You’ll never look at a homeless person the same way again
You think you know about guys like William Crandell.
He is a former educator of special needs children, a journalist who once ran for the state House of Representatives. Now he lives on the streets of Ann Arbor and watches life through the bottom of a bottle. He reminds us we’re all one catastrophe away from homelessness.
By William Crandell | Photos of William by Benjamin Weatherston
The plans and dreams of a 14-year marriage vanished with the words, “I met someone and we are in love.”
At the time I was working at a school, writing a political column and running for state representative for the 78th District, which is in the far corner of Southwest Michigan. Like any couple, we fought a lot over finances. I was sure things would get better after the election: If I won I would be making three times more than what I was making at the school, and if I lost I wouldn’t be gone all the time and spending so much on gas and living on the road.
But the divorce ended my political career. I just couldn’t take the strain of losing my family and maintaining a political campaign. I abruptly ended the campaign, quit working with the Michigan Education Association and walked away from the political realm. It all happened over a three-day period. It was the end of many good friendships. I felt like I couldn’t face them anymore. They had all believed in me and worked hard for me and I had let them down. At this point I really wanted to be left alone.
On the fourth day I moved out of the house, and my first stop was the liquor store. I threw away almost 15 years of sobriety without a second thought. I had quit drinking because I didn’t want my stepkids to grow up in an alcoholic household like I had, and staying sober for them is one of my proudest achievements. We were poor, but they grew to be normal kids and we were happy.
But there was nothing stopping me now. I could easily hide my drinking from them and there was nothing in my life that I loved enough to keep me from drinking.
An old friend helped me find a place in St. Joseph, my hometown. I thought it might make a difference if I lived near Lake Michigan, which I loved to watch from a bluff that runs along the lake.
One of the major problems I faced is that I am extremely introverted and I try to deal with adversity on my own. But loneliness engrossed me right away and I felt as if I had been exiled from my children’s lives and they were going forward and I was not going to be a part of it. They still loved me and we stayed in contact but it wasn’t the same. I used to be home with them every night fighting over homework and chores and just hanging out with them and now it was all over. The fact was the divorce tore my heart out and I believed at the time that I would never love again and I could never trust anyone that much again.
I think my suicidal thoughts began the first night that I stayed in my new apartment. I sat there drinking a 7&7, plotting to drink myself to death. I believed that if I drank enough it would trigger a final heart attack. I had already suffered three heart attacks; I knew that my family was prepared for that. That’s when I became a daily drinker; I had my excuse. I remember hungover mornings praying to God to end my life, thinking please let this be the day. I even went weeks without taking my medication, hoping that it would happen. But after about four or five months I began to realize that it wasn’t going to transpire and I came up with a new plan. I would use my handgun and shoot myself in the head.
Finally, one Friday after a really hard workweek and a week of heavy drinking, I decided that I’d had enough. I smoked a joint while guzzling down five very strong drinks. I got the gun out of the drawer, made sure it was loaded and sat down in my chair with the gun in one hand and a drink in the other. I drank a couple of gulps and then quickly put the gun to my temple. I hesitated for about 10 seconds and then I pulled back the hammer. Now squeeze the trigger, I told myself. And then the phone rang. I looked and saw that it was my stepson. I put the gun down and answered the phone. When I hung up I decided tonight wasn’t the night and put the gun away. Those kids needed me to stay alive a little longer. Besides, there’s always tomorrow, I told myself, and then I smoked some more pot and got really drunk.
It was a miracle that I was able to keep a job for almost two years. I had worked for almost 10 years as a paraprofessional in a special needs classroom. There were times I chose not to kill myself because I knew my students needed me and I loved them, but eventually that love just wasn’t enough. I also gave up my job as a political columnist because I wasn’t making the deadlines and I didn’t care. I had worked all my life to be a writer but the truth was I was too wrapped up in my own world of self-pity and getting drunk was all I cared about.
I soon found myself surrounded by fellow alcoholics and any chance of trying to stay sober was gone. Most of my new friends traveled around the Midwest working for power plants and they had plenty of money to spend when they were away from their wives. I always drank for free because I provided a place with no limitations and I was ready for anything. My apartment became the scene for wild parties at least three or four times a week and quite often included prostitutes we found on Craigslist and Backpage.
The problems really started when I drank alone. I would send spiteful text messages to people I felt had wronged me and write tear-filled cries for help on Facebook and make late-night phone calls to people I barely knew. I would also send long, ranting emails that made no sense. One night my stepdaughter stopped by when I was really drunk and I was ashamed of my behavior and the fact that she knew I was out of control, but it didn’t stop me from drinking. One night I even threatened to kill my stepdaughter’s boyfriend because I was blind drunk and thought he was somebody else. It scared my ex-wife so bad she called the police, worried I would come over there with a gun.
