Abby Deaton, Video Contributor
For some people in Goshen, home is not measured by a house and the things in it. According to a survey conducted by Goshen Interfaith Hospitality Network, there are an estimated 275 homeless people in Elkhart County. Over 50 live in Goshen.
But I don’t want to write about numbers. Homelessness is an issue we all know exists, in some form, in most communities. The fact that there are many people without homes in Elkhart County is and has been an issue for years. But I don’t want to write about the issue of homelessness, either.
What I do want to write about is home: what it means to have one and what it means not to.
As a college student, I have lived the past three years moving from place to place in a state of transience. I’ve lived in the basement of someone else’s home, the basement of my family home, the spare room of a friend’s family home, four dorm rooms, one apartment and on the couch in my host family’s home in Morocco, where I lived for a semester. Though my physical home has changed–that is, the house–my sense of home has gradually settled within me. For me, the phrase “home is where the heart is” could not be more true.
Because of my understanding of what living transitionally means, maybe I was more inclined to strike up a conversation with four young homeless (or, at least, I thought) men outside of the Goshen Farmers Market three weeks ago.
Here’s what happened. Another reporter and I were at the market to film the “food shed” event in early June. Walking out to the car to grab a tripod, we noticed four guys playing guitars, drums and a harmonica on the lawn. Or maybe they noticed us with our arms full of camera equipment. “Hey, come here!” they said, and the young guys began to play their music.
They were good. So we listened.
Though they gave us no names, the group members shared time and conversation after their song (titled “Zombie Land”) was over. They explained that they were traveling through town on their way out West. Normally, they said, they hop trains from place to place. But this trip was particularly important to one of the young men because Goshen, we were surprised to learn, is his hometown. This was a homecoming, they said; this was different. Instead of hopping the train, they saved enough money from busking on the street to buy tickets on the South Shore Line train. The Goshen native called his mother for a ride and they arrived, for the first time in a long time, in a familiar place.
The man who grew up in Goshen is called “Hippie Jesus” by his friends. I don’t know, but I imagine the “hippie” part of his nickname has something to do with his beard, his tendency for conversation regarding social justice issues and his assumed leadership role in the group. The “Jesus” part is perhaps for similar reasons.
Hippie Jesus grew up in Goshen, graduated from Goshen High School in 2002 and attended Purdue University for four years before dropping out and making the decision to make a life on the streets with his guitar. For the past seven years, he told us, he’s hopped trains from city to city.
But Hippie’s not homeless, he said. “We’re houseless,” said his friend from behind him.
I thought about it for a while, and I think what he meant was that home isn’t just a place or a building; it is something, someone or somewhere else that brings the feeling of belonging. These guys found it in each other. Their chosen lifestyle may seem wayward to many of us. But at least they have a way to live that makes them happy and gives them home.
After this conversation, the other reporter (videographer, Abby Deaton) and I decided we wanted to know more about community members who are homeless…or houseless.
It is true, of course, that for most of the 275 in Elkhart County, homelessness is a reality that is not a choice.
Goshen Interfaith Hospitality Network is a refuge for families who need a leg up. Goshen Interfaith is different from a typical shelter because they provide career services, goal setting and job training for people rather than purely need-based services. It is a place that people come for change. Families stay during the day to receive support and counsel, then retire to local churches to eat and sleep at night. The maximum stay is six months because the goal is to help people get their feet back on the ground. By the end of the term, the hope is that they find work, a home and their independence again.
Phil Keller, Goshen Interfaith executive director, explained to us that many guests come because they don’t know where else to go.
“If you peel back the onion a bit,” said Keller, “you see that people tried to go the conventional route. But boy, things just didn’t go their way. People get laid off, the house they were renting gets foreclosed and they get in a rut.”
Though “homeless” by definition, many have lost their footing due to life circumstances beyond control and require a little help.
Put more simply, it could be any of us.
“I think if anything, I’ve learned to realize that homelessness comes from no single source,” said Patrick Ressler, site supervisor for Goshen Interfaith. “It’s not just losing a job or having a terrible accident…The entire issue is so much more complex, which is why it’s hard to counter.”
Mindy Morehead worked at The Window, a social services provider in Goshen, for years before taking her current job as site supervisor at Goshen Interfaith. In her career, she has gained understanding and empathy for people in homeless situations. She brings her children to work with her because, she says, she believes that the people can teach them valuable lessons.
“The biggest value for people here is having a place to go to with a roof over their head,” Morehead said. “It’s tents enclosed from the wind. It’s not material things at all. We all get wrapped up in material possessions because that’s just kind of the human way. But you look at these people and they’re minimalists. They’re satisfied just by living every day.”
“It’s not about what you own,” she said. “Life is so much more. We all should be doing more for others and not be worrying about ourselves so much.”
At The Window, the crew of volunteers and employees serves upwards of 200 people a day through their various programs like lunch, afternoon sandwiches and Meals on Wheels. Not all are homeless; some participate for conversation and to catch up with friends.
Lisa Thompson has been working as executive assistant since October. She believes in letting more people know that The Window exists and that hundreds of community members rely on it day to day.
“We’re kind of an old-fashioned town where there are some things you don’t talk about,” Thompson said about people in need. “A lot of people in Goshen will say, ‘That’s in Elkhart.’ And people in Elkhart will say, ‘That’s in South Bend.’ But it’s the solid fact.”
“If you don’t like it, do something about it,” she said about homelessness in the area. “Yes, you need to care about your family, you need to care about your friends, but you also need to care about your community. You may think that this is not your responsibility, but you are responsible for where you live.”
Homelessness is a situation. For some it is a temporary obstacle on a journey home. For others, the permanence of being without a house leads to a change in what they call home. Some want help and some need help with no way to get it. It’s complicated and different for everyone.
The only thing that I believe is true for all is the need to be understood as worthy, seen as someone who belongs and accepted into the community they live in.
Then, we can all call Goshen home.