In Case You Missed It: NowKalamazoo took an in-depth look into the Kalamazoo County homelessness crisis in a Nov. 2019 special edition called The Homefront. Since the crisis continues, we are republishing the articles below. Click on the picture of the cover to read a digital version of the magazine.
Tears of Relief
NowKalamazoo explored the homelessness crisis in Kalamazoo County in the Nov. 2019 special publication The Homefront.
Weeks before hundreds of homeless people and their allies set up camp in Bronson Park last year, my daughter and I became homeless.
Our living situation had become toxic, our roommate was psychologically and emotionally abusive to us both. With the help of a friend and an investigator with Child Protective Services (CPS), we found temporary refuge at the YWCA as I looked for a new place to call home.
This may sound traumatic, especially to those who haven’t faced the risk of going without a safe roof over their heads, but it’s just a frustrating life-or-death reality of the disorienting bureaucracy that homeless people endure. The real trauma is what led us toward the path of homelessness in the first place, and the real work for us and those individuals and public services that support us was to face that trauma head on, to limit its ability to inflict us further and allow us start over with a sense of peace as quickly as possible.
The causes of each person’s descent into homelessness are as unique as the hurdles they face to climb out of it and the support they require to stay out. Some of us just aren’t safe where we are and homelessness is the best option for survival until a unit in the community’s insufficient affordable housing stock becomes available. I’ve met people who are mentally or physically disabled and unsure of their options, or have none until a disability claim is processed. Families living by each paycheck or suddenly losing reliable income — perhaps because they took time off from work to deal with illness, or had an unexpected transportation issue, or childcare that fell through one too many times — struggle just the same. And yes, some battle with substance abuse, which may have sent them to the streets in the first place or helped them survive when they got there.
We all, successfully or imperfectly, balance the daily needs of basic survival — a meal, restrooms, a shower — with the sometimes unclear steps it takes to find a home, all while being looked down upon: if one person strayed from their path then we all must have; if one person appears dirty because they slept outside, then we all must be.
If one person is subjected to a lack of humility and humanity, we all are.
A Difficult Path
I already experienced homelessness: as a child with my mother when she needed to escape, and as an adult after experiences that left me scarred and battling post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By this time in my life, I chose to fight for myself and my daughter to get us to the safe space that a permanent home provides, and help anyone I could along the way.
That’s not an easy path. The relocation sent me into one of the worst panic attacks I have had in a very long time, but thankfully the staff at the YWCA is experienced, and they helped me meet with advocates and counselors to help me through it. In addition to being a mother, I was looking for a place to call home, doing research on obtaining disability payments, speaking with agencies to help me find a part-time job that would accommodate my disability, and becoming a voice for the homeless. As the issue of homelessness began to make local headlines, I made it to every community discussion I could, trying to explain to government officials and agencies exactly what it was like to be homeless.
Shortly before leaving the YWCA, I received word from an apartment complex that they were having trouble approving my move to a subsidized unit because of prior evictions on my record (which I have been fighting because I was wrongfully blamed, and even made restitution payments on behalf of those roommates). I spoke to the head of the company that manages the apartment complex, who approached me during a protest to ask how they could help and told me they would look into my application.
Unfortunately, there are many other women and children in need of the YWCA’s life-saving services. Even though it provides or assists in just about anything you need, you only have a limited amount of time to stay at its shelter. The YWCA offers extensions on a case-by-case basis, but these aren’t granted often, I was told. If you don’t get that extension, and have no family or anywhere else to go, the only answer is to go to the only emergency shelter in Kalamazoo County, the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, or find somewhere outside.
We went to the Mission, where you have to leave after breakfast and be back that night no later than 8:30 p.m. (earlier during winter). After nearly six hours, our intake was completed, and my daughter and I were assigned mats on the floor in the common area of the facility that houses only women and children. Our mats were placed disgustingly close to a restroom with a clogged toilet full of standing human waste. The smell was exacerbated when someone had an emergency, disregarded the “out of order” sign, and relieved themselves into the garbage bag that was initially placed over the inoperable toilet so no one would use it.
The toilet was fixed after that, though the repairperson didn’t clean up what had spilled on the floor around it — that’s a chore for someone staying at the Mission. Someone did it, but the fumes from the cleaning products were so intense, especially in such proximity to where my daughter and I were to sleep, that we both got sick. That’s when we moved to a tent in Bronson Park, joining the group that would soon make headlines, temporarily sparking a community-wide conversation (or argument), and eventually be shut down by police and the health department.
Solidarity in Bronson Park
We weren’t strangers to the park. People who experience homelessness in a community as small as Kalamazoo tend to befriend each other, for camaraderie and survival. We had an air mattress, sleeping bags, a first-aid kit, and a lock to put on the zipper of our tent so no one could get in while we were gone or sleeping.
Even though we weren’t physically camping there for the entirety of the time of the protest at Bronson Park, my daughter and I were still there almost daily, when we weren’t attending meetings with CPS, going to medical and dental appointments or handing in housing applications all over town. I found other people taking part in what we called the Bronson Park Freedom Encampment spent a lot of their time away from the park, working or looking for employment, trying to get Social Security and disability claims processed, or other necessary paperwork like new identification. These are common priorities for anyone who finds themselves homeless, something that those with a stable home may rarely if ever have to deal with and are among many seemingly easy tasks that often require assistance to achieve.