I was off work for Christmas from the school and proceeded to drink most of that week — usually around a half gallon of whiskey a day. I would drink until I passed out and then get up and start all over again. My hands would shake so much I couldn’t brush my teeth or pour a cup of coffee without having a couple of drinks. I got myself together enough to go to a Christmas Eve dinner with my kids and ex-wife. It was a wonderful evening and it felt like we were a family again. But when I left I became very depressed and decided to have a couple of drinks before bed. Two or three drinks turned into the whole half gallon and the next thing I knew it was 24 hours later and I woke up on the kitchen floor.
I was completely disoriented, not knowing if it was 8 in the morning or in the evening. Without even thinking about it, I sent my ex-wife a text message asking if it was night or day. She sent one back stating that it was evening and that she didn’t want to speak to me nor would I continue to be a part of my stepchildren’s lives if I continued to drink, and did I really want to be remembered like this. Later on I was able to piece together the evening: I had been sending belligerent messages and calling people all night and into most of Christmas Day. There were a lot of people who no longer wanted to speak to me. I felt shame and embarrassment to the pit of my stomach and dreaded having to face my friends, family and co-workers after I had made a complete ass of myself.
I laid down on the couch to sleep some more but all I could think about was my shame and killing myself. I couldn’t live like this any longer and yet I didn’t feel I could live without it. I was exhausted physically, mentally and spiritually and I decided when I got up I was either going to kill myself or go to the hospital. Three hours later I walked out of my apartment knowing that my life was never going to be the same again. I was never going to be able to both pay rent and be in rehab, so I knew this would no longer be my home.
The mental health system
With my first visit to the Lakeland behavioral ward I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder with suicidal ideation. For the first six days I laid in the hospital bed staring at the ceiling, getting up only for meals or when prompted by the nursing staff or when the doctor came looking for me. I was obsessed with how horrible my life had become and the fact that I was in a mental hospital made me more depressed. I would lie there dreaming of different ways to kill myself when I got out.
I was also shocked to discover I had lost almost 100 pounds due to not eating because I was always drunk and most nights I passed out before making something for dinner. I was also suffering from grievous alcohol withdrawals, with tremors that made it next to impossible to eat or write, hold a book or even use the restroom without making a mess. Even though the tremors would eventually subside a little, my hands still shake to this day and a doctor explained to me that it could be permanent.
They kept me in the hospital for 32 days, holding me because of chronic suicidal ideation. While I was committed they tried every drug there is before finally settling on a combination that included Clonazepam, an addictive drug that is dangerous for alcoholics to take because it increases alcohol cravings. But I think they were just as frustrated as I was. They kept pushing me to go into drug and alcohol rehab but I refused. I had been in one years ago and it was more like a 12-step prison than a place for healing, and I wasn’t going back. Then they started talking about putting me into some adult foster-care facility and I was worried that if I went there I would never get out. In the end I just started lying to them. I think they knew, but as one doctor said to me, “If you strongly desire to kill yourself you’ll do it, no matter what we say. I just want to show you that there are alternatives.”
I spent the next seven out of eight days almost completely blind drunk. While in the hospital I had met a woman who was as sick as I was and we continued the relationship when we got out. We would fight and then make up, and fight and then make up. The relationship was turbulent but she is the only reason I didn’t kill myself. On the eighth day I was as sick as I’ve ever been and I felt as if my very soul was polluted. I didn’t want to live like this anymore so I checked myself into the hospital again to detox and then go to rehab.
They sent me to Brighton Hospital. It’s on the eastern side of Michigan, about 300 miles from where I lived, and the area was a different world. I had grown up in a very conservative, anti-union world and it was refreshing to meet people who held the same liberal beliefs that I did. I enjoyed my stay at Brighton because they took a very different approach to treating addiction. They believe in treating the whole person and not just one aspect. I even planned on staying sober when I got out — at least for a little while.
Another thing that surprised me was how young everybody was. There were only a handful of people over age 30. The vast majority of them were in their twenties and addicted to some sort of opiate and many had already been to rehab multiple times. They would tell stories of friends who died and they barely shed a tear. For many of them, overdose was common and death was an everyday thing. I met a 26-year-old woman who had been in rehab 11 times for heroin.
