Homeless like me: Local men tell of their own paths to homelessness

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, January 20, 2013

"I am the I Am, made in the image of the almighty.

—Manipulative, mandatory, maneuver if need be, but marked massively, a masterpiece of divine example—anointed in the spirit and the truth.

I am. I am. I am the I Am.

I am the I Am, the world, the universe—all living things.

I am a man."

—George Goins, poet, homeless in Janesville

For Mike Greenwood, the poor side of Janesville keeps moving.

Its location: whatever church is taking its turn to temporarily house GIFTS Men's Shelter.

Greenwood, 61, has been homeless for almost a month, but it was a slow slide getting there.

In a stretch of five years, Greenwood lost everything—a good-paying factory job he held for more than 20 years; his comfortable ranch-style home on a quiet, wooded cul-de-sac in Beloit; his marriage; and his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

"I kind of miss the Harley," Greenwood said.

Greenwood is one of dozens of homeless men in Janesville who this winter are getting a sleeping cot, two hot meals, support and Christian goodwill from volunteers through the nonprofit GIFTS program, a men's shelter that rotates among more than a dozen Janesville churches.

Stephanie Burton, GIFTS executive director, said the use of GIFTS has grown steadily from the nonprofit's first few years, when about 70 men cycled through the shelter each winter.

Last year, more than 120 men used GIFTS throughout the winter, and Burton said numbers are on pace to be at least that high this year. On a chilly week, the shelter can average 25 to 30 guests a night, according to shelter records.

Some guests stay with GIFTS long-term, while others pass through, staying a few weeks or a few nights until their circumstances improve.

There's Shawn, a bright, affable video gaming geek who knows the locations of all the best Wi-Fi hotspots in Janesville.

There's Brady, 23, who is a criminal justice student at Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville.

Then there's George Goins, a cook and a self-taught poet from Chicago, Ill., and La Crosse. He spent 10 years in prison for dealing crack cocaine. Goins said he's working fulltime at a Janesville restaurant and as a freelance sous chef for a Beloit caterer.

Goins, 30, said he taught himself to read, write and cook in prison. He doesn't have family or any close friends in Janesville, but he moved here after getting out of prison a year ago, mainly to avoid going back to La Crosse. He stayed with a girl he'd met.

He was saving money, but things didn't work out with between him and the girl.

Goins now is staying at GIFTS until he can save enough money for an apartment. He spends his bus rides to and from work recording poetry and prose for a book he hopes to write about his own life. He dreams of someday rising above his own past and touching people's lives with his writing.

"I've done a lot of negative in life, and karma has dealt me a blow. What you do comes back to you. So you have to put some good energy out, and good things will come back to you," Goins said.

Another man who stays at GIFTS walks to the bus stop at the Janesville Mall at 3:30 a.m. every day to catch the bus to his job at a Whitewater manufacturer, GIFTS volunteer John Burt said.

"None of these guys is a stereotype," said Burt, who volunteers through Bethel Baptist Church in Janesville, one of the GIFTS shelter locations.

"Granted, some are here because of choices they've made, but nobody really chooses to be here," Burt said.

No more prime rib

Mike Greenwood's eyes traveled far off as he talked about his life before homelessness. He recounted the two decades that he worked as a machinist at Regal Beloit.

Back then, Greenwood had a fishing boat, and he and his wife took vacations to Mexico. He enjoyed prime rib dinners at the Butterfly Club in Beloit. He worked hard, and he had a decent, blue-collar life.

Then came the 2006 and 2007 downsizing at his factory that Greenwood said cost him his job. After that came months of unemployment, mounting bills and pressing mortgage debt.

Work, when it came, was in spurts—a series of low-wage jobs, mostly part-time or temporary. Even those began to taper off as the economy sank into the Great Recession. Away went Greenwood's 401(k) retirement and his savings.

By 2008, Greenwood had lost his home to foreclosure, his marriage was failing, and he was living with friends and relatives. Sprinkled across the last five years, Greenwood admitted, was some drinking, too.

What little Greenwood has kept includes a late-model Ford Ranger pickup truck and a Swiss watch.

Stories such as Greenwood's are becoming more common locally. House of Mercy, a Janesville shelter that provides short-term housing for homeless women and families, also has seen a spike in need.

House of Mercy can handle about 25 families, but in the summer of 2012, demand had grown to more than 50 households. That's nearly 150 people. Waiting lists had grown to three weeks.

To get those numbers under control, House of Mercy had to bar families who were relocating from outside Rock County to stay at the shelter, Operations Coordinator Erin Loveland said.

