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  • Thrive Detroit

Jails, Institutions, or Death: Mean Endings for the Chronically Homeless

The title sounds like something out of “The Wizard of Oz.” “Lions… tigers… and bears… oh my!” says little Dorothy as she travels homeless in the land of Oz. Unfortunately, for the chronically homeless, it isn’t as easy as clicking your make-believe ruby slippers and saying “There’s no place like home.” Reality reveals that 10 percent of people are defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as chronically homeless. They often cycle between homelessness, hospitals, jails, and shelters. They often have complex medical problems, mental illness, and/or addictions. There are approximately 123,790 chronically homeless individuals nationwide on any given night (

Bringing this down to a personal level brings to mind four people that I came in contact with on the streets of Detroit. Following the standard gender ration for homeless individuals, three of them were male and one female, and all qualified as chronically homeless. All of them had common experiences that included jails and institutions, and ended with death on the streets.

The most infamous was Johnnie Redding, a.k.a. Johnnie Dollar, self-proclaimed rap artist. His true infamy came with being discovered frozen in an elevator shaft filled with ice. He made the front page of the Detroit newspapers and his story went viral. He began a slow decline into substance abuse after losing his job at Detroit Steel. The church was packed on the day of his funeral. Family and friends shared how he touched lives. He was homeless by his own admission on The Ark’s outreach sign-in.

Michael Callahan had a rough road filled with family dysfunction, abuse, and betrayal. The betrayal placed him in the penitentiary at 18 years of age for two counts of arson on the family home. His untreated mental illness caused him to max out at 20 years. Life on the streets placed him in the hospital several times. The final year of his life was spent obtaining assistance through the PATH program. His voucher never arrived. He left Oakwood Hospital against medical advice and was found dead in an abandoned lot by Lincoln Park police. He was listed in the local paper as unidentified.

Judith “Judy” Skinner made her rounds of the soup kitchens. The coroner’s report states she was homeless for more than 21 years. She was only 56 years old and was an accountant by her own admission. She was beaten, bruised, battered, and robbed for her income. I saw her at Fort St. Presbyterian Church where she told me “those bastards started me on fire” when I inquired about the injuries to her face. Her final prayer request to the chaplain was that “they couldn’t hurt her anymore.” She was found dead the next day. It didn’t even get a mention in a local blog.

The most recent death was one of violent proportions. Edwin McGhee was stabbed to death on the front lawn of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church by the Peace Pole. The irony of this was not lost on anyone except the news media. A very small posting was on Edwin was no stranger to the streets or the jails. His ID listed the shelter as home. Family members participated in the Corktown Restorative Justice reclamation service held at the site.

Statistics about the homeless could fill a novel. Regrettably, most of it desensitizes us to the personal reality of homeless individuals’ lives. More people are moved by the plight of homeless dogs than people. The Ark Association is working with Van Gogh’s Bedroom to provide permanent, sustainable, interdependent supporting housing in a micro-community. The chronically homeless need more individual, personal care to help prevent a return to the vicious cycle.

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