Willie, who spent 12 years of his life in the Michigan prison system, and Connie felt they had enough bad history in Detroit and needed to start life over in a different city. They decided to find a new home in Toledo.
Willie stayed at an emergency shelter, but soon after the couple applied to Family Outreach Community United Services (FOCUS) — a faith based agency with a goal of embracing people in need and bringing a voice to the homeless.
After Willie lied to FOCUS about not having a criminal background, FOCUS found out otherwise with a criminal background check, so the family was at first denied.
Ultimately, the Toledo-based chapter granted his approval and he enrolled in construction apprenticeship classes.
“We spend up to two years helping people get stable first and foremost economically,” said Executive Director Kyle Grefe. “The last thing FOCUS wants to see people do is fall back into homelessness because we’ve invested so much.
Since then, Willie has maintained a 3.5 GPA, which isn’t bad considering he had not been in a classroom since 1985, Grefe says. Attending Owens Community College, Willie was to graduate last summer.
Candy was hired in the janitorial department at a local hospital, only because FOCUS helped her acquire special work shoes. Now she is considering obtaining her GED and pursuing a career in the medical field.
According to the 2007 FOCUS annual report which describes Willie and Candy’s story in detail, Candy is now motivated by the question, “Wouldn’t it be nice to wear a different color scrub?”
Grefe made a presentation at Cousino’s Steakhouse to the Oregon-Northwood Rotary Club last week. She was only a few hundred yards from East Toledo, where neighborhood block watch groups are calling for an increased effort fighting homelessness.
“The whole case of homelessness is critical to our community because we don’t create stable neighborhoods,” Grefe said. “I would love to have homelessness end because it is such a drastic issue for people. It displaces people physically. It displaces people mentally.”
Grefe says FOCUS isn’t “focused” on just helping homeless people. It also focuses on preventing homelessness before it begins.
Grefe says many families are just a life-changing incident away, and they may not realize it. Grefe calls homelessness, like poverty, a “disease” that can affect “people like you and me.”
“Homelessness has to be looked at in the context of a much bigger issue. Their own community, our politicians have to look and set that as a priority,” she continued. “None of us can really know that our income is secured, or our tenure is secured in this world.”
Toledo’s FOCUS, with offices in the United Way building downtown, now houses about 75 families, including three in Habitat for Humanity homes
Grefe told many of the business owners and professionals attending the Rotary meeting that the middle class cannot possibly identify with the everyday issues facing the homeless — until they actually find themselves in that category.
“Your life is predictable. It may feel boring to you, but it’s a blessing,” Grefe said.
“As middle class folks we have a lot of resources — it’s just not the case with the homeless,” Grefe explains. “We have friends, family and they can help. If we have people that fall through the poverty cracks, which we are going to see happen, it’s still kind of under the radar but they still have what they know.
“That’s considered episodic poverty — you have an episode in your life and for a while you’re going to be at the bottom of the barrel.”
Grefe said there are other forms, including generational poverty, which makes up about 25 percent of the homeless population. Parents, grandparents, and even generations of family members dating back to the Great Depression may have lived in poverty.
“For those folks, their reality is much, much different than our reality,” Grefe explains. “They have a completely different value system than the middle class. One of the reasons they can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps is that they have a different mindset.”
She described a study that showed that a child living in a low income neighborhood has a vocabulary of 5,000 words by the time he reaches kindergarten. A child growing up in a higher income neighborhood has a vocabulary of 20,000, which Grefe says makes a huge difference in that person’s ability to develop later.
Grefe said one of the most critical issues is poverty versus transportation.
“What’s available is not as available as one would like. I’m not trying to disparage TARTA, but they just cut their subsidies and its reality,” Grefe exclaimed.
In addition, homeless individuals have a higher instance of illness, obesity, alcohol dependence, and drug addiction.
“They are just sicker because they don’t have access to the health care we do,” Grefe said.