Just a word
To many people, ‘homelessness’ is just a word. Maybe we understand this state of being intellectually and academically, but it’s next to impossible to empathize — unless we’ve experienced similar circumstances or have a friend or family member who has lived on the streets. Putting a real face on this dilemma helps humanize the condition, and that’s what Tom Gunnels’s project, ‘Waiting On Division‘ is all about.
You may recognize the name — Gunnels played banjo with local folk band, The Crane Wives for five years (2010-2015) before moving on to work on the Great Lakes Natives music project. Currently, he’s a free-lance photographer and videographer.
Interested in humanitarian efforts since he was a kid, Gunnels originally considered joining the Peace Corps to help disadvantaged people in other countries. Then one day, he realized that there were people in dire straits right in our own backyard.
It doesn’t take much
Earlier this year, he began documenting his encounters with homeless folks by writing a nearly daily diary on Facebook, taking still photos and videotaping people’s stories. Some days he doesn’t unpack his equipment. It all depends on whether or not people feel like being filmed or photographed. Some days are better than others.
“Several of [the street people] are now my friends,” said Gunnels. “They’re people with feelings, just like you and me, it’s just that their circumstances have one way or another led them down this path.”
I shadowed Gunnels one day as he made his “rounds” visiting the street people of downtown Grand Rapids. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he walks with a heavy backpack containing camera and video equipment on his back, trudging through downtown everyday on a personal mission to help folks less fortunate than him by listening, offering a hug when needed and making sure his friends are OK.
“Sometimes, all someone needs is a listening ear or a hug or just a kind word,” he said. “Such simple things make a huge difference in someone’s life. It really doesn’t take much.”
He carried a book with him, Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can, edited by Donald W. Burnes and David L. DiLeo, as well as a blank journal and a scan disk. He planned to give the journal to a friend who loves to write. The scan disk was for another friend whose camera needed more memory. He’s been in touch with Burnes, who wants Gunnels to be involved with a major project.
The day was hot and muggy and it was only 9 am. Less than an hour in, I was already dripping and wilting. How do people tolerate this day after day after day? I just can’t fathom it.
What is going on in our world? To say this is not okay would be a major understatement. ~Tom Gunnels
“This project is so much more about process than it is anything else,” Gunnels wrote in a Facebook post. “The process of walking downtown with all of the gear, being recognizable on the street as ‘that guy who is filming.’ I try to make a morning walk downtown every day that I can, just to say hi and maybe catch someone who has been wanting to film, but maybe just waiting for the right day.”
Puritan values still rule
Homelessness in Grand Rapids is a microcosm of what is happening across America, where the impact of 1600s Puritan values still thrives. Many people hold on to the notion that one only needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and into the pursuit of the American dream. Those who can’t “deserve” to be destitute, as they are thought to bring no added value to society.
Many homeless folks are disabled or suffer from addiction, some are war veterans, all face social disadvantages that go far beyond the lack of a safe and suitable home. They have reduced access to private and public services, as well as limited access to vital necessities such as healthcare and dental services. They are often seen as unsuitable for employment and their travel options are few.
Getting proper help when one is homeless can seem insurmountable. First, you have to know what services are available. That may take some time to figure out if you’re new in town or mentally ill, as many homeless folks are. Or perhaps you’ve been homeless for a few years and have given up on “the system,” but for whatever reason, today you’re going to give it another shot. Either way, you’ll need to fill out the correct forms. If you don’t have the proper I.D. — like a Social Security card or birth certificate — you can’t apply for basic social services.
If you don’t get it right that day, you’ll have to start all over again. The process is demeaning, time-consuming and frustrating.
On a more basic, day-to-day level, homeless folks are discriminated against at every turn. People cross the street to avoid them. Access to drinking water is limited, even on the hottest days, and some people suffer from dehydration as a result. Access to restrooms is another huge problem.
Then there is the matter of trespassing and loitering. Gunnels showed me a small patch of grass between a building and a fence. It was maybe eight square feet.
“See how small this space is,” he said. “A couple of my friends were just standing here the other day, not bothering anybody, when the owner of the property came out and threatened to call the cops.”
Moving onto the sidewalk was not an option.