My next stop was a Banyan Sober Living facility in Ypsilanti. That’s what is known as a three-quarter house, which grants you more freedom than a halfway house. You’re free to go anywhere and curfew is 11 and they can drug test and breathalyze you at random times. Out of the seven guys who lived there I had already been in treatment with four of them, and we started out working to keep each other sober. Within a month, I attended almost 80 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and basically lived at the Alano Club. It was a perfect place to stay sober with positive people, computers, food and all the coffee I could drink. It became my daily office.
Unfortunately, though, even with all the meetings I attended and all my big talk, I wasn’t actually sober. I was abusing my psych meds by the handful. Being an introvert, I found it hard to speak at AA meetings and started taking one or two extra anxiety meds before going to meetings. Before long I was living off them and huge amounts of coffee and I started drug-seeking from different doctors.
I was still living in the Banyan house when I had my first stay at the St. Joseph Hospital psych ward. When I left Brighton Hospital they had told me that the Banyan people would work with me about paying rent until I got a job. They either lied to me at Brighton or didn’t bother to check; either way, I was able to come up with the first month’s rent but not the second and the Banyan people made it clear that if I couldn’t pay, I would be kicked out. I was only sleeping a few hours a night and the pressure of knowing that I would soon be homeless was tearing me up.
I only stayed at St. Joseph for five days but that gave me time to get some sleep and get my meds leveled out. It also gave me time to accept the fact that I was going to be homeless. By this time I had given up my apartment in an attempt to buy another month at Banyan, but the fact is everything is more expensive in Ann Arbor and my daily living expenses were eating up everything I had. I still didn’t have a job and even if I got one right away I didn’t know if I would get paid in time. The rule at Banyan was you had until midnight on the first of the month and if you didn’t pay you were gone. When I got out of the hospital I spent a couple more days looking for a job with no strong leads, then decided I’d had enough and got drunk. I sent the landlord a text stating I had relapsed and wouldn’t be back.
Drinking and driving
After I left Banyan, I slept in my car for about two weeks. Even though I was technically homeless it didn’t feel that way because after leaving Banyan I had overdrawn my checking account by $1,000 and still had money in my pocket. I was getting drunk and high every night and I would usually park behind the Alano Club among the trees because it was a safe spot from police and criminals.
I found out about Groundcover News at an AA meeting soon after getting out of St. Joseph. I looked them up online and discovered that they were always looking for writers and you could buy copies for 25 cents and sell them for $1. That didn’t sound like a bad deal. I could get publishing credits while promoting the paper and make quick money. I sent them an email and within a few days I was researching a story on human trafficking and had 25 papers in my bag to sell. Something in my life finally felt right; writing has always been the one constant I could count on and has always been my salvation through the dark times.
One morning, one of my old friends from back home sent me a text asking me if I wanted to party. He was back in St. Joseph and he was going to get a motel room and a lot of booze and call some prostitutes he wanted me to meet. My first impulse was to say no but it was one of those mornings when I woke up feeling horrible and had already had about three shots of vodka to keep my hands from shaking. I had a couple more and texted back, “I’m on my way.” I finished the last of the bottle and pulled out of the parking lot. I stopped and bought another and took off for the highway but little did I realize I went the wrong way, heading south instead of west.
I don’t remember much after that but when I snapped back to reality I was stuck in mud all the way to the top of my wheel well in a drainage ditch completely surrounded by cornfields. I had been shoving the floor mats from the car under the tires but apparently I was sinking deeper. I saw a farmer’s truck coming toward me and I flagged him down. “Can you pull me out?” I asked. “I can try,” he said, looking disgusted. “Let me call my wife, then we’ll give it a try.” He picked up his phone and pulled his truck forward about 50 yards. I sat on my hood to wait and the next thing I knew a cop was walking toward me with his hand on his gun.
There was really no point in a field sobriety test. I was drunk and reeked of alcohol because I had been getting drunk in the same clothes for the past five days. He made me do the test anyway and of course I failed. Then he brought out the breathalyzer. “Blow hard,” he said. I started blowing hard, then began fake coughing like I had emphysema. He looked at the machine and frowned and then made me do it again, and I did the same thing. This time he shrugged and showed me the machine: It read .014, only slightly above the legal limit of .08. I was amazed that my little trick worked because everybody there knew I was drunker than that. “I guess it will be first offense DWI,” he said. At first I felt like dancing, but I watched as the officer cut up my license. “Where’s that smile now, huh?” the farmer said.
When we got to the jail the officer explained that we were in Adrian in Lenawee County. I had been driving in the wrong direction for at least an hour.
