What do the unhoused do in a system that doesn’t work well?
Jon Foster just got off work, his first day as a security guard at Ministry With Community, one of two starting points that local officials tell unhoused people to go to for shelter and resources.
Wet snow is falling in sheets on an early December afternoon, covering his black clothes in thick specks of white. He lugs a duffel bag and backpack to the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, the place officials say to go at night, to his bunk in the men’s dormitory, back to a living situation that he says “feels a lot similar to prison.”
Since his release from incarceration on Nov. 13, he has done what people in his circumstances are told to do. Instead of living outside or making the same choices that sent him to prison multiple times before, he showed up at the shelters, followed their rules, and sought out a job. He’s looking for additional work to pay his current and future bills.
He’s trying to find housing, laying the groundwork for the stability he needs, especially to regularly see his nearly teenage daughter. And he’s doing this while making sure other parts of his past stay there.
“That’s a motivation for me,” says Foster, 31, over a series of interviews as he transitions from incarcerated life to his future. “But a source of shame, too.”
What comes next for him, as with many others, is as much up to the choices he makes as it is his ability to navigate a lonely, complicated system. There are a plethora of reasons someone becomes unhoused and has difficulty bouncing back, and many times there are multiple reasons at once.
Foster is on a path that is inherently littered with obstacles, but some of them are creations of the very system intended to help facilitate an exit from homelessness. To do this right, he knows he needs physical and mental health care and an ability to get from job to shelter to appointment that can only come with getting his license back and driving a car.
When you find yourself that far down looking up, the act of just searching for resources, especially if you don’t know that they exist in the first place, is inefficient and can be traumatic.
City leaders’ only guidance for a homeless person sleeping outside is to go these shelters for a roof and assistance, implying that help and a clear path through the system is on the other side of the doors. That’s not reality, however. No one at either shelter even proactively engaged Foster on identifying his needs and then making a practical, realistic plan to service them, he says.
Each night, hundreds of people stay at the county’s only large-scale overnight shelter, the Gospel Mission as it is still commonly called, though it has been formally rebranded Kalamazoo Gospel Ministries. Lynn Russcher, vice president for advancement at KGM, says they bring Housing Resources Inc., the Family Health Center, Integrated Services Kalamazoo and other agencies to the Mission “at least once, and sometimes several times a month” as a resource for residents there.
The Mission’s goal is to match a resident with someone to help them navigate the system within 90 days of arriving there. “It’s a confusing process for some people. Some are strangers to our area and don’t know it very well. But we are committed to helping everyone. Some residents are more motivated than others.”
Kelly Henderson, executive director of Ministry With Community, wrote in an email response to questions that as a hub for local aid groups it is “eliminating a potential transportation issue and making their services more accessible for the folks we serve.” It employs social workers and support staff to help guide people in need of housing and health care, she wrote. “MwC (Ministry With Community) is not always the solution for all of the obstacles individuals may face, though our staff are adept at identifying community resources and walk alongside a person as they traverse the vast and complex systems in place for assistance.”
This is all part of a system that remains in need of a strategy and leadership in the community.
‘I’m not coming out’
On his first day at the homeless shelter, Foster made the mistake of telling a Grand Rapids friend of his whereabouts. Soon he received a message through the front desk informing him that the person he contacted was on his way to pick him up. There was an offer of a place to stay and a good paying job.
But there was an unspoken offer that Foster says he knows would have come as well — an offer of drugs, and a return to a life that has gotten him in trouble with the law, and in a very real way contributed to where he is currently.
That was a ride he was not willing to take.
“I had to literally be like, ‘I’m not coming out,'” Foster says. There’s no shortage of drugs available from other residents at Ministry and the Mission, so temptation is everywhere. “Yes, there definitely have been, I mean, opportunities.”
He’s looking for different opportunities as he navigates an often confusing landscape of assistance services that have left him with more questions than answers.