“They tell them that it’s still trespassing,” said Gunnels. “Now, if I were to stand here for a while, that’s OK, because I don’t look homeless.”
Everybody is waiting
‘Waiting On Division’ is not simply about a street in downtown Grand Rapids.
“It’s about division in every sense of the word,” said Gunnels. “What divides us as people, as humans.”
One observation became apparent to Gunnels early on: Everybody was waiting for something, whether waiting in line for food, to get in a shelter or waiting for a social services facility to open.
“There’s just a lot of waiting,” said Gunnels. He was convinced that one of the first people he met was just waiting for someone to be his friend.
I was with Gunnels when his friend, Michael offered up some photography equipment. Michael has some camera lenses in storage and wants to give them to Gunnels — for free. This, from a man who has little to nothing in the way of possessions.
Gunnels said he sees countless such acts of giving and selflessness on the street. And he noted that many street people are surprised when Gunnels tells them he’ll be back and then returns. They’re so used to people blowing them off that a simple gesture of showing up moves them to tears.
Later on our walk, Gunnels introduced me to Amber and her friend, George. Amber looked rough around the edges. She was in pain and told Gunnels that she had pancreatitis — probably a result of her heavy drinking — and would be going to the hospital later in the day. Gunnels spent a good amount of time with her, listening and offering support. I found out later that Gunnels gave Amber a cell phone so that she could call him if she needed anything.
Such simple gestures as this go a long way.
“Amber writes poetry when she can, but it’s easy to lose things on the street,” said Gunnels. “It’s easy to lose a notebook or have it ruined by the rain, while you’re sleeping outside.”
All I can do is listen, film, be a messenger, and shed a few tears along the way.
On the ‘Waiting On Division’ Facebook page, Gunnels wrote, “It’s easy to lose things like pencils and paper, or even motivation to write. Motivation lost because somebody gave you a black eye and a swollen jaw, like Amber received just a few weeks ago. Motivation lost because of dehydration and difficulty staying in the shade on a 92-degree day, or out of the rain during a mid-summer thunderstorm.”
(To see Gunnels’s film of Amber reading her poem, ‘I’m a Bum,’ go here.)
Many of the people Gunnels meets are initially shy to be photographed, but once they get to know him, they open up.
“When I first met a man named Henry, he didn’t want my camera out,” Gunnels said. “After meeting him a few more times, he apologized because he said he thought he was rude towards me, and he then asked me to take his photo.
“This time, we were all hanging out and he asked if I would take my camera out again, so I did.”
Making a difference
“I guess I just hope that by explaining what I see and hear, I hope that others will hear and these stories make their way to somebody who can step up and actually help,” said Gunnels. “Respect is an important thing. If it is given, it will be received.”
One by one, Gunnels is making a difference. Since beginning the project earlier this year, Gunnels has helped get three people into rehab. A fourth was considering the option.
Social media plays a huge role in the project. People enjoy seeing themselves in photos and videos and proudly share these with their Facebook friends. The exposure gives them confidence. They feel they are valued.
Many of the folks downtown have a presence on Facebook — yet their own friends may have no idea that the person they see on Facebook has nowhere to live.
Being pushed out
Gunnels’s project comes at a time when friction between business owners and people on the street has steadily been increasing. Business owners in downtown GR see these folks as a nuisance and a deterrent to business. Signs in windows warn, “No Sitting” or “No Public Restrooms, No Soliciting, Thank You.”
Don’t let that bit of politeness fool you.
Recently, Propaganda Doughnuts closed shop after operating on South Division Ave. for two years. In a Facebook post, the owners blamed the business’s failure on customers being harassed and approached by panhandlers, and having to walk past intoxicated and passed out people on the sidewalks and in the doorways.
“To lump everyone together, assume they are all the same and they are a problem, is not okay,” said Gunnels.
Other business owners and landlords have gone so far as to try blocking a permit for Heartside Ministry to move into the former Goodwill store at the corner of Cherry St. SE. They worry that an expanded ministry may lead to more “harassment, drugs, alcohol intoxication, panhandling and other undesirable activities” along the corridor, according to an appeal filed with the city.
At the time of this writing, the city had affirmed its decision.