The booking process was the normal procedure: fingerprints, pictures, “Do you have any tattoos?” etc. But one thing stands out in my hazy memory. While answering questions for one of the clerks, she asked me if I suffered from mental illness. “Depression,” I said. “Do you feel suicidal?” she asked softly. “Well …” I started to say, but she cut me off and said softly, “Because if you do they are going to strip you and strap you down,” and I knew what she was talking about. They stripped you naked and strapped you down to a bed in an observation tank that had a giant fishbowl of a window and everybody could see you and if you were lucky one of the guards might feel sorry for you and throw a blanket over your junk. “Could you not put down that I’m depressed or anything?” I asked. “I certainly won’t,” she said.
I spent the next five days in the Lenawee County jail in an observation tank with my clothes on, and for three of those days I didn’t even have a blanket, just a stone slab. I wasn’t angry or mad or even really sad. I came to the conclusion that this whole incident was just another screw-up in a screwed-up life. If they were going to take me upstairs to the regular jail I guess I deserved it, and not just for the drunk driving but for all the stupid stuff I had done and lies I had told over the past couple of years. I laid on the slab staring at the ceiling awaiting my sentence, wholeheartedly willing to accept my fate.
I got released on a personal recognizance bond. I borrowed enough money from my sister to get my car out of impound, and then I got the hell out of Adrian, with no intention of returning. When I got back to Ann Arbor I started drinking, taking pills and smoking pot right away.
I met Melissa, a prostitute and crack addict and I decided she would become my next Groundcover story. I wanted to see what her life was like so I offered to drive her around all night and take her to her appointments if she would allow me to interview her. After every one of her appointments we would go to a dealer’s house and get some crack. Then we would drive around the quiet suburban neighborhoods smoking. At first I didn’t want any but after a while my resolve caved and I started pitching in the last of my money to get high. This went on for two nights and at the end of the second night I was exhausted. I took her home and drove to the Alano Club to sleep.
When I woke up, there were a bunch of cars around me and I realized I had overslept. I had forgotten about the early Saturday morning AA meeting. I don’t know how many of the members saw me passed out but I immediately sat up and started the car and after taking three or four pills with a couple shots of vodka, I drove out of the parking lot. I knew I smelled horrible and couldn’t go inside in this shape. I decided to drive to a friend’s house to take a shower.
I only have a hazy recollection of the accident. All I remember was trying to get into the right turn lane and rear-ending a truck. I remember a police officer asking me if I was under the influence of anything and saying no. I remember the tow-truck driver telling me while pointing to the smashed-up front end of my car that “there ain’t no fixing that” and me asking him to drop me off at the Alano Club. I grabbed my booze, pills and some of my pot out of the car and he drove me over there. I remember thinking my life was over because, as the driver said, “there ain’t no fixing that.” I had nowhere to go, no one to call and nowhere to sleep. I remember climbing out of his truck and walking toward the back of the building. I sat down and started drinking vodka and swallowing pills. The next thing I remember was being on a gurney restrained with straps and being hauled out to an ambulance.
I came to a couple of days later in a bed at St. Joseph Hospital and discovered I had tried to kill myself and that I had been a total ass to everyone because I wanted to die and they were stopping me. They said I kept trying to escape and cussing people out and had spent some time in restraints and it took four guards to hold me down. Even though I was now conscious my behavior didn’t get any better because I was pissed off that I had failed and that they wouldn’t let me leave.
I felt then, as I do now, at the age of 47 I have the right to take my own life if I choose. Even though things are better now and I no longer feel suicidal, had I died that day there would have been no regrets.
My second stay at St. Joseph wasn’t nearly as much fun as the first. I came in angry and I left angry and the only good things in between were the popsicles they gave me and the fact that I was able to get the prostitution story finished and submitted. Apparently I had clung to my backpack that held all of my meds and all of my notes.
I also learned some valuable lessons. Being on Medicaid is not as good as being on private insurance. At the end of 10 days, Medicaid wouldn’t pay for me anymore and suddenly my main problem was alcoholism, which the hospital didn’t treat, and I was given the boot even though I still felt suicidal and still had an active plan.
They wanted me to go to rehab and pushed me into it because I basically had nowhere else to go and it would buy me some more time before having to sleep on the streets. I felt that there was no point going into another rehab because I had just gotten out of Brighton and I doubted that they had anything to say that I hadn’t already heard. I wasn’t going to quit drinking until I made up my mind so there was no point in wasting money. I think forcing me into rehab was their way of easing their guilt about putting me out on the streets. When I finally relented, they sent me to a place called Crisis Residential Services for two weeks until I could get a bed at a treatment center called Sacred Heart outside Detroit.
