Even if I stay in this car, I’m gonna freeze.”
It wasn’t poor work ethic or substance abuse or drug addiction that left Don living in a car during a Michigan winter. It was love — love for a son that wasn’t his.
Raising Another Man’s Child
Don dated Joshua’s mom before Joshua was born, planning to move on with his life after the baby came.
“But it didn’t work out that way,” Don said.
Joshua’s biological father wasn’t around much, so Don felt responsible for him.
“Even though his mom and I weren’t good, I would come back to see how Joshua was, and then he got to know me as Dad, and our relationship kind of grew and grew and grew.”
When his mom’s alcoholism left her unable to care for young Joshua, Don fought for custody over him and raised him as his own son.
So Don worked factory jobs and raised his son, but now that Joshua was grown, it was time for him to start working. Don lived with Joshua and supported them with his 401k for as long as he could. Perhaps too long. But when the money ran out, so did the hospitality. Joshua found a job, but not in time to stay in their house. And the next place Joshua had lined up — a friend of his girlfriend — wasn’t available for Don.
Jobless, homeless in the middle of February and utterly hopeless, Don used Joshua’s car as a last resort; he’d sleep in it, take Joshua to and from work and try to stay as warm as possible. Don knew he didn’t have much time. In Michigan, February is brutal. The wind whips, the snow flies, and some years the temperature doesn’t get above freezing all month.
He’d never been homeless before, but he knew he had to figure something out. Soon.
“I screwed up. I’m not a financial genius by no means. I blame myself,” Don said. “I just said, ‘I’m gonna go into the woods, and I’m gonna make the biggest cotton-pickin’ fire.’ ”
He knew the possible consequence for arson: jail — but at least it would be warm.
A Warm Welcome for a Crazy, Homeless Man
Cold and utterly desperate, he did something that he never, ever did: He prayed.
“God, if You’re really there, I need You.”
An inner voice told him to stop at a nearby church. He’d never been there, and he saw only one car in the parking lot. He went in, and, thinking he was alone, was surprised to hear a quiet voice ask if he needed help. But Don wasn’t sure if he’d really heard anything.
“I thought, ‘Oh, now I’m homeless and crazy,’ Don said. “I just ignored it.”
But when he heard the voice again, he knew it was real.
The woman, allegedly the church secretary, told him about The Refuge, a rotating homeless shelter in Lapeer. Each week during the winter months, area churches house and feed Refuge residents, protecting them from the harsh winter weather. Don went, hoping at least for a bowl of tomato soup and a bologna sandwich.
But when he got there, he found something way better than bologna and soup. He found people who cared about him.
“Soon as I walked through the door, I felt it,” Don said. “I’m around good people, I could tell. This is not what I expected at all.”
He felt welcome — he wasn’t treated like he was homeless — and he knew things were going to be okay. He’d never had this feeling before, and he loved it. For the rest of the winter, he stayed at Refuge host churches.
“I could walk in the churches and know the Spirit was there. I knew it. I could feel it. The Spirit was there. There’s no drug on Earth that will give you that feeling.”
From Being Homeless to Serving the Homeless
With help from The Refuge and a local church, Don got a job at a local school, and now he also helps at The Refuge Day Center in downtown Lapeer.
He still considers Joshua his son and always will. But Don felt like he found something — family, community, hope, purpose — at the Refuge that he should have found much earlier in life. But maybe being homeless was the only way to realize it.
“Going homeless was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Don said. “It was the worst — and the best.”