They call him 'Pops': Helping others and keeping the peace among the unsheltered earns their respect

Editor’s note: As part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's "A Way Home" series, we've spoken with local government, organizations, nonprofits, and volunteers seeking solutions to Kalamazoo's housing shortage, which is part of a national crisis. And we also are speaking directly with the unsheltered. Some have asked that we not use their full names, so we respect their privacy boundaries so that they can be open with their stories and provide their perspectives. This series is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and LISC.

He goes by "Pops," because that's what Kalamazoo's homeless community has called him for the last few years.

He's Pops because unsheltered people are "my family," he says.

Pops didn't want to give us his real name, but he did share his experience as one of Kalamazoo's unsheltered for many years.

We sat down with him when he was 105 days sober. That was the first thing he had to say, as a means of introduction.

What made him realize he had to stop using?

There's a level of desperation Pops would like those with roofs over their heads to know. In the winter, people stay up all night."Why don't we start with what made me start doing it? Not quite two years ago my fiancee was murdered by her ex. It hit me in the heart, and I tried to take my life with drugs. It didn't work. So I tried to commit suicide a couple of times."

He met his sponsor, Jan, a volunteer for the Gospel Mission, just before he tried suicide again. "He found out about it, and he got me the help I needed," Pops says. 

Drugs -- for him it was meth -- weren't too hard to quit, he says. "I was done. But I needed help with the trauma. Because I was having nightmares after I got sober."

He did rehab, and he faced his grief sober. 

Pops drove to the interview in a nice SUV and was dressed sharply. The SUV belongs to Jan, the sponsor who brought him back from the brink of suicide.He went to a memorial placed where her body was found. "I sat down to talk to her. I told her 'I love you... and I'll see you in the next life, but I'm not ready for it, yet. So I gotta let you go for now.'" 

Pops found himself with a clear head, and a lot of thinking to do about "where my life was going."

One thing he realized was, "I don't want to stop helping them, the homeless."

Why he's called Pops

Pops drove to the interview in a nice SUV and was dressed sharply. The SUV belongs to Jan. Pops has had a room at Jan's place since he's been off drugs.

Pops takes pride in being honest, and in his willingness to help others. It was the latter that earned him his nickname."I call him my brother," Pops says. And he's amused that Jan calls him "Pops," though Jan is years older. 

Jan had been traveling recently -- "He can be gone for weeks on end, and know that when he comes back, everything's gonna be there."

Pops has a job in maintenance at an apartment complex, and he owns a truck. But that's up in Wayland, "I just have to go up and get it." He sounds like he's got a toe-hold to climb out of the hole he's been in -- Pops has been homeless off-and-on for the past eight years, and unsheltered for the past two years straight until recently.

Pops takes pride in being honest, and in his willingness to help others. It was the latter that earned him his nickname. "The whole time I was homeless, that's why they called me 'Pops,'" he says. If a tent needed to be put up, he'd help. If a sleeping bag needed a zipper mended, he'd be on it. "All kinds of things. If they haven't had food for a few days, if I've got money, I buy them food. I just do whatever I can. I find them sleeping bags, find them tents." 

Pops is a peacekeeper. He also advocates in any way he can to help others and is always trying to get people in need, say those who know him."When my family turned their back on me because I was doin' drugs, they (the homeless) all accepted me and helped me. And in turn, I helped them," Pops says. "That's my family, now." 

In October, Kalamazoo volunteers for the homeless introduced Second Wave to Pops at an event to provide help outside the PFC. They suggested he'd be a person to talk to as an example of someone who's lived the homeless life and turned himself around.

Megan Giambrone, of United for the Unsheltered, says he's always on hand at their events, to defuse tense situations and help out. "Pops is a peacekeeper! He also advocates in any way he can to help others and is always trying to get people in need, the supplies they need. He is also a kind ear and sympathetic friend," she says.

Giambrone adds, "He has come so far in such a little amount of time...it's nothing short of miraculous!"

Volunteer for the unsheltered Meg Forrest says, "I have seen him come down and assist when meals are served. He would help all of the people get things out of their cars and get set up." Pops signed up to help at her church, St. Luke's Episcopal, when they host dinners for the homeless this Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"Not quite two years ago my fiancee was murdered by her ex. It hit me in the heart," Pops says."He also drove around with me one day and helped me try to find a bike that had been stolen from a person I was helping," Forrest says. "He gets bikes and fixes them up and then does a Facebook raffle to give them away."

Pops was born 58 years ago and grew up in Kendall, Otsego, Kalamazoo in the Northside and Southside neighborhoods, and then lived in Parchment. 

His family moved a lot, but Pops describes his early life as stable. Did he ever imagine then that he could end up living in a homeless situation?

"Nope. My Mom and Dad always took good care of us," he says. His parents took care of a lot of kids -- him and his three siblings, plus the kids of his parents' foster care operation. "As if we weren't enough!"

"My Mom used to tell everybody, I was the only hell they ever raised," he says. "I'm the only one of my siblings that's got any kind of (criminal) record."

"I was an alcoholic in high school," he says. "I knew from a young age I was going to be a biker, so for a while I wore colors." 

Second Wave spoke with Pops at a downtown Kalamazoo coffee shop where the flowers were in bloom.Pops was a member of Iron Gypsies out of Paw Paw. "And I rode with the Wind Jammers, with the Wild Bunch, and with the Outriders a little bit." 

He was living a bit of an outlaw life on his Harley, but it was also a stable life where he had a house, a wife, a career, and a Harley. 

"I had all that at one time." He worked in housing construction for 30 years and was making $2,500 a week for about 20 of those years.

