The Voices of Youth program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network.
On a July evening this past summer, Ella Johnson was unloading a car filled with food, socks, blankets, and personal care items for the more than 150 men, women and children who were living in a now-closed homeless encampment off of Riverview Drive.
Ella, along with her mother, father, younger sister, and several family friends were volunteering for a regularly-scheduled meal train through the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless. Portable tables in front of the encampment were laden with items that were donated or purchased. A steady stream of homeless residents began walking up to select food and supplies to see them through another day.
Ella, 17, a senior at Portage Central High School, and her fellow volunteers were kept busy replenishing the tables and talking with the encampment residents who expressed their appreciation with smiles and quietly murmured thank you’s. They did not linger, preferring instead to go back to their tents to settle in for the night.
The encampment, located on Ampersee Avenue, was cleared out in October by police officers with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety at the direction of city officials. Those who called it home scattered and Ella says she doesn’t know where they went.
“During that whole big fuss, residents of the encampment went to towns around us,” Ella says. “There are still tons of homeless people here and it’s hard to get in touch with them. They’re hiding. Lots of them will gather outside of a food pantry during the day and I don’t know what they do during the night or where they go. I have no clue where they’re sleeping. Some of them have had to find abandoned buildings to stay in at night. They can’t set up tents anymore because the cops will take them down and arrest them.”
Ella Johnson donates a portion of the profits she makes from her online art and thrifted clothing business to help the homeless.
Since the encampment was cleared out and shut down, Ella and her mother, Lisa, have been driving around Kalamazoo at least once a week to distribute food and supplies to people living on the streets. Some of these people knew them through the encampment but the majority are people they have met as they make their way throughout the city.
On a good day, Ella says they may come across 50 of the estimated 250 individuals who called the encampment home at one time or another. Her mother says, “It’s been a lot harder to see people, and we don’t know where they scattered to, or what help they’re getting.”
“We drive around random streets in Kalamazoo and ask if they need food and ask when they last saw someone and eventually we run out of meals,” Ella says. “We have our car stuffed with toiletry kits, blankets, sleeping bags, and food.”
Part of each day for her family is spent organizing and packing up meal kits or figuring out the next distribution event.
Because they are familiar faces and represent the one constant in an otherwise chaotic existence, the Johnsons have established trust with homeless residents and their conversations will frequently include questions about what else they need, in addition to checking on the welfare of those they haven’t seen in a while. One man recently said he could use a pair of size 12 boots and a call was put out to volunteers on the Homeless Coalition’s Facebook page which resulted in getting those boots into his hands.
On Dec. 14, volunteers organized a Christmas event that was held outside the People’s Food Co-op for the city’s homeless. About 50 people received food and warm clothing and some received tents.
Ella says, “Facebook has been an invaluable resource for volunteers trying to connect and go in the same direction. There’s not any one big group. We follow multiple groups. There are 30 or 40 people all of the time volunteering to help provide resources.”
On Dec. 14, volunteers organized a Christmas event that was held outside the People’s Food Co-op for the city’s homeless. Ella says about 50 people received food and warm clothing and some also received tents that were donated through a site set up on Amazon specifically for those living on the streets.
“We get Amazon deliveries every day,” Ella says.
Putting her concern into action
In December 2020, Ella and her family participated in their first meal train. Lisa Johnson says she and her husband saw a news story about the rapid rate at which the area’s homeless population was growing.
“We said that’s not OK,” Johnson says. “On our own, we put together 60 meal kits. My husband posted this and a friend said he’d signed up for a meal train and he was going out on Sunday. We joined him.”
From that point on, the Johnsons were joining other meal train efforts that were happening weekly and sometimes more than once a week. They were joined by friends and neighbors who had committed to making sure homeless individuals had food and other items that were either donated or purchased.
It was during these early days that Ella decided to donate a portion of the profits she makes from her online art and thrifted clothing business
. She is the artist behind all of the paintings available for sale and also creates resin jewelry and Christmas ornaments. What isn’t used to purchase food and other necessities for the city’s homeless population, is put into a savings account for college.
“I was selling paintings on Facebook when I was 9, 10, or 11 and I started selling online when I was 14 or 15,” she says.
Ella’s philanthropic efforts have encouraged her friends to do what they can to help out. They have joined her to serve food and hand out other necessities at meal trains and also donated inexpensive items which Ella says “goes a long way” to making a difference in the lives of those with very little.
Her parent’s initial involvement with organizations like Generous Hands
in Vicksburg and later the homeless coalitions served as her inspiration. Generous Hands provides backpacks filled with kid-friendly, nutritious food every Friday to children so that they have healthy food to get them through the weekend.
Ensuring that people have access to healthy food and a warm place to stay are basic human rights, Ella says, adding that the homeless often get a bad rap.
“There’s a very bad and negative connotation around everything that has to do with being homeless,” Ella says. “I think a lot of times people are scared when they see someone on the news or see someone with a sign up asking for money. It tends to dehumanize people and just seems scary.”
This, she says, makes her angry because the general population doesn’t have enough factual information about how people come to be homeless.
“A lot of the critics don’t realize that everyone is just a paycheck or two away from being homeless. There were people at the encampment who got laid off during COVID and if they can’t pay rent, they end up on the street,” Lisa Johnson says. “There was a guy we saw quite a bit of this summer. He had a job and was living in one of the tents. There was one woman who was at work and could see everything at the encampment where she was living being bulldozed.”
The Johnsons have been joining meal train efforts since December 2020 that have been happening weekly and sometimes more than once a week. They are, from left, Bill Johnson, Delaney Johnson, Ella Johnson, and Lisa Johnson.
“They’d much rather be in their own house with a warm bed,” Ella says. “Lots of communities are having successes with tiny houses or pods that they use for transitional housing. The homeless in these communities also get social services so that they can help themselves. For any homeless person who can go through social services and receive therapy, they can have a good life.”
But these services can be hard to come by for many homeless individuals who remain largely invisible. Those with mental health issues have very few resources and younger people who had been victims of sex trafficking or identify as LGBTQ plus are on their own, Ella says.
“I talked to a couple of kids who have made it to school and I talked to a few who were going to school, but that’s not a top priority if you’re on the streets,” she says. “There’s not enough resources. There are some great resources out there, but many are packed or overcrowded.”
Lisa Johnson says, “We need to come alongside them and help them heal from whatever trauma they have.”
A painting of the Ampersee encampment by Ella Johnson.
But, now that temperatures have dropped, the most immediate needs take precedence.
Hypothermia is a major issue and the blankets distributed by Ella and other volunteers often get wet, making them useless. Identification documentation also doesn’t withstand the cold and wet. This is why, she says, the work that she and others are doing is so critical.
Johnson says those who volunteer or donate connect through their humanity. She says she is proud of Ella and her passion for helping those most in need.
“A lot of people want to help, but they don’t know how,” Ella says. “We see a lot of people in the worst time of their lives. They are all trying to survive. Whether they’re being more successful or not, they’re all trying.”
Photos by Susan Andress. See more of her work here.