This was also the first time I met the Washtenaw County Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness team. Their job is to find homeless people and help them get services and off the street. One of the team members gave me the real story of homelessness in Washtenaw County. He made it clear that there was no room at the shelter or anywhere else, for that matter, and all I could do was get on the waiting lists and sleep outside until there was an opening. He offered me a sleeping bag and a tent. I left the room angry, not willing to accept the fact that I would soon be sleeping in an alley and that it was just as much my fault as theirs. My only hope was CRS.
When I arrived at CRS everything seemed OK at first — except they took away pills that I had paid for because they didn’t feel I should have them. After a couple of days, though, somebody finally laid out the situation for me. I had been discharged from the hospital and brought to CRS because it is cheaper and that was what Medicaid was willing to pay for. They told me that Medicaid would only pay for five to seven days, or it would look like I was being treated for alcoholism, which they don’t treat at CRS. Being suicidal apparently meant nothing to them and their house psychiatrist told me I wasn’t sick enough for a long-term mental health program. Yet not 10 minutes before I had been sitting outside smoking a cigarette wondering which tree would be best to hang myself from in the lot next door. He also told me that many people go through much of their lives feeling suicidal and sometimes they do it and sometimes they don’t; either way, they couldn’t waste resources on them when there were people who were worse off mentally.
I figured out then that I was caught in the middle. The psychiatric people didn’t want me because of my drinking and the rehabs didn’t want me because of my history of suicidal ideation. I asked the psychiatrist about it and he confirmed it.
But the thing that hurt the most was that the staff at St. Joseph had lied to me. They told me specifically that I would be allowed to stay at CRS until I left for treatment. That was the day that I quit trusting social workers and the whole mental health system. I learned then to not tell them the whole truth because when they try to help you it usually ends up feeling more like a punishment. They lock you up exactly like they would in jail but with a little extra pampering and they tell you it’s for your own good but it feels more like they are covering up so they won’t get sued.
Right after I got out of Lakeland I went for one-on-one outpatient therapy at their local mental health clinic. The therapist asked if I felt suicidal. I said not all the time, but I was learning to deal with that issue. She asked if I had a plan and I said I always had a plan, that was why I had just spent 32 days in the hospital. She excused herself and the next thing I knew two cops were putting me in handcuffs and taking me back to the psych ward for being a danger to myself. I never said I was suicidal, but nobody believed me and nobody cared what I had to say. Because of my history, my word was no longer credible and I guess I’m going to be treated that way for the rest of my life. At that point the only social worker who hadn’t lied to me and I felt I could trust was the guy from PATH. He really pissed me off that day at St. Joseph but he was telling me the truth when he offered me that camping gear. I called him and tried to prepare myself for the worst.
On the street
It had taken me a long time to accept the fact that I was going to be homeless. In fact, I really didn’t accept it until I found myself sitting on the brick steps of the Annex building with a backpack and a sleeping bag. That was all I had in the world. I had lost everything. It was like I was a new person, but this one was sick and felt brutalized by the world. As I sat on those steps with the bricks digging into my butt I knew I had to make a choice: Get up and start selling papers and fight to save myself or go find a nice hiding spot and take all my pills and just quit. I asked myself if I really wanted to go out like that. Was that where the story ended for me? I finally had the perfect opportunity to take my life with no one there to stop me; my ex-wife could tell the kids that I had a heart attack. It was perfect. But I also felt as if the world was daring me to do it and that made me angry. I stood up with my knees trembling and reached into my bag and pulled out some papers. There was always tomorrow to kill myself but today, if I was going down, I was going down swinging. I stopped the first person I saw and said, “Would you like to buy a copy of Groundcover to help the homeless?”
One thing I figured out quickly is that being an introvert and homeless is not a good combination. To survive you have to be able to hustle a bit, you have to be out and open to people in order to make any money. You have to be able to sell yourself in the first 20 seconds or they will walk on by you. Some can do it with words; some can do it with just their smile. I just try to look hungry and pathetic and cold. Rainy, windy days are when I make the most money.
I also discovered just how out of shape I was. I was not used to walking for miles every day, let alone with a 50-pound pack on my back. Here’s an inventory of what I carry: two complete changes of clothing, 16 bottles of medicine, a flashlight, a leather binder, three legal pads, a pound of tobacco plus a box of tubes, a water bottle, two knives, whatever food I have, a bottle of cheap vodka, and don’t forget the sleeping bag I’m carrying in my hand. The other people on the street tell me that is way too much to carry and it will slow me down. And they’re right, it does slow me down. But it’s all the possessions I have in this world. What do I do with it? The shelter will allow you to store it there but it’s only open certain hours and it’s about a mile and a half from where I operate. I don’t have any friends to leave things with because I’m new to the city. I have to carry it or give it up and I’ve already given away all my other prized possessions. I decided I would just have to grow stronger. One day I was talking with a homeless friend about it and he said, “Don’t worry, somebody will steal it from you soon enough.” He explained that I shouldn’t get too attached to anything because everybody gets their pack stolen at some point. He’s had his stolen two or three times.
