Would you want to end homelessness on Division Avenue if it meant becoming close friends with a homeless person?
For four months, Tom Gunnels, former banjo player for the popular Grand Rapids folk band The Crane Wives, has been walking the streets of Grand Rapids, chatting with homeless individuals about their stories. Building trust and becoming a friend has afforded him one of the most inside looks at the city’s homeless community.
Gunnels plans to turn his work into a documentary project he’s called “Waiting On Division.” He wants to continue filming through the winter — saying “it would be doing a disservice to not show what happens in winter” to the homeless community — meaning he probably won’t finish the documentary until at least spring.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to define it, but I would consider it an ongoing exploratory documentary. Basically, it’s about using whatever resources I have — cameras, music recording — to help tell the story,” he said.
“The main objective is to humanize, so just get to know people. When I interviewed one lady, I didn’t ask about the fact that she was an alcoholic — I didn’t ask her anything about that — but she started to talk about those things freely, and she started to show out of nowhere every scar on her face from the years of abuse.”
Gunnels played with The Crane Wives from 2010-15 before leaving to work on a music project called Great Lakes Natives. Now he’s a free-lance videographer and photographer.
He’d been looking to get involved in local homeless support programs when the idea of the documentary came to him. At first, Gunnels just felt that the place to meet people going through homeless circumstances was Division Avenue.
The name “Waiting on Division” came from what he learned about the people who walk the street.
“Everyone was waiting for something. Whether it was waiting in line to get in a shelter, waiting in line for food or waiting for the next support program to open up, there’s just a lot of waiting,” he said. “One of the first people I met … I’m convinced he was just waiting for a friend.”
Gunnels started the project in April and has lost track of how many hours a week he puts into it. The people on the streets have nicknamed him “Mr. Tom,” “The Producer,” and “Indiana Jones,” for the green fedora he always wears.
It’s a sign to him that he’s earned their trust, just as they have earned his.
“Friendship has really worked for me. In the four months I’ve been doing this, I’ve helped three people go into rehab, and I’m working with a fourth right now who wants to go into rehab, just because we’ll have conversations every day,” he said.
“It’s not just about friendship, it’s about community. The people down here, the only community they have are the other people like them in their same situation. If they don’t have anything outside of that, it might seem unattainable to even have that again, and you get stuck in a certain lifestyle.”
The first person on the street he helped was a young man from the Ukraine nicknamed Red. Red told Gunnels he was convinced his lifestyle would leave him dead in three months, Gunnels said.
Four months later, however, Red is in recovery. His friendship with Gunnels likely saved his life.
“He definitely could’ve been dead. I made it a point to hang out with him. I knew where he slept, under a pine tree in the park. He had some court dates that he was stressed about, so he asked if I would go with him,” Gunnels said.
“Now he’s in rehab with another friend (at) … the Salvation Army Adult Rehab Center in Flint. I dropped him off and plan to go visit him.”
Usually, Gunnels won’t interview a homeless person upon the first meeting. He likes to build friendship first and film later. The more he gets to know someone, the more he feels they’ll be comfortable telling him the truth.
Most homeless people who are panhandling know they have only about 30 seconds to give someone their spiel before they lose the attention, he said. But Gunnels is more interested in the “real conversations,” and getting through to those takes patience and genuine friendship.
And that’s when he noticed they stopped asking for money.
“I don’t like panhandling. It’s not my favorite thing to be asked for money, because I don’t have a lot of money. But what I noticed is when you become someone’s friend, they stop asking you for things, at least maybe just money,” he said.
“I’ve been asked for a blanket, or a backpack, or a radio with some headphones. All those things I could find at Goodwill for a couple dollars. Those are the things people ask me for now, not money.”
While Gunnels will insist that he is no expert on the subject of homelessness, he has noticed trends. Alcoholism and mental illness are key factors in causing homelessness, he said, and those core elements lead to all kinds of abuse.
“One thing that’s heartbreaking to hear about is the amount of abuse, sexual abuse, toward women who stay on the street. And you don’t hear about it,” he said. “If something happens to a homeless lady … you don’t really hear about it in the news.”
More housing is needed, he said.
“I’m not a specialist on this, I’m just trying to piece together what I see and hear,” he said. “I think the ‘housing first’ model … is the best model to help people recover.”
The worst thing you can do when you see a people on the street acting disorderly is assume that every person on the street is that way, Gunnels said. That attitude dehumanizes homeless people and overlooks that they are people with day-to-day pressure and stresses like anybody else, he said.
But people can change for the better. That’s what friends are for, right?
“If anyone wants to operate a business in the Heartside area, they have to be ready to be a friend to somebody who is going through a very hard time in their life,” he said.
“If you’re not there to be a friend, they’re not going to respect your business.”
Editor’s note: For more on the Heartside neighborhood, see a three-part series of stories on the Division Avenue corridor on grbj.com.