The reasons for House of Mercy's growing need are myriad and hard to pinpoint, but Loveland said it's clear that for many the economic backlash of the recession and housing crisis is still playing out, and people's financial and employment circumstances aren't improving fast enough.

"Perhaps landlords are tired of waiting or there are more foreclosures that have cleared," she said.

Other reasons for local homelessness remain constant and perhaps independent of the economy.

"When there's mental illness, substance abuse and crisis, homelessness is always there. It's always been there, and it always will be," Burton said.

'Just one oar'

Scott, a local house painter and forklift operator who preferred not to give his last name, is clean cut, tall and thin. He's got a big smile and short-cropped hair that stands up in spikes. He wears crisp plaid shirts, trendy jeans and a sporty ski jacket.

While his appearance does not fit stereotypes of homeless men, Scott's been in and out of homelessness in Janesville for a couple years.

Quick to crack a joke and fast to warm up to people, Scott has a raucous, unabashed laugh. At GIFTS, he ribs everybody and gives those he especially likes good-natured nicknames.

But behind Scott's easygoing veneer are years of struggle with alcoholism.

It's cost him more than one job and more than one apartment.

"I'm honest with everybody about it. I don't have anything to hide," Scott said. "When I'm not drinking, I have nice things—a job, an apartment, a nice TV. But when I drink, it all disappears."

For a span of months last year, Scott had stopped drinking and was working as a forklift operator at a local implement dealer.

Things were going well. He had his own apartment and was able to buy some furniture. Then he started drinking again. Just like that, he lost his job. Late last year, he got evicted from his apartment. It seemed to happen overnight.

"Some people I know will be surprised to find it out. They'll say, 'Hey, weren't you just doing real well?' But this is what happens," Scott said.

Another Scott staying at GIFTS, Stoughton native Scott Snyder, understands what it's like to fall into substance abuse.

Snyder, 51, is homeless after recently losing his job and apartment, which he said were a package deal he's better off without. A former convict, Snyder said he's staying with GIFTS while he participates in a substance abuse program ordered through Rock County drug court for cocaine use, which for him is a probation violation.

Snyder has been clean for three months, and he works long hours during the day as a self-employed metal and automobile scrapper.

GIFTS treats its guests with an air of controlled leniency. At each host church, volunteers plan nightly activities, and the guests are allowed to spend a few hours in the evening reading, socializing or playing music.

Alcohol and other drugs are prohibited, and guests cannot stay at GIFTS if they're intoxicated. While that rule keeps some homeless guests at bay, particularly on weekends, it seems to help others stay clean.

Scott the painter is taking temporary work painting apartments owned by a GIFTS volunteer while he goes through a county alcohol abuse program and attends Alcoholics Anonymous. Both he and Snyder say the trick is staying so busy during the day that they have no time or energy to double back into their old habits.

"We're all in the same boat, and we've got just one oar. It can be really easy to go in a circle that way," Snyder said.

Getting on track

Mike Greenwood will be eligible to collect Social Security in a few months, but he has no savings and doubts it will provide enough money to get him off the streets.

He's looking for work wherever he can find it. As a military veteran, Greenwood is eligible for services through the state Office of Veterans Services, and he's been getting help job hunting from a veterans services program specialist at the Rock County Jobs Center.

Most days, Greenwood spends part of his day at the jobs center scouring for job leads online. In the course of one morning last week, he applied for four local factory jobs and called to check on an aptitude test he'd taken for another job at a Janesville manufacturer.

He said he passed the exam, but that's all he knew.

"It's in the hands of HR now," Greenwood said.

Simple logistics is perhaps the biggest obstacle for the homeless in Janesville. While a slew of local organizations provide assistance for food, shelter, social services and clothing to the homeless, there is no centralized, all-purpose or year-round shelter in Janesville.

GIFTS runs from October to April, and it's just an overnight shelter. The guests must leave during the day.

Greenwood is lucky he has a vehicle that runs. He said homeless men at GIFTS either walk or find a morning ride, often to downtown Janesville, and then spend their days stranded within range of routes for city buses, which they can ride with tokens provided by GIFTS.

During one job-hunting and finance session at the Job Center, Greenwood had to borrow somebody else's cellphone to iron out a months-old unemployment snafu from a part-time job he had in Illinois. His own cellphone had only seven minutes on it, and the minutes ran out after he was put on hold by a government worker.

Even a phone call was an inconvenient, grinding, uphill climb. Still, Greenwood said he's not feeling desperate, at least not yet.

"I'm not looking for a bullet," he said. "I'm looking for a better way."

Last updated: 8:01 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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