JOHNATHAN’S HANDS tell a story far beyond that of most 17-year-old teen boys. Primarily on his own since he was 13, Johnathan’s hands have already worked hard construction, sold drugs, and even purchased illegal guns off the street. In truth, he has a bullet lodged in one palm due to an accident with a $20 firearm. Beyond all that, Johnathan’s hands also tell the story of a kid who enjoys attending school, giving to others, volunteering, and helping out at Owosso’s O-Town Café with the “suspended” meals/drinks program. He also has an impressively strong handshake. (Independent Photo/Karen Mead-Elford)
by Karen Mead-Elford, co-editor
Editor’s note: The following stories are a brief compilation of information relayed directly from local individuals of various ages and backgrounds, who currently are or have recently been homeless in Shiawassee County, most particularly in Owosso. The Salvation Army Warming Center on Exchange Street in Owosso has welcomed a consistent number of homeless adults into the facility for the previous two months; providing shelter, food, hospitality, and companionship for people strongly needing basic care and a friendly support system. The Shiawassee County Homeless Coalition has been actively pursuing a semi-permanent/permanent and positive solution for the homeless population, including men, women, children, and even complete families, who for unique and diverse reasons have found themselves struggling.
Many of the organizations represented within the Shiawassee County Homeless Coalition would welcome volunteers or donations. Capital Area Community Services, Inc./Shiawassee County Service ACCESS Center, located on Corunna Avenue in Owosso, has two resource specialists: Angie Swanchara and Elisabeth Genovese, who are dedicated to helping the homeless, and go above and beyond in their mission to outreach positively to this sometimes overlooked population. Likewise, Shelly Ochodnicky, along with the Salvation Army and Lt. Jonathan Tamayo, both involved with the Salvation Army Warming Center, also need volunteers and donations, particularly regarding the impending close of the center at the end of this month.
Becky Zemla, Shiawassee County Center coordinator at CACS, recently stated that a number of area landlords have been very attentive in working with them to find shelter for homeless individuals, a fact they truly appreciate. She also shared a need of a couple people: one is a veteran, for housing that would include canines (or pets) in relation to PTSD and mental health concerns.
Out of respect for the following contributors, last names were omitted.
Johnathan, who sometimes goes by Johnboy, is just 17 and arrived in Owosso from Georgia, in the middle of winter during a storm, via a one-way bus ticket, seeking a relationship with his slightly older brother. After his parents had been imprisoned when he was three, Johnathan’s great-grandmother had gained full legal custody of him, though his brother had gone on to live with an aunt in Michigan. The boys had been separated. However, by the time Johnathan was 13, his great-grandmother passed away, and custody was moved on to his grandfather “who had no time for it.” The result left Johnathan growing up on the streets of Columbus, on the outskirts of Atlanta, “in the hood” almost daily from the time he was 13. By 16, Johnathan was living “fully on the streets.” Often, this involved finding shelter in drug houses, though interestingly, this boy managed to remain in school, keeping his education a priority, focusing on his dream to “build things” and eventually to become a contractor.
“Most people don’t really see me.” Johnathan shared, “Though they see me more because I’m young, but they don’t see most of us. I’m probably going to get the most clothes or whatever, because I’m young, and then I’m going to share these clothes with the others.” The teen briefly described his attitude in sharing donated items with other homeless people, an attitude that is prevalent among the homeless.
Johnathan’s story becomes a bit more complicated due to the fact that his birth certificate and records are sealed away in the state of Georgia until he is 19. It has been a struggle for him to obtain a legal identity for himself, though his goal is to finish high school so he can move on to college. He will be 18 at the end of May. Also, because he is still a minor, he has found himself in a situation of “couch surfing” at night until he is able to finish his education and find employment. He is not able to spend the night in the Salvation Army Warming Center as a minor, though he has readily been helping there, and has developed a number of positive relationships, including support from Shelly Ochodnicky, the warming center coordinator.
“It’s not just a place to go,” Johnathan said about the center. “It gives someone a group to be around and there is so much value in talking.”
Jeffrey and Suzie’s Story
Jeffrey has found himself homeless “for 15 years” due to his struggle with depression since early childhood. When he was a teen, he ended up in a “psych center for children.” Eventually, his troubles led him to a 10-year stint in prison, where he was completely estranged from his family, particularly his parents, though his grandmother did help until she passed away. Currently, he is enthusiastic to share that he is on new, monitored, medications that are helping him with his chronic depression. During the interview, Jeffrey was quick to show appreciation for the individuals and organizations that have helped him recently, particularly Shiawassee County New Directions and the Salvation Army, for providing food and aiding him when he was homeless, and also CACS.
In describing his homeless situation, he discussed what it was like to live in the small “tent city” located off of Gould Street in Owosso last summer, sharing that it could be frightening when fights would break out. Some of the time, Jeffrey also chose to sleep on benches in Curwood Castle Park, though he related a scary incident regarding a group of middle school students who threatened him.
Suzie, who is exceedingly close to Jeffrey, found herself homeless two years ago due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “We’re trying to become self-sufficient,” Suzie shared. “I was not afraid because I always knew I had Jeff.” The couple recently found housing in January due to the efforts of the Shiawassee County Service ACCESS Center. Jeffrey is now looking forward to employment “next month.”
“I was crying for an apartment,” Suzie stated.
Julie was born in Owosso and has resided in the area for most of her life. She has found herself homeless several times, but most recently became homeless after she left her house to her son and granddaughters, after that relationship deteriorated. With her second husband in prison, she eventually was living with a “friend” of relatives, trying to assist that person, though she was forced out due to a drinking situation, resulting in Julie staying in her car.
Julie is grateful for the help she has received, particularly through Angel’s Hands Outreach in Owosso, for helping her locate basic items for her apartment she moved into in February, due to the work of the Shiawassee County Service ACCESS Center. She is currently looking for employment, but has worked as a waitress, in fast food, and retail previously.
“A person can only put up with ‘no’ for so long before you just want to give up,” Julie said. She is often lonely, though incredibly thankful, in her new apartment. “Family has always meant everything to me,” she added. To help with her anxiety/depression, Julie enjoys crocheting, and has established the goal of creating “one very big blanket” for herself.
(Note: Pete is not his legal first name. He wanted to remain anonymous.)
Pete grew up in Durand, but found himself homeless for a 9-month period due to financial problems that resulted in a drug addiction. Both he and his wife, sharing three children, were drug addicts, leading to fighting, eviction, unemployment, separation, and familial estrangement. Pete shared that he is close to his mother and stepfather, though his “real Dad has not been part of the picture.”
During his recent homelessness, he spent a period of time in a tent behind the Welcome Inn on M-21, before moving west of town to another tent situation where he often “cried myself to sleep. I felt like such a failure.”
Pete has fought to regain his life and is now housed and hoping to begin a new job in early April. “I want to work, want to be a better Dad.”
When asked about his new home, he responded that there is “light, heat, a warm bed, and food.” He is excited that his children are central to his life once again.
Edward was also born in Owosso and grew up primarily in the Owosso area. As a teen, he found himself actively pursuing a particular sport (he didn’t want it mentioned), because the activity helped him with low self-esteem due to the constant bullying he endured as a child.
On homelessness, he said, “It’s not fun. I was in a relationship, and when we broke up last May, I was living in my car.” Edward endured the heartache of the loss of his relationship without returning to alcoholism, and has not returned to drinking for 11 years, now.
At this time, he has been in an apartment for a few weeks. “I know where I’m going to sleep,” he shared exuberantly. He is continuing to focus on “getting my head straight,” planning on returning to the long walks he enjoys taking, and hoping to return to work.