Weeks into his search, he still hadn’t heard back from Housing Resources Inc., a local non-profit that assists low-income people in finding housing – and the only housing agency he knows of.
Diagnosed with a mental illness, he doesn’t know where to go for the medication he needs, which he received in prison but can’t get now.
His 36-hour a week job pays him $12 an hour, and when he does the math on the calculator on his phone, and looks at the high cost of rent, he says “I am gonna need another job,” and then laments about how he would get to it having to rely on public transportation.
Foster, who is on Medicaid, also takes a drug called Suboxone, which he was given at prison 45 days before he was released. The prescription drug for opiate addicts counteracts the effects of the illicit drug if it is taken. After he was released there was a four-day lag before he was able to obtain more.
About a week later, Foster gets a ride and shows up unannounced at the Alcott Street offices of Housing Resources Inc., trying to get more answers about rental openings. A front desk clerk hands him the current listings for subsidized housing. As Foster scans the document, his brow furrows.
“This is it? There’s not a lot here,” he says.
“There’s a housing crisis in Kalamazoo,” the worker tells him.
It’s difficult enough for a low-income person looking for a residence in a shortage of affordable housing, but add to that a criminal record, and things become much more challenging.
Back at Ministry With Community recently, Foster meets with one of their social workers, Sarah Cain, seeking guidance on his best options for housing.
Although the city of Kalamazoo recently amended its fair housing standards ordinance to make it illegal for landlords to give a blanket denial of housing to a person based solely on his or her criminal record, landlords still have a lot of leeway when it comes to choosing who they rent to and who they don’t.
“It is a nice step forward, but there is still an opportunity for a landlord to say, ‘We considered you but decided to go with someone else,'” Cain says. “It’s legal for them to do that.”
Foster’s best bet currently is to get a Section 8 voucher, which he recently applied for. The vouchers, which are doled-out locally through a lottery system administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, cover all or some of a voucher holder’s monthly rent. There is more demand for the vouchers than housing supply, and long wait times are common.
Cain tells Foster it’s in his best interest to be up-front with potential landlords, to not hide his history.
“It’s really important to own your past,” she tells him. “Tell them how you’ve learned from your mistakes. Be open. Be honest.”
Foster has 11 felonies on his record, mostly for drug offenses, including marijuana and methamphetamine, and others for theft and unauthorized use of a credit card, he says. He’s also open about his heroin addiction. The last time he had a place of his own was when he was 19, he says. Since then, with a few short exceptions, his home has been prison.
He scans local housing listings almost daily, he says, but becomes frustrated. Many landlords require proof that a potential tenant makes three times their rent in monthly wages, something he can’t afford. Some state unequivocally: no felons. It’s easy to get down, he says.
“There’s a lot of things that are up in the air, I don’t even know if things will come to fruition at all,” he says. “I feel a little — I don’t know if frustrated is the right word, but depressed might be the right word.”
His other options, he says, are to find a room to rent, or to stay in a motel room, but those are likely too much money. He could get a platonic roommate, or find a romantic relationship and move in with them, too.
“I made that mistake,” he says. “These are the types of thoughts that go through my head, though, because, you know, how in the heck am I ever going to get my own place?”
Residents at the Mission wake up at 6 a.m., and are required to leave the facility an hour later. After that, Foster heads to his job just a few blocks away. But when he’s not working, he does what every other resident at the Mission does during the frigid months — sets out on foot to find a place to keep warm. Usually that’s at the Kalamazoo Public Library, or another indoor spot open to the public.
For now, Foster is simply trying to put one foot in front of the other and stay on the right road. The sometimes intense stress that he feels has made his mind wander, putting thoughts in his head about how using again would dull the pain, be a respite for a while from his circumstances, he says. He routinely sees it in other people. But he’s committed to doing things the right way now. He’s not going back.
“It’s overwhelming at times,” he says. “But even in my weak moments, I know I can’t return to the life I lived. I’m afraid of losing what I’ve already gained. Even though I don’t have a lot currently, I have too much to lose.”