Life on the Streets
Homeless in Ann Arbor
by Karen Crauder Snyder
From the December, 2018 issue
I'm an Ann Arbor transplant, and I hail from "enemy" territory: I moved here six years ago from Columbus to join my partner, a U-M professor emeritus.
I was involved with the homeless community there as a professional researcher for a community coalition and as a volunteer providing hot meals in an inner-city church. One Sunday, I brought my camera to the church and offered to photograph anyone who wanted, promising to bring them prints, envelopes and stamps the next week so they could mail them to family and friends. Most did, and were delighted with the results.
In Ann Arbor, volunteering at Ten Thousand Villages on Main St., I noticed the homeless people who hang out in that area. I wondered who they were and how they lived, and decided to ask them if they'd talk to me for an article.
Some people were hesitant to be interviewed and photographed, but most were not. After all, how threatening can an older woman who walks with a slight limp be?
George refuses to use the system created to help homeless people in Ann Arbor. I met this a good-looking, slim, sixty-three-year-old African American veteran seated on a bench in Liberty Plaza. He said he'd been "kicked out by a woman who is into material things and not love. Because I paid off my fine to keep myself out of jail, she threw me out into the street."
George was irate. He felt the world in general and the woman in particular was unfair to him. He said he did a lot for her--washed dishes, rubbed her diabetic legs, whatever she wanted. But, he says, when he got his monthly payment from the government a few days ago, he sent half of it to support his seventeen-year-old daughter in Virginia, and he took the other half to the courthouse to pay the fine so he wouldn't go to jail for a misdemeanor--and when his woman learned this, she
blew up. She was especially angry that his daughter didn't have his last name. And she kept shouting at him, "Are you selling your body to someone?"
So he was on the street, with no money, no food, no place to stay--just a heavy coat, one black roller bag, and a pack of cigarettes. He slept at the Baptist church nearby the past night and didn't know where he'd sleep tonight. He was starving, he said, and needed $20 or $30 for food plus at least $40 for a room.
I said he should go to the Delonis Center, where others had told me the food was free, good, and plentiful. He said he'd been there in the past but would never go again. "I deserve better!" he said emphatically. From other things he said, I suspected he may have been evicted from there as well.
He said that two men on the plaza had robbed him, but he stabbed one of them. He talked of past employment, including being in theater and working at the Beer Depot and Gandy Dancer as a dishwasher and cook. Health problems prevented him from working now, he said; he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at U of M, St. Joe's, and the VA.
George tended to toss in all the references he could think of: he said he went to Community High and Huron and graduated from U of M. During his monologue, he asked me for money time and again, saying God had sent me to the plaza to help him. I told him I was a nonbeliever, but that didn't faze him at all.
He said he'd experienced prejudice in Ann Arbor, when people would say to him, "Those people--you people. That always means, 'nigger,'" he said. "I ain't nobody's nigger no more." He showed me a picture of his daughter, a light-skinned teenager. "She's half white, but the nigger runs deep," he said with pride.
He said he had six children altogether. "Two in prison in Colorado, ready to get out. I sent them money. My youngest has triple degrees. Older one, too. Engineering degrees. Got in prison through stupidity."
He said he was looking for a blessing, and he was hoping I would give it to him. When I gave him five dollars to buy a sandwich, he wondered aloud how he would pay the tax on it.
I'd just seen him sell two cigarettes to one of his acquaintances in the plaza, and suggested he use that. He gave me a look of disgust, then softened and said, "Thank you."
Glen, Tasha, and John
They were having a smoke while sitting on rocks in the parking lot on the corner of William and Ashley. I introduced myself as a freelance writer and asked if they knew where I could find homeless people to interview. They said they used to be homeless but no longer are.
Glen said that he is also a freelance writer, for Groundcover News. He was working on a story about hate crimes. "Two weeks ago I lost a friend from a hate crime," he said, a man named Ray Mason.
"Homeless people all knew him. Guy picked up a tree limb and beat him to death, stripped off his clothes, and left him facedown in the water at Frog Island in Depot Town. He used to be homeless.'' The incident upset many in the homeless community. A suspect has been charged with the murder.
