Invisible Walls

Invisible Walls

This is part of an ongoing series on homelessness in Cape May County.

By David Todd McCarty | Friday, February 23, 2018

I’m sitting in studio of the Cape May Stained Glass Company with owner Chris Michalek on a rainy Friday morning. It looks like your typical artist studio. The flotsam and jetsam of the craft strewn about on tables and work benches, supplies leaning against walls and lots of work in different stages of progress. This place is a little unusual though, because it also houses the work of another dozen artists in a small gallery in the back and throughout the studio on the walls. In a relatively small space, the owner has dedicated nearly half of his work space to the work of other people. But once you talk to Chris for any length of time, you realize that’s not all that strange.

“No one wants to tell you they’re homeless,” he tells me. “It’s embarrassing.”

Chris is a successful artist and business owner, he’s also a diagnosed bipolar, schizophrenic and by his own admission has struggled on an off with drugs and alcohol over the years. But that’s not why he’s currently homeless. The path to homelessness is both tragically stereotypical and strangely unique.

When you’re living on the edge, it only takes a few things to go wrong before you’re out on the street. For Chris, it was simply a relationship that ended, a bad knee, and a broken system. It wasn’t mental illness. It wasn’t addiction. Just a string of bad luck and he found himself with in an untenable situation with no one to turn to.

Chris Michalek, owner of Cape May Stained Glass Company. West Cape May, NJ

“People don’t want to acknowledge the fact that there’s a homeless problem in Cape May,” he says. “Everyone’s like, ‘I don’t see any homeless people.’ Well there is a problem, and the problem is hopelessness. People get into situations and they feel hopeless.”

Chris found himself interacting with social services for the first time three years ago when he injured his knee and his employer didn’t have insurance. He was told Social Services could help him, but he needed to quit his job, get a letter from his employer saying that he was no longer employed and then they could get him on welfare. So he did what they said and then he got a letter saying his claim was denied. So for three years, he appealed over and over again until finally they agreed to do the surgery.

What’s most interesting about talking to Chris is that he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about his own situation. He feels like he’s one of the lucky ones. But he’s concerned that not enough is being done for the others.

“I don’t want people to have to wake up and feel this way,” he says. “There has to be an answer to this problem. There has to be a solution and I think our community is that answer.”

Chris believes in community but says there are a lot of what he calls, “Invisible walls.”

“Over the years, I’ve had to navigate the social services system,” says Chris. “But there’s no way to navigate the system. The counselors and the social workers are either told A) don’t burn up the resources available, or B) they’re not informed that these services are even there, which is ludicrous if you’re in the business of helping people. You’d think that you’d go out everyday and try to put together a toolbox of tools to help people. But what I really think happens down here, is that people’s hearts get hardened. They’re hands are tied and all they can do is perform a managerial position.”

Navigating the system can be difficult for a person of means, but it becomes almost impossible if you’re struggling. You can get food stamps, but they don’t cover prepared foods, even from the grocery story, and if you’re living in a motel with no kitchen, there’s no way to cook, so recipients are often spending way too much at a convenience store on junk food.

Transportation is also a huge factor. In Cape May County, we have limited public transportation, and while you might be able to get medical care through social services, you have to be able to get there in order to benefit.

“You can’t even go into a grocery store and buy a prepared meal with a welfare card,” Chris explains. “You have to buy all the ingredients cold and put it together. So there’s a lot of things that aren’t friendly about the system. But I’m a problem solver, so I figure instead of saying there’s a problem, let’s figure out a solution.”

One solution Chris sees is training people who are capable of holding down a job in skills that would be useful to our community, namely the restaurant, hospitality and landscaping industries. As a trained chef, he looks to organizations like the Sisters of the Road, a mission and cafe in Portland, Oregon.

“We try to have a people first mentality,” explains Bryn Harding, Communications Manager for the Sisters. “We began as community organizers and when we opened in 1979, we started by asking the community what it was they wanted, what they felt they needed. They said they wanted affordable healthy meals, job training and a safe place for women and children. So that’s what we tried to be.”

In talking to Bryn, he often referred to the community as “the people who live outside” or “people who are homeless.” He explained that for many people in this situation, they can begin to feel like a number and not a person pretty quickly. Within the system there is a tendency to project a client and provider mentality.

“They’ll get up and go stand in line to get a number. They’re told where to go, when to eat, and what to eat. Then they have to cross town to find their next meal, where they stand in line and get another number. Then they have to be at a shelter by a certain time. Pretty soon, you lose the ability to make choices for yourself. So they feel like a number not a person. It’s very dehumanizing.”

Bryn says that they ask people to pay $1.50 for a meal at the cafe, but about 75% of the people can’t afford that so they’re asked to barter for their meal. They’ll clean or do various chores. “It’s not about the money, “he says. “It’s about dignity and self-respect. When you just give someone something on your terms, and you hold all the power, you take that dignity away from them. This allows them to earn it on their terms.”

Bryn explains a principle that guides the work they do that comes from the members of the community. It goes, “Nothing about us, without us.” Meaning that they don’t want people making decisions about them without asking for their input. It seems to have had a very positive influence on the success of the mission. They don’t feel like they’re serving a community, they’re part of a community.

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This is what Chris dreams about for Cape May County. A place that doesn’t just serve the community but that is built and run by the community. A place to get an affordable meal, get some job training, volunteer and barter labor. Chris is already talking to influential people, trying to find ways to get the community to come together.

“The community needs to get involved, but there’s a lot of risk, because people don’t want to be taken advantage of,” he says. “There has to be an answer to this. There has to be a solution and I think our community is that answer.”

You can reach Chris Michalek at Cape May Stained Glass Company, 600 Park Blvd, Building 4, Unit 36, West Cape May, NJ 08204. 609.592.1582





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