One day I was in Liberty Plaza with a group of people and they all decided to buy some weed. One guy walked around like a waiter taking orders. When he finished he asked a couple of guys to watch his pack and guitar while he was gone. After about 20 minutes I could hear the crowd grumbling about being ripped off. He had been gone about 45 minutes when they decided that he wasn’t coming back and they tore into his pack like a frenzied school of piranha. They found very little of value but that didn’t matter; everything can become important when you’re on the street.
I spent my first night of being homeless camped out in the side stairwell of a church somewhere downtown. I had started out the day with about $7 in my pocket and had six papers. I sold all the papers and then took my money to the liquor store and bought some junk food and a bottle of vodka. As I laid there listening to all the people walk by and nursing my bottle I realized I didn’t feel scared. I accepted this fate because it was my actions that put me there. Yes, I had been lied to but no one had poured the whiskey down my throat. None of them had taken my family, my house, my job or my kids. I had let that happen. I don’t know if it was the vodka talking but I vowed when I got up the next morning I was going to wage war to get my life back. I had been stripped of everything and it was time to rebuild.
I woke up some time before daybreak with a light frost coating the ground. The ice crystals hardened on the sidewalk and twinkled in the street lights. It felt like it was somewhere around 20 degrees and my sleeping bag was just not warm enough for this time of year. I decided that I could probably be warmer walking around and I really needed a cup of coffee. I rolled up the sleeping bag and stuffed it in its bag. I packed up the rest of my things and started walking, my back and knee joints aching from the unfamiliar exercise. When I made it to the corner of 5th and William I took a look around. My hands and toes were freezing and I really needed to find a place to get warm. The sun was just rising and I knew that it would be a long time before the day warmed up. Every place appeared to be closed except for the BP a little way down the street. I started walking there, hoping they would have a little booth area where I could sit and nurse a coffee.
When I walked into the store a woman with a heavy Russian accent said to me from behind the Plexiglas window, “Hey you, you must leave bags by door. I’m closing to clean. You can’t stay here. I can’t watch you too.” I looked at her feeling a little insulted, but I knew as a homeless person I had very few options so I nodded and got a large cappuccino and walked to the counter. “You understand, it’s not personal, people with bags steal,” she said. I nodded at her once again and paid for my drink. I picked up all my stuff and left feeling a little heated. Not so much at her but at the world and the fact that my drinking got me here.
I walked a few blocks and hid among the brick pillars of some kind of investment firm. I huddled down, pulling my hood up and putting my hands between my legs, turning myself into a little ball and hoping the cops wouldn’t decide to roust me out of there. I fell asleep again for probably a few minutes. When I heard voices I looked up and noticed an office light was on. I got up and started walking again. I sat on the frozen brick of a doorway for about 40 minutes until a little coffee shop opened. They charged me $2 for a cup. Back home it would have been $1. I decided to get my money’s worth and refilled my cup four or five times.
Stare right through you
If you think Ann Arbor’s full of generosity, try selling a newspaper when you’re hungry, you feel desperate and you haven’t showered or changed your clothes in days. When it seems like everyone who is walking past just seems to stare right through you, it’s hard not to wear a mask of frustration. Especially with the rich college kids who act like they aren’t even in the same reality that you are so you don’t even exist to them. Not all college students are like that; there are the intensely liberal ones who will bring you a bag of food or give you $10 for a $1 paper. There is some humanity left among the wealthy and occasionally it rears its head and lets me know that the world is not completely lost to greed and there is hope.
But right now, as I sit writing this on the cold cement with only a snack cake for dinner, there is very little hope. I feel like the world has forgotten me.
One thing I figured out about the streets is that you always feel grimy. Before my first night of homelessness, I’d walked to the Delonis Center and taken a shower because I wanted to look presentable for my court appearance the next day, but I already felt dirty. My clothes were wrinkled from being stuffed in a backpack and my hair was matted from sleep. Overall, I looked and felt like crap and I had no doubt that the judge was going to notice. Thankfully, I was only being arraigned for the DWI charge and not sentenced.