To benefit from the homeless system in Ann Arbor, they told me, "You have to focus on getting yourself together. You have to take care of yourself first." If you use the system and stay focused, they said, you don't stay homeless for long. "There's an effective one-stop shop here. An easy-to-use phone number. You go through that system, and everything else connects. And they have the means to help people, but you gotta get out there and help yourself.
"They're not going to sit there and wait for you. You gotta be willing to function. You can get right on your feet from here."
Glen said he'd been in Ann Arbor since he was sixteen. "My mom was a young teenager when she had me. She came out here and went to Eastern Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, and U of M. It made me uncomfortable because my graduation year I had my mom as a student teacher in my class. At night I go home--a two-bedroom apartment. I tend to hang with people who function like me. We pulled together."
Tasha had her own place, too, she said, thanks to Section 8 housing. Glen said he's going back to Washtenaw next year for culinary arts and computer training. "I'm hyperactive for a fifty-two-year-old. I just love Ann Arbor. It's the most user-friendly place I've ever encountered. I have a beautiful two-bedroom apartment in Ypsi. Rather be in Ann Arbor. Looking for a new spot here. Scared to go to Detroit. Had fun times in Detroit as a kid."
John said little. When I encountered him a little later on the street I understood his silence: he has some bad teeth, he said, and his mouth hurt a lot. He seemed to know where to go for dental help, possibly dentures, and was headed there after he left me.
On a drizzly, chilly Sunday, Tyrone sat outside Starbucks at Liberty and Main in his candy-apple-red electric wheelchair. Plastic bags hung on the back of his chair and a plastic donation cup was at his feet.
There was no embarrassment in his voice or face, just an open sunniness. I offered to buy him a coffee, and he smiled and said he'd meet me inside. He needed no help with the door. He seemed to be adept at getting around in what I was to learn was his usual neighborhood. I bought him a sandwich too.
He was close-shaven with curly black hair tinged with white, a fashionable stubble on his face, and a lightweight gray hoodie trimmed in white with a white T-shirt peeking out at the neck. His khaki pants had a soft crease down each leg.
"I turned sixty in March," he said. "I had a stroke about five years back ... I had to learn to walk and talk and all that stuff. This left side is kind of paralyzed. Shortly after that I lost my wife. I lost my job. So I became homeless.
"I was a plumber. I got three kids. Eight grandkids." He said the kids help him out when they can, but they live in Saginaw, so he doesn't see them that much.
His parents brought him to Ann Arbor when he was twelve. His mother still lives here. He tries to panhandle enough so he can get a motel room every night in Ypsilanti for thirty-five dollars. He gets there with his bus card. "Sometimes I don't have enough, sometimes I do." If he doesn't, he might ride the bus most of the night or go to the U-M hospital and sleep on a couch in a waiting room. "As long as you don't make any commotion, they don't bother you." Other times he sleeps outside or at the Delonis Center or wherever he can. "You just have to find a spot that's comfortable."
He didn't appear to have enough clothes with him to sleep outside. He said he has a little stash spot, "an area that's secluded and nobody goes, so you just dump your bags right there. It works out OK."
He met his wife when he was eighteen and she was fourteen. They married four years later and were together until she died in her sleep two years ago, beside him in bed. He was not sure of the cause of death.
After tenth grade at Pioneer, he got kicked out for doing "all kinds of stupid stuff," he said. He advised his own three kids to stay in school.
"They all three graduated from Eastern ... Daughter is battling cancer right now. Throat cancer. Son works for a plastics company. Other son is a foreman here in town." I remembered he had said they all lived in Saginaw, but didn't say anything.
He has to plug in his wheelchair every night. If the battery runs out, he puts it on "free wheel" and pushes it from behind--he can walk as long as he has something to hold onto. He said he left an earlier chair outside a funeral home when he went to a service for his brother this past spring, and someone stole it. Medicaid replaced it.
His favorite things to do are fishing on the Huron, especially with his grandkids, and watching TV.
He said folks around here are nice to him, providing meals and coffee when he needs them. He's a regular at the Delonis Center: "Free meals and a place to sleep, if they have room available. They let you shower and shave and all that stuff. You have to be sober, no drugs and stuff like that."
He quit drinking in 1983 when "I almost went to prison, so that helped me quit. Got picked up seven times for drunken driving. In jail for two years for that. At least you have meals and a place to sleep. I like it when they put me in jail so I have a place to stay."
