Choosing homelessness – for now: Part 1 of 3

Finding himself at the bottom, Jon Foster documents his new start from here in Kalamazoo's system for the unhoused.

My hands are chapped from exposure. Even standing in the freezing cold outside the day shelter doesn’t guarantee you a spot because of the capacity restrictions due to the pandemic.

I am able to get three meals a day, and for that I am grateful, though I do spend a considerable amount of time hungry. I am a clean freak by nature, and homelessness is not conducive to this: going days without a shower is sometimes a better option.

I never planned to be homeless, though I doubt anyone does. I certainly haven’t been enjoying it. I am 31 years old. I grew up in a bubble. I was ignorant of the plight of the homeless. I lacked empathy and I definitely lacked any real knowledge of it. 

After 18 months in the Kent County Jail, I had a choice. I could start over, starting here. 

Or, I could go back to the same way I was doing things that had me incarcerated for nearly nine of the past 13 years, including for marijuana and theft charges, and felonies. I developed a harder drug habit along the way, picked up an eviction, a face tattoo, and the manifestations of barely-treated mental illnesses. 

All of this makes starting over even more difficult than it already is, for me and thousands of people in this community, people who need housing, employment, mental and physical health care, guidance and support if we are to make it out of homelessness and stay out. 

I was released from jail on Nov. 13. I am in Kalamazoo for two reasons: I want to be close enough to my daughter outside of Grand Rapids in hopes I can earn visitation rights, but far enough away from where I have been doing the things that lost me those rights. 

And, after months of sending countless letters to services agencies in Kent and surrounding counties, asking what the next steps were for someone about to leave jail and whether there were opportunities they could assist with, I got a reply from a Western Michigan University sociology professor who was interested in collaborating on a research project on inmate re-entry.

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I had sent a letter about an idea to document my attempt at self-reformation. I recognized I was potentially in the middle of a transformation and I wanted others to benefit from my experience — and to hold myself accountable.

The professor connected me with the Public Media Network, which is helping me produce a podcast. As I develop episodes, and stories like this one, I have often been accompanied by reporters from NowKalamazoo, who are writing stories about this as well. I’ve never done any of this before. The podcast, “The Reentry Crisis,” will release its first episode this month.

I had three shirts on under my coat and a pair of sweat pants under my jeans outside the Ministry With Community drop-in center that cold November morning. Still though, this was no match for the wind. What will we face come January and February?

The Kalamazoo Gospel Mission is almost finished with an expansion project, which means the nighttime shelter can better accommodate more people. It can get pretty gross, with an overwhelming stench of urine that can stick to your clothes. Many people are clearly intoxicated, and there are regular fights and shouting. On my first night, as I lay on a mat in a gym, there was a lot of coughing and not a lot of masks worn by either residents or staff.

I struggled to find a job at first, or even look for one. It’s not easy to start the day with presentable clothes. To wash your clothes, you must cart them over to the Ministry With Community building. But you can’t leave your other belongings lying around, and you can’t go job hunting with three plastic bags full of clothes. One cannot leave any belongings at the mission unless you have the $5 for a small locker. It would be a risk to leave anything unattended. 

Showering is a process that involves waiting for your name to be called on the list at Ministry With Community, and they provide towels and hygiene items and a private stall. There are group showers in the Mission, but they are not clean. There are no doors on bathroom stalls.

Meals are served at specific times. I missed lunch once when I ventured too far while hunting for work. When I did return the line was long and the food was gone. The choice: lunch or a job? And if a job, then I’m stuck with whatever the elements do to my clothes and me. I can see how a person could get caught in this cycle of self-preservation. It is time-consuming chasing the next meal or a warm place to sit.

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