A member of the Washtenaw County PATH team picked me up and drove me to Adrian to court. My stomach was growling the whole time because all I’d had to eat the day before was that snack cake, and nothing that morning. My brain felt fogged from lack of coffee but I had rolled a couple of cigarettes the night before so at least I wasn’t suffering from a nicotine fit.
During the arraignment, the judge was very polite and professional. He questioned my substance-abuse history and whether I had a home and a job. Thankfully, I was able to say yes on both counts, listing the shelter as my residence and the fact that I was selling newspapers as a full-time job. He set a date for a pretrial conference and I practically ran out of the building before he changed his mind and started questioning my information.
On the way back the social worker bought me a breakfast sandwich and coffee and we had a long talk about the homeless situation in Washtenaw County. His job is to interact with the homeless on the street so he has a unique perspective. He explained that the homeless situation in Washtenaw County is actually getting better, that they are finding fewer camps along the railroad tracks. At one time he had counted as many as 41 and the last time he had walked down there he found only 14.
One of the things that surprised me about being homeless is the amount of time you spend just sitting. Usually it’s on cement, which is not good for your butt. It seems like you spend your days walking miles for some sort of appointment or just sitting all day watching the world go on around you, and every once in awhile you become a part of it when somebody decides to give you some money. I found myself just moving from one location to another to see if anything was going on. I was becoming a constant watcher, a witness to the world I barely interacted with.
After a couple of days of homelessness, some of the other guys on the street would stop by and give me advice while I was standing on corners selling Groundcover. We rarely exchanged names until we drank together; I think it’s because people come and go so quickly that you don’t want to get too close until you know they are going to stick around or, as one guy put it, “until you’ve swapped spit in a bottle.”
One morning a kind citizen gave me a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. I was grateful because I had eaten breakfast but I didn’t know what I was going to eat for dinner, and I set the items next to my backpack and went back to trying to sell papers. About 15 minutes went by and another homeless guy who was dressed like a gypsy with a red knitted crown stopped by and pointed to my food and said, “Eat that right away or put it on top of a trash can and no one will touch it. If you leave it there people will pass you by because they won’t think that you are hungry.” I thought about it for a second and realized that he was right because I hadn’t sold a paper since receiving the food. I stuffed it into my backpack, smashing the bread. But better safe than sorry.
The morning of the fourth day, I decided I would try to find a job. Selling papers was bringing in a few dollars every day but it was only enough for food, a bottle and maybe some tobacco. I planned on going to rehab but that was 20 days away and some days the paper just wasn’t selling. I needed something more permanent even if it was just a dishwashing job that would hopefully pay cash at the end of the day. I spent the morning walking around downtown Ann Arbor looking at all the restaurants and they all seemed pretty high class, but I knew that they could not care less what a dishwasher looked like as long as the job was getting done. I’ve even worked at places that allowed us to drink and get stoned as long as the work was getting finished and we left on time. I selected a place and got an application. I know I looked homeless but the people inside were very nice and I didn’t feel judged.
I sat at one of the outside tables to fill out the application but I immediately had a problem. My hands were tremoring so badly I couldn’t write, not even with one hand helping the other. I knew right then I wasn’t going to be able to work. I would constantly be dropping dishes or unable to fit them into the rack. I looked up and noticed the hostess was watching me from her station so I stuffed the application into my pack and left, feeling like a useless human being. I walked away with my tail between my legs.
I went to Bethlehem United Church of Christ on 4th Street and sat on the back bench. I got out my tobacco and tried to roll a cigarette. It took me four tries but eventually I had a torn up, crooked one that I could probably smoke. I didn’t light it, though, I just kept staring down at it and before I knew it tears were forming in my eyes and I tried to fight them back but they rolled down my cheeks anyway. I took off my glasses and held my forearm to my eyes so no one could see. After a couple of minutes I got them to stop. I blew my nose into a dishcloth I had in my pack. I then lit my raggedy cigarette and smoked it slowly. I didn’t want to suffer anymore and I didn’t want to think about my horrible situation anymore, and I knew if I had a chance I could make a new life. But right then there was no room at the inn and it really felt like society was saying screw you, you gave up your chance to matter when you chose the bottle. Either die or live off the scraps of society, it makes no difference to us. When I thought of that I gave a little laugh. I wasn’t ready to die, so scraps it would be at least until I found a way to get another chance. I got up and started walking to the liquor store to get a bottle, accepting the fact that I couldn’t face the world without a drink.
