch when I told him that we would not call 9-1-1 for him because there was nothing at all wrong with him (luckily, we have a previous paramedic on staff). He eventually got up and took the stairs out... "You sonofabitch!").
Because of this, I wasn't sure right away whether or not the situation was of an actual death.

You would think that I would be able to tell by my surroundings, right? By the behaviour of others on the floor, or the mood, or the feeling in the room, hushed whispers, somber faces, etc. etc.

But I couldn't. In fact, all of the surrounding evidence pointed to another theatrical display of false symptoms. Men were still going in and out of the bathroom, washing their hands, and glancing over the shoulder at the gentleman on the floor, in cardiac arrest. Another came around the corner to check and see if he was naked or not. He was not. It was a fully-clothed Joe, face blue, not responding, with a crack pipe to his left and a roach clip around his neck.

We kicked everyone off the floor, thinking that this might be the best way to preserve Joe's dignity and privacy since none of our verbal reprimands seemed to help. Some refused to leave "My laundry is done drying" and some complained "How will I do my chore?" They finally retreated as the paramedics arrived.

The only other times I have witnessed possibly the last minutes of someone's life were at the beach when I was in my younger teens, and a man drowned in Lake Michigan. I watched as they dragged his body from the water, and I swear the entire beach was still. I had always thought that the frailty of humanity was a significant to others as it was to me.

But living in the streets must be different, though I can't describe it, because things happen. People come, and people go, and people overdose, and others are jumped, and there's too much danger everywhere to be shocked by death. You have to live, instead.

As the staff prayed for Joe, we heard him revived by the Narcon he was given by the medics. They carried him out to the ambulance as we, as a staff, felt relief. I have to wonder whether or not Joe was also relieved.

28 April 2009

Missing the Support and Structure of Prison

Today, one gentlemen looked me in the eye and said,

"If I can't stay in government assisted housing, and if no one will hire someone with my criminal history, I might as well go right back to prison."

If recently released individuals leave prison with no options, if they feel like they are set up for failure, we have failed them.

Someone very wise once suggested that 90% of an individual's time in prison should be focused toward re-entry. Daily life in prison is so hyper-organized, so consistently structured, that upon release, many citizens feel completely overwhlemed by the chaos of a schedule that they are now completely responsible for. Although there is no longer anyone who has restricted your freedom, there is also no longer anyone giving you any direction.

If you could have a roof over your head, food to eat, a schedule to follow, and even some medical care, (and all of these things seem so difficult to find outside of prison walls) would you be tempted to re-offend?

I don't have the stats, but I have heard the prison system is pretty expensive. I understand that all systems are difficult to change, and I'm sure this is no exception. But what if we funded re-entry programs as much as incarceration? Would the numbers drop?

20 April 2009

Mental vs. Physical Health

Currently in Grand Rapids, if you have a life-threatening physical medical emergency, those who have the skills and resources to assist you and free you from potentially deadly ailments are required to help. If you are on the brink of death, the ER is going to take you in.

Unfortunately, if you have a life-threatening psychological emergency, those who have the skills and resources are not required to do anything, and if you are lucky enough to have someone prescribe you medication for depression, for bi-polar disorder, for schizophrenia, and you cannot pay for it, you will go unmedicated.

Paul has been in my office three times in the past week. This morning, he came in crying into his hands.

"I am alone, Anna. I am in a horrible depression and there's nothing I can do. You said I can talk to you, and today it was my only option."

He can't think past the dark, heavy moment he is currently in. He hasn't taken a shower or changed his clothes in a week, and he just now noticed. He's been self medicating (alchohol is easy to find on the streets, while Paxil is not), so the emergency shelters will not allow him to sleep there due to intoxication. Paul's at the end of his rope, and you can see it.

We eventually made a folder called "Paul's Plan of Action". In it he has one task for each day. Monday: Eat lunch. Tuesday: Go to the church for clothing. Wednesday: Take a shower.

At least now Paul has a plan, even if it doesn't include access to the medication he needs.