Pops gets his bloodpressure taken by Street Medicine Kalamazoo.He had a house on Gravel Lake near Marcellus, and a house payment of $2,500 a month until he took his name off the mortgage. "My wife said she didn't want to be married to a biker no more, so I walked out." 

He quit alcohol 25 years ago, but drugs remained in his world. "I was running my own business until she (his fiancee) got killed. Then I just turned up the volume on the drugs."

She was half his age, he says. "Age was just a number to her." They became good friends. When he asked if they could take it further, she told him "It's about f-----' time!"

She had problems with substance use and had to spend some time in the Allegan County jail. "I helped get her off of drugs, keep her off of drugs," Pops says.

She got out of jail, and they set their wedding date. Two days later, "he caught her." The woman’s ex beat her to death. 

The next morning the police were at his door, telling him "she's never coming home again. It ripped my heart out." Pops' eyes well up as he speaks.

"It's hard enough if you know she's gonna die. If she has cancer or something like that, it's inevitable. It's still hard. But to just get woken up one morning, told that she's never coming home because she's dead...."

"And I walked away from my life right then. I walked away from where we were staying, I walked away from the job I was doing, I left my equipment there, and I never went back. I didn't want to live no more. I wanted to be with her." 

'You've got to want to.'

The killer was caught and convicted. But that was of no comfort to Pops.

"I had no will to live anymore. I had several heart attacks in the past. I figured meth makes the heart go faster, maybe it'll explode on me. And it didn't," he says. "So I used it to numb myself. And it wouldn't kill it, it wouldn't kill the pain."

Earlier this year, Pops was sleeping outside on the ground, "on rocks" near the PFC on Willard, when someone put a bottle of water and a granola bar by his head. That was Jan. 

This small gesture from a stranger brought Pops back from the brink. "He's my lifesaver," Pops says.  

He gives Jan credit, but says his experience is that to get off drugs, to step back from suicide, and to get out of the homeless life, "you've got to want to."

Pops thinks that some of the homeless in Kalamazoo are in their position because "they'd rather have the drugs than have a roof over their head. Because some of them have had roofs over their head, and they turned to drugs instead of paying the rent."

But there are others "who truly want to be off the streets. It's hard to tell the ones who want it from the ones that don't."

If the police continue to break up encampments, or if the community stops helping unsheltered people, Kalamazoo's homeless will still be somewhere in Kalamazoo County, Pops says.

"We have a lot of volunteers helping us out here. I shouldn't say 'us,' because I'm one of the volunteers that helps," he says of his current position in the community. 

When asked about the concerns of some that those working with the unsheltered help perpetuate people remaining unhoused, Pops said it does to an extent but the alternative is grim. "If they can't get food, if we didn't have volunteers, they'd all be dying off from starvation. If we didn't give them supplies to keep warm, they'd all freeze to death. That's not eliminating the problem, that's causing murder." 

When it comes to Kalamazoo Public Safety officers his interaction with the police when he was living outside usually went something like: "You gonna threaten me with a vacation? Take me. Three hots and a cot.... Give me 90 days, I don't care!"

There's a lot of theft for survival among the homeless, he says, and jail is a reward for someone living outside. "Just break a window someplace. Some people have done that, and they go to jail. But only over the weekend. 'We'll pat you on the hand, give you probation, and send you out the door. Pay restitution.'"

"You don't have the money to pay restitution, otherwise you wouldn't have had to break in to steal something! It's a catch-22."

There's a level of desperation Pops would like those with roofs over their heads to know. In the winter, people stay up all night. "You can't sleep when it's that cold. They're afraid they won't wake up," he says. "When they finally fall asleep in the morning, all the thieves come to steal their stuff."

"They steal to survive." Batteries are their only source of power, so they're commonly lifted at local stores. Another target is propane -- tanks are needed for heaters. Bikes, being the only means of transportation for someone who has nothing, often vanish. When Pops was homeless, "I had three bikes stolen in a month," he says.

There are some local housing efforts that give him hope. Pops recently visited the PlayGrown site on Ampersee, an effort to build small houses where the old encampment was. He has volunteered to use his skills in construction there once that's underway, with groundbreaking expected next spring.

The LodgeHouse is another positive sign, he says. 

"If I ever hit the lottery, I'm gonna find an old school," and make it into housing, Pops says. "Any old building we can partition off. I'd even help." 

More help is needed to address the needs of the community's unsheltered. "I think if it were switched, if the homeless got houses and the people who've always had houses got to live outside for a month, they'd see what's going on."

"Until that happens, they don't care. They're not my family, so it's not my problem," he says. "Wait till it hits your family, then you'll see what the problem is." 

Being a good guy

Pops says he once lifted a lighter from a store over a disagreement with a cashier who made him pay twice for a fountain drink. Other than that, he refused to steal, even though he's been the target of theft.

If he left his tent to help someone, he'd likely find things missing when he got back. "I still went anyway, because they needed help," he says.

"They stole my Mom's ashes." His truck was stolen and used in a robbery. Four weeks later he found it, empty. He had just about everything he owned in it, literal parts of his life, including his Mom's urn. 

In spite of everything, "I'm one of the few out here who don't steal. I don't lie. When I was doing drugs, I told them (people who have given him shelter), yeah, I do drugs, but I won't do it in your house. And I never did."

He built a reputation that led his fellow homeless to call him Pops. He eventually stopped being a target for theft by "being respected by a lot of people," he says. 

Because he chose to be a good guy, not bad?

"Yup," he says. "Even the bad guys respect me."

Now he attends events to help the homeless, "to help out and keep the peace." If someone is being "irate," he says, "I pull them aside and talk to them. And they listen because it's me."

Photos by Fran Dwight. See more of her work here.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.