California couple overcomes homeless situation in Michigan


By Meghan Nelson • Last Updated 9:15 am on Monday, September 26, 2016

Amy and Joe Hanson (pseudonyms used for the couple’s protection) wanted their photograph to be taken next to a cross to “thank the man above” for helping them get out of homelessness. The couple was homeless for years before finding stable housing in Greenville through Montcalm and Ionia county services. — Daily News/Meghan Koglin

GREENVILLE —  When Joe and Amy Hanson (not their real names) moved from California to Michigan, they didn’t have jobs lined up or a place to live.

In fact, they were homeless.

Amy had applied for a transfer to Walmart in Ionia, which she accepted, and they made the move to Michigan.

“I made a promise to his mom before she died and I told him I would get him over here,” Amy said. “But we were late coming in, and they ended up giving my job away. That’s how we ended up in our situation.”

While the situation was frustrating, it wasn’t new to the Hansons. Joe had been dealing with off and on homelessness since he was about 13 years old.

Joe and Amy moved to Michigan in 2014. They brought a moving truck with them, but they had to return it and were left outside in the middle of a snowstorm.

“It was just us and our luggage sitting at a Pilot gas station in the snow,” Amy said. “We got into Midway Hotel because the night before spent it on the back of an abandoned restaurant.”

Joe walked from the hotel to his sister’s house, an eight-mile trek, only to get the door shut in his face. On the way back to his family, a Michigan State Police trooper pulled him over for walking on the wrong side of the road.

“The state trooper said he would let me go because I was new,” Joe said. “Then, I told him where my wife was, and he told me to keep walking. Three hours later, I get to the truck stop and (Amy) is sitting there. She gives me a look, and I turn around and see the state trooper behind me.”

Joe and Amy ended up calling 911 and were transferred to 211 (the information service was still available). They were eventually put in contact with Have Mercy and its Executive Director Kim Cain.

Have Mercy in Greenville is an organization that seeks to meet temporary needs of homeless people while working toward a permanent solution, and it played a big part in Joe and Amy’s life in Michigan. The Hansons are thankful for all the work the agency have done for them.

While agencies were there to help with adjustments, Joe and Amy still dealt with many differences.

“Out there in California, it is a gold mine to a homeless person,” Joe said. “There are umpteen spots I can go to. I can go to one dumpster and pull out $300 to $400 worth of stuff. I’d pull out dresses to give my wife, or what we would do was take those dresses in to a consignment shop and make money.”

Joe also was able to find radios, televisions and food in those dumpsters. One day, he even found a bike, which helped him get around more.

“It was an old man’s bike. But hey, I’m not going to complain if it can get me from point A to point B to point Z, I’m going to ride it,” Joe said.

During his years of living in homelessness, Joe has learned how to survive as a homeless person.

For four years before Joe met Amy, he built a shack out of palettes and nails and lived in it. He had electricity and water.

He also started wearing dark clothing to camouflage himself at night when he would go out to bring home food, clothes and other things he could find.

“The safest time for me is at night because I can get around without being harassed,” Joe said

Joe is adamant about his wife staying safe especially when they were homeless. He noted life as a homeless woman is different and more dangerous than life as a homeless man.

“I ended up working with our son and was making close to $500 a week,” Joe said. “My wife and I decided to buy an RV, but we ended up being scammed of $1,000. So we faced jail time. Instead of letting my wife do time, I did.”

Joe admits he struggled with drug use and abuse in the past, truing everything except heroin. Since coming to Michigan, he says he has been clean.

“I was sick of dealing with homelessness and wanted to be in my own little world,” Joe said. “I went and smoked some crystal away from my wife. When I came back, I had blood in my eyes and would cough up blood.”

Amy asked if he needed to go to the hospital, but he resisted. She ended up putting him through multiple baths with epsom salt to detoxify his body.

Joe decided that was the last time he would do drugs. Not much longer, the couple moved to Michigan.

“I left out the drug scene. I don’t need that,” Joe said. “I have a whole lot better. I have better friends.”

Another difference between Joe’s and Amy’s lives in California and Michigan is that, with the help of Have Mercy and other agencies in Montcalm and Ionia counties, after nine months they are now successfully housed.

“Since he was 13 or 14, he has been dealing with off and on homelessness,” Cain said of Joe. “And to have that person be stably housed, to have that household have stable income, to have them have a happy life, that’s victory. And it doesn’t happen very often.”

Cain credited agencies in Montcalm and Ionia counties for writing that success story. But she emphasized that Joe and Amy played an important role in getting themselves out of homelessness.

“The reason they came out of homelessness is because they wanted,” Cain said. “We are so limited in what we can do. I have people who are still homeless and it’s because they aren’t willing to do what they have to do.”

“You have to want it,” Joe added. “When Kim first met me and (Amy) we wanted it, we wanted help.”

Despite stable housing, Joe and Amy are still facing struggles. Right now, Joe is dealing with a stolen identity problem, which prevents him from working.

“Since Homeland Security stepped in, they check you,” Amy said. “You can’t bring a relative in to vouch for you. It’s a hard situation for a regular person to go in and get their ID. You have to go through the census. It’s a frustrating process.”

Joe warned no one can guarantee he or she won’t end up homeless one day because it can happen to everyone.

“I didn’t make that choice. It was forced on me (when he lost his job in his 20s) because my job was taken from me, everything I had; when you run out of money that puts you on the streets even though you can be the best worker in the world. I was making $1,200 to $1,300 every two weeks in California,” Joe said. “People don’t think how people become homeless. If you don’t have money, you’re going to be homeless. I didn’t have a choice, and my wife didn’t have a choice. We don’t want to be homeless.”

Joe also talked extensively about the difference between homelessness and “street life.”

“Homeless is when you don’t have a choice. When things happen, you lose your job, you lose everything,” he said. “But, street life is when you make that choice. Some people who live on the street think it’s cool. That’s street life, not homelessness.”

Another difference Joe pointed out is homeless people are typically focused on survival.

“Street people want to do drugs, have sex and don’t care about the world,” he said.

Joe and Amy are thankful to all the agencies and to each other for overcoming homelessness, but Joe admitted the fear hasn’t quite gone away. Amy said they are permanently housed, but it is dependent on their rental rates and her hours.

“It’s an everyday thing,” Joe said. “It’s a prayer if we’re going to keep strong and keep things together. If she comes home and says she has bad news, I start praying. When her hours get cut, I get scared. I don’t want to be out there anymore than I have to.

“I thank God everyday that I’m not homeless anymore,” he said.

Local Homeless statistics

According to statistics from the Ionia-Montcalm Continuum of Care, the homeless population in the two counties was 570 people last year, including:

• 397 in Montcalm County, 332 of whom were literally homeless (didn’t have a place to sleep at night).

• 229 in Ionia County, 164 of whom were literally homeless (didn’t have a place to sleep at night).

• 158 children in Montcalm County.

• 107 children in Ionia County.

• 41.81 percent of the homeless population are younger than 18 years old.

• 328 of them are females.

• 244 of them are males.

• 1 is transgender (male to female).

• 543 of them are white.

• 21 are black or African American.

• 5 are American Indian or Alaska Native.

• 2 are Asian.

• 1 is Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

 • 1 is unknown.

• 33.33 percent of them have a high school diploma.

• 20 percent of them have some college education.

• 13 percent of them have a GED.

Asking for help

Anyone struggling with housing or homelessness is encouraged to call the Ionia-Montcalm Continuum of Care via EightCAP at (616) 754-9315 ext. 3364 or contact Have Mercy in Greenville at (616) 225-8055.

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