GREENVILLE — The image that enters one’s mind when thinking of a homeless person can be quite misleading.
Perhaps it is a man sitting next to a shopping cart, huddled beneath a wore-torn blanket while grasping a bottle of spirits wrapped within a brown paper bag.
Or maybe it’s a veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, standing on the corner of a street wearing holding a crude cardboard sign asking for help of any kind.
While there’s no denying those images do portray some homeless people in need of assistance, they do not accurately describe the homelessness problem within Greenville and Montcalm County, according to Kim Cain, executive director of Have Mercy.
After a two-hour session in which about 20 people walked through a “homelessness simulation” event at the Montcalm Community College M-TEC Ash Technology & Learning Center in Greenville, Cain was direct with her message.
“This is what homelessness looks like in our community,” she said pointing to everyone who had just participated.
She described them as anyone walking the street, who at the end of the day are forced to seek shelter under a bridge, or in a newspaper bin behind a department store.
“People who tell you there is no homelessness in Montcalm County, they don’t understand,” she said. “It’s not something you can see on the surface, but it’s there.”
Cain hosted the first simulation event of its kind in Montcalm County hoping to make it an annual event, with a goal to spread awareness that there are several hundred people within the county who are homeless, even if their situations are difficult to identify.
Those who participated received a fake identity involving a situation a homeless person may face, from being jobless and divorced to having children suffering from a serious illness.
Each participant was required to attempt to work their way out of being homeless by visiting representatives from a multitude of local services, including Have Mercy, Century Place, Greenville Housing Commission, Greenville Area Ministerial Association, RAVE, Straight Street, Michigan Works, and Housing Assessment and Resource Agency (HARA).
Everyone worked against the odds including caring for children, being denied by agencies due to income requirements and many other variables that homeless people face on a daily basis. Along with those problems came feelings of frustration, confusion, humility, sadness, stress fear, and an overall lack of hope.
“It was a little overwhelming, going to place to place … I didn’t know where to start,” Greenville resident Amy Homich said. “Going from agency to agency and getting turned away. It would be nice if agencies were all under one roof.”
Each “day” lasted 10 minutes, as participants worked on their goal to acquire housing, be it permanent or temporary.
During the “evenings,” everyone worked toward receiving a voucher to stay at a motel or took a chance sleeping in Veterans Park or on state land.
Sgt. Brian Blomstrom of the Greenville Department of Public Safety “patrolled” in the evening, resulting in evictions from Veterans Park and checks on a wandering “drug dealer.”
“Getting kicked out of Veterans Park, that was my most negative experience,” said Bob Byram of Isabella Bank in Greenville.
Byram, who was able to secure a stay at a motel the following day, was then subjected to a drug dealer during his stay.
The events showcased that despite having a one-time temporary option, the situation was far from ideal, and revealed the daily issues and temptations faced with many who are just trying to get by.
“We’re really aware of the issues that come along with this, but the stigma, the humility, the embarrassment that it takes to get to your next place in life … to lose hope, that’s what kills all of us in the end if you think you can’t get through this crisis,” said Kathy Jo VanderLaan, co-chairwoman of Have Mercy. “We need to deal with these issues.”
Cain said the most important issue at hand was spreading awareness, and properly defining what being homeless actually means.
“There’s multiple different definitions of homelessness … if we could all get on the same page, with just one definition, maybe that would be one place to start in helping people get assistance rather than being turned away,” she said. “I hate to say it, but what everyone went through here today, that is the normal.”