14 April 2009

Belonging in Heartside

When I first began working at Degage, I was impressed by the sense of community that I observed. The Heartside are of Grand Rapids was a place where people who were impoverished or homeless could call their own. They knew the churches, they knew the neighborhood agencies, and they knew each other. Community here is just like community anywhere else in the city: there's the place you go on Monday nights, that thing you do when you're bored, the people you hang out with, and the people you don't. Walking through Degage's dining room is the same as walking through a high school cafeteria... the drunks, the druggies, the domino players, the depressed and the delinquent teenagers all have their own tables. There is also a smaller group of transients; they come and they go, and never really become attached to anyone in the community, and never become too familiar with the routine. But for many of those who are homeless, this is their home.

It's really a wonderful thing, when you look at it, because it gives hope and security and companionship amidst a good deal of difficulty. But when people form their community here... something happens...

Well, just imagine being surrounded by people who serve you, people who love you, and, well, all the familiar places. Then someone offers you a different place to live--it's not in walking distance from everything you know, not to mention all of the agencies that feed you, clothe you, and entertain you. You have no transportation, and this housing situation, though more 'humane' by the world's standards, is missing a pretty important component: your community. So you come back. And that's just the thing. Who is ever going to want to "rise up" out of a situation that society calls "impoverished", if it means leaving everything you love? I sure woudn't.

Are we trying to force a lifestyle onto people who have already adapted to one? Do the social services exist to pacify the concience of the middle class?

Are we wasting our time?
I don't think so. But I'm thinking about this.

06 April 2009

The State of Michigan isn't here right now, please leave a message...

The last three letters that I have read on other's behalf have been from the State of Michigan Department of Human Services, the Social Security Administration, and the Michigan Unemployment Agency. Here is the content of these letters, (paraphrased):

"The Department of Human services has not received information that should have been necessary before your monetary assistance started. Please call your case worker in order to provide this important data. Until this call is made, you owe the Department all benefits you have previously received. This amount is currently $22,000."


"The Social Security Administration would like to renew your current state in order to determine whether or not your benefits should continue in the same manner. Please contact the Social Security Office in order to arrange a date to be re-evaluated. Until this date is arranged, all of your income will be cut off."


"The Michigan Unemployment Office necessitates that you call to certify your existence and whereabouts before your check will be sent to you. Please do this on your designated day by phone, or on MARVIN online. Unless you call to certify, you will not receive your check."

The government assistance agencies in the State of Michigan have created a situation in which the well-being of individuals depend on telephone communication (or in the case of the Unemployment Office, Internet connection). Aside from the fact that those in need of this assistance are those who are lease likely to have a personal telephone or Internet connection (the library and local non-profits have worked to fill in that gap), it is almost impossible to contact these three government agencies on the phone.

Since I began at the Referral Desk in June of 2008, I have been able to reach only one caseworker at the Department of Human Services. When I did finally get her on the phone, she reprimanded me, impatiently, "Don't you know that I have over 800 cases? How do you expect me to always return your calls?" I was not aware that she had over 800 cases, and would never expect her to return that many phone calls. I presume that the only reason my call was returned was because I was a representative with a local agency--their own clients are most likely the last to receive a message response.

Of course, there is no particular case worker that can be blamed for the communication inadequacy, but the consequence of this is manifested in individuals and families being unable to pay their bills--not because they do not have the income to cover it, but because that income has been temporarily suspended for reasons outside of their control. I can't imagine how frustrating this must be for the lower-level employees at these agencies themselves.

In the book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty", Ruby Payne describes our society as one that forces every socio-economic class to operate by middle class rules. Not only is this an example of a circumstance in which this is required, but also one which is unmanageable if fulfilled.

04 April 2009


This is my desk.

I work at Degage Ministries on 144 South Division as the Referral Coordinator from 7:30 - 3:30 each weekday.

My responsibilities include:

a) A lot of listening.

b) Helping those in the Heartside area to be more connected to the services in the city of Grand rapids.

After 4 years of undergraduate studies in Philosophy at Calvin College, this job has given me a completely different view of Grand Rapids and the diversity of citizens who live here. In the past year, I have learned an incredible amount about the culture of poverty, homelessness, government aid, non-profit organizations, substance abuse, mental illness, community, deception, kindness, and area resources. I wanted to share that with whoever else wanted to know. I don't know how often I'll update (I have been in the habit of writing things down... manually... in a book...) but I'll work on it.

I will not use any actual names within any of my blog entries.