On the fifth night I couldn’t take it anymore. I was tired of staring at the dirty walls of my little stairwell, so out of complete loneliness and the fact that it was getting cold, I decided to chance getting harassed by the police and walk around for awhile. It was time to get a real feel for Ann Arbor at night. I had a little food for the next couple of days so I bought a bottle of the cheapest vodka they had and a packet of rolling tobacco. I didn’t want to be seen on the streets drinking so I wandered the alleys, stopping every once in a while to roll smokes and take a few shots. It was there that I met a guy who called himself Ed, who didn’t want to tell me his real name, and a guy named John. Ed had a couple of crack rocks left after smoking all day and John had some benzos (pills). We had the makings of a good party, so we decided to team up for the night. Plus I knew a safe place to sleep.
When we had settled into my shelter of a stairwell we started swapping stories about life on the street. “I used to believe that I could get out any time,” John said. “Just get a job and settle down. But now I know better. Once you’re on the streets you’re there for good. Even if you get out a piece of you will always be sleeping in an alley.” On the surface I didn’t want to face the truth of what he said but I knew that deep down I would never feel safe again; I would never truly be home and I would always be waiting for that trap door to open and take away everything I had worked for.
The next night I was out wandering again. I had sold 10 papers that day and I figured I would get rid of my hangover with another bottle. I met a man outside the liquor store named Al. When I walked past him I noticed he was scouring the ground looking for something. Being half drunk at this point I decided to see what he was looking for. “Need some help?” I asked. “There,” he said, picking up something quickly. He held out his hand and showed me what looked like a $20 crack rock. “Let’s go get high, man.” I nodded and we went behind the liquor store to smoke it. He lit the glass pipe, taking a long hit, and then handed it to me. I drew the sweet chemical smoke deep into my lungs. It was a good hit, and when my lungs felt like they were going to burst I released a huge cloud of smoke. I handed the pipe back to him, feeling a numbing rush throughout my body. Al got another nice hit but there wasn’t really anything left when I put the flame to the pipe again. After we finished I let him use my phone to try to get another $10 rock. I pitched in $3 even though crack isn’t really my drug and I have a heart condition, but I was just drunk enough not to care and I enjoyed that last hit.
We walked to the nearest intersection to wait for his dealer to arrive. When we sat down on the benches, John walked up to us. His blond hair looked frazzled and he was wearing the same clothes. I could tell he had been using all day. “What are you up to?” he asked. “Just smoking,” I answered. He looked over at Al and nodded and they appeared to know each other. “Wanna pitch in?” Al asked. “Nah,” John said, “I’ll get my own.” We all stood looking at each other for about a minute and then a car with tinted windows pulled up to the curb. They both started walking fast toward it, elbowing each other to get to the driver’s window. John got there first, handed over his money, got his rock and started walking away. “You comin’?” he called to me over his shoulder. He seemed to have some kind of plan so I followed him.
We went to the same hideout we had used the night before. John sat down quickly without saying a word and pulled out a little zippered bag. He withdrew a glass stem and handed it to me. He broke the rock apart and put a little piece in my hand, and I got ready to smoke it. That’s when I noticed he had taken out a syringe. He saw me looking at it. “What?” he asked. “Nothing, I guess.” He went back to mixing up a shot, completely ignoring me. I started smoking my rock, watching him, almost fascinated by the process. Then he got ready to inject it.
Watching him searching for a vein was the most despairing thing I’ve ever seen. After he had stabbed each arm a couple of times, he decided the veins in his arms were gone, so then he stabbed himself multiple times in his legs, the desperation rising off him like steam. Finally he went between the toes and on his second time he hit the mark. He fed it in slowly and then leaned back against the wall. “There it is,” he said. I put the pipe down and pulled the bottle out of my pack and took a couple of hard drinks. I vowed to myself I was never going to pick up the pipe again, and so far I haven’t.
I’d like to say that my story has a happy ending, but happy endings don’t happen very often when you’re living on the streets. Right now I’m sitting in Liberty Plaza as I write these final sentences with my hands shaking so badly I can barely write. I’m surrounded by my fellow homeless, all of us thinking the same thing: How can I get some money to buy some food or alcohol or a rock, anything that will help me forget the crappy hand I’ve dealt myself? At this point I’m certain that I have several warrants for my arrest related to my auto accident, the bank overdraft and the drunken driving charge. All of them are associated with the fact that I don’t have any money and no way to get any. In the words of my friend and fellow homeless person, “Jail is part of living on the streets.” But at least I haven’t killed myself yet and, looking back now, I’m not so certain that I ever truly wanted to die. I think that in my case it was a cry for help, help which I never really received. I guess for me there really isn’t any out there.
Editor’s note: After another stint in rehab, William Crandell apparently began drinking again. We learned that he committed suicide on June 11.
on Gov. Snyder and Flint