"Do you have friends in the community?" I asked.
"Since I got in this condition, nobody wants to be bothered with me. So I stay alone a lot."
But every morning, he said, the folks at Chase Bank on Main St. bring him coffee and doughnuts. "A lot of them get to know me. So, it's pretty good. There's a few mean people out there, but not very many." He's never been robbed, but he's been "jumped" by other homeless people who wanted his prime panhandling spot.
He's on disability--$688 a month, put on a prepaid debit card. "Staying in the hotel rooms eats it up real fast," he said.
I asked if he had enough money for a room that night.
"Well, I about need about $25 more. I should be able to make it."
I said I'd help him a little. He had never asked for anything.
At Starbucks, "I usually just come and sit outside. I don't come inside very often. They never complain here. Other places don't want you sitting outside their business. They call the police on you. And you have to move."
His biggest fear, he said, is "when I'm down here at night ... a lot of homeless people see you getting stuff, and they want it, try to take it from you.
"I'm just a nice person. Homeless doesn't mean nothin'. They think all homeless people are dirt. They're not."
Miranda and Michael
When I approached them in Liberty Plaza, Michael at first was a little hostile, saying, "If I refuse to answer a question, it's my choice!" I assured him I wouldn't be demanding anything of him, I just wondered about their lives.
On and off, both have been homeless for about five years. They and some others spent the previous night on a concrete porch nearby. "At a church or some sort of building, I don't really know," said Michael. "Tonight I have no idea. We go to Delonis for meals.
"The food is good. They do a very good job. Feed anyone who comes in," said Michael. Miranda agreed. She said she was "dealt a bad hand of cards in my life. Too many obstacles. And then you play it wrong. Even though you try to do your best, it's gonna fall short."
She graduated from high school with honors in Livingston County, she said, went to college, and was an apprentice real estate appraiser. She was married for twelve years. "I have three kids, well, four. My first one died right after he was born. There have been a lot of deaths in my family, ten in two years. And I just lost my mind. So I'm kind of a gypsy for the past few years.
"Down here, in this area, it's like one big family," she said. "We love and hate all of each other here in the plaza. Everybody goes to different areas to sleep, in tents, in the woods, then when we wake up we meet up. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. It's one big homeless family.
"We may not understand each other, but we still love each other. We're considered a group. All of us here in the park. It's a love-hate relationship all day." Her own kids "are in New York with my ex-husband. They are doing OK.
"I'm still breathing. One day at a time."
"I don't have to be homeless, but I will be," Michael said. "Scares the shit out of me. I'm thirty-two, from Wayne County. Went to Colorado, Tennessee, Florida. Florida is where I went homeless. Was in a clinical trial in Kansas. New form of hydro ..." He got confused and trailed off.
A large African American man came up and gave Miranda a big hug, calling her, "A fine specimen of an Anglo-Saxon Caucasian female." She hugged him back.
"It's very good here," Michael said. "Best place to be. The cops respect you. They pulled up to me this morning and asked how they could help me. Fucking really good. They let me use their cell phone. Fucking best cops in my life. Worst are in Battle Creek. Been arrested over 100 times. I drink too much sometimes. If you offer me a line of cocaine I will snort it. Alcohol is my drug of choice."
"Ninety percent of us have a mental disorder," Miranda said. "Bipolar, PTSD, multiple personality disorder, an alphabet soup of disorders. I can sit here and be cute and calm, then I could attack you. Cute, cuddly, and then really bitchy. I was diagnosed at St. Joseph in Ypsilanti. Have a psychiatrist at U of M. I have a cell phone but can't charge it. Lost my cord."
Delonis is good, Michael said. "They fill you up. They have a shelter, but I don't sleep there. Can shower, have a locker room, free soap, shampoo, towels, toothbrush, toothpaste, fresh underclothes. They take care of you."
They left, heading down Liberty toward Delonis for dinner. After about forty minutes, they all came back.
I hoped we could talk some more, but a friend brought over a fresh deck of cards and started dealing. Another friend was on the periphery, talking. A third brought a bottle of booze to pass. Miranda took a swig and said: "It helps to take the edge off." The interview was over.
[Originally published in December, 2018.]
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