The encampment was filled with a strong sense of empowerment and determination, however. I spent time helping a 52-year-old woman originally from South Haven but was living in a tent behind Ministry with Community convince the Mission that it was illegal to prevent her from accessing their services with her registered service dog. My daughter and I tried to do our part in what felt like my extended and blended family – all of us focused on safety and well being, in addition to daily operations of the protest that we hoped would create awareness and change around the issues of homelessness in Kalamazoo. I bounced around the encampment looking for anyone that could use help with my daughter following close behind, often stopping and giving hugs and kind words to protesters that seemed upset or depressed because of their situation. And we all were supported by a person placed in charge of a security team to keep watch over those staying in the park, and another person who took charge of cooking all the community meals of donated food that were not pre-made.
At this time, I felt this was the best option for us. We couldn’t get another extension at the YWCA, didn’t feel safe at the Mission, and were on the waiting lists for any other shelters, affordable or subsidized housing units. CPS disagreed, and filed an “emergency petition” to have my daughter removed from my custody and placed with her father, who hasn’t been in contact for nine years. The court did not remove her from my custody immediately, since CPS did not have any proof that I was an unfit parent. We were given another court date a month later and, in the meantime, were instructed to return to the
Mission. Soon after, the Bronson Park encampment was broken up.
Despite all this, I continued my advocacy on behalf of Kalamazoo’s homeless community. At one particular meeting in October 2018, I spoke again with the CEO of the apartment complex of which I was still on a waiting list. We discussed ways that Kalamazoo County falls short in implementing a “housing first” model, a nationally-known best practice that has proven successful in other communities. I reminded her of our previous conversation, that an earlier eviction has blocked my daughter and me from entering their unit, and the risk my family faced even though I was doing everything I was supposed to within the system to climb out of homelessness.
A Route to Stable Housing
Shortly after that meeting, I received a phone call from the CEO’s assistant: that they had room for me and my daughter in their family shelter, called Eleanor House, a large, old home near downtown that was converted into a temporary solution for families. There’s a sense of home and peace in the more than 130-year-old walls, enveloping its clients like the warmest, fluffiest blanket on the coldest of Michigan winter nights. Some of my first childhood memories are in that house, where my mother had escaped my abusive, alcoholic father. The people that started the shelter back in 1988 knew that it was important to imbue this sense of home and family in their daily operations, to give the clients, even though they had their family with them, a sense that the other families there became a part of your family as well. The kids all mingle together like brothers and sisters do, and, when the kiddos were off to bed, the parents (often single mothers, but single fathers and married couples as well) often bond over a late-night cup of coffee, sharing deep conversations of how they grew up to get a better understanding of how we are the way we are now, trading tips of who was accepting housing applications and what to expect with that particular company, as well as celebrating good news like a new job or a house or apartment. (Eleanor House was shut in early June and sold in September.)
The program at Eleanor House only allowed a stay of a total of 90 days while you are looking for a home, though if you are following the program’s rules — making sure your assigned chores are done, actively looking for housing and work if you don’t have an income — they allow you to stay a bit longer as needed.
As my 90 days were ending, on Dec. 24, I was informed that I was extended to Jan. 11. I had been following their rules and things were looking up: CPS dropped the case against me, I was approved for a Section 8 housing voucher that I applied for four months earlier, and I had been approved for an apartment unit with a move-in date of Jan. 4. Much of that time was a blur as I rushed to make sure I was ready to capitalize on this string of good fortune. I was packing up me and my daughter at the shelter, and making arrangements with my partner to take him to work so that I could use the car to start moving in.
On Jan. 10, I sent an email to the agencies involved in securing my apartment unit, all but begging them to please get their end of the move completed, as it seemed our move-in date would be pushed back a week but our exit date the next day from Eleanor House could not. We were waiting for them, and I didn’t want all of the hard work by me, my caseworker at Eleanor House, the apartment complex and its property management company to end with me and my daughter going back to the street for who knows how long until paperwork and inspections could be finished.
The morning of the Jan. 11 was still filled with uncertainty as I pulled into Eleanor House. I didn’t know where we would be that night. I was just sitting in the car, mentally preparing myself to pack up the car, unsure of where we were going to go next.
And then I received a call from the apartment complex office manager and my Eleanor House caseworker almost at the same time. Everything was done. I could sign my lease and pick up my keys. After six months of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear finally left my heart and mind, I began to cry happy tears of relief. We were finally going home.
It’s been nearly a year since the author, Miranda Drake, was handed the keys to her apartment she now calls home. “This is the first time in my adult life that I haven’t lived with a toxic roommate or abusive, substance-using partner or family member,” she says. She’s focused on raising her child, therapy to address effects of childhood trauma and mental health issues, and working a part-time job that accommodates her disability and availability. “My mission now is to help others that are homeless navigate the various assistance programs that will benefit them the most and hopefully get them home as quickly as possible so that they can begin their healing.”