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.