By Ryan Shek
At a special city commission meeting held on April 14 to brainstorm poverty reduction initiatives within Kalamazoo, a man walked up to the city commissioner’s table during the time allotted to citizens and asked “How many people living in poverty are actually from the city?”
The audience, about 40 Kalamazoo residents, showed up to speak their minds and witness the commission address the city’s alarming poverty statistics. According to Kalamazoo United for Shared Prosperity, 37% of the city’s residents currently live at or below the poverty line, thrusting Kalamazoo into the 98th percentile of poverty for cities with a population of at least 65,000.
The audience, a disparate and diverse group of people, quietly affirmed the man with assenting grunts, and confidently, the man pointed his finger at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission. The organization is largely funded by the community and assists Kalamazoo’s homeless population.
“I see the mission, the unfamiliar faces; Kalamazoo can’t take care of its own when we’re being flooded. How many people in the mission are Kalamazoo people?” the man asked.
Mike Brown, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, unknowingly confronted this question in an interview exploring the findings of a campus climate survey conducted by Western Michigan University. The survey, along with ensuing reporting, revealed that some WMU students are not only uncomfortable with Kalamazoo’s homeless population, but in many cases, outright afraid, and they cite homeless people as the cause for a lack of safety within the city.
In the interview, Brown raised a simple reminder.
“One of the things people never stop to think of is the people who live here, who are served by the Gospel Mission, is us,” Brown said. “It’s everybody. It’s people from your general community.”
The WMU students who hold the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission accountable for a lack of safety and the residents who blame Kalamazoo’s homeless population for the city’s poverty share a fundamental lack of understanding. They conceptualize homelessness as a disease and not a socio-economic condition, a festering epidemic, a plague, and not displaced, disfranchised, struggling people; people with whom they share their community.
It’s one thing to hold a person accountable for personal choices, issues of addiction and money management that can lead to homelessness, but another thing entirely to extend these choices to a community at large. To blame the afflicted for real and perceived problems is an easy out, a lazy thought, but maybe a natural one.
The alternative, according to Brown, is empathy and education. The Kalamazoo Gospel Mission treats the city’s poverty symptoms. It offers programs and counselling intended to change the patterns of homelessness. The mission isn’t looking to support bad choices, but aims to positively affect the hardships people face on a regular basis. The frustrating thing, says Brown, is that the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission is often recognized in the community, but not always fairly, or for the right reasons.
“Whenever we do a tour (of the facilitiy) we always hear, ‘I never knew you did all that’ and ‘How do you keep the place so clean?’” Brown said. “All you ever hear about in the news is: ‘Homeless shelter, food programs,’ and that’s pretty much it.”
“Even the people who are from Kalamazoo, many of them can tell you where the Gospel Mission is, but they can’t tell you about (what) we do,” Brown said.
With ignorance comes unjustified blame, blame corrosive to the community and the actual efforts Kalamazoo residents are putting forth to alleviate poverty and make people safe. To believe that homeless people are responsible for their own poverty is a fair position. But to blame homelessness for all poverty is unfounded. And to argue thatorganizations trying to treat and transform poverty actually attract poverty itself is unsophisticated, unfair, and plain stupid.