Photograph by Emily Schlatter

Kent Johnson suddenly found himself homeless in Bloomington after getting laid off from his job. Working with the Shalom Community Center and others, he has gotten a job and a home. But he still lives day-to-day.

With a slow, steady swagger, Kent Johnson smiles and holds his head high as he leads his friend Enrique north on Lincoln Street toward the Shalom Community Center. Both of them radiate hope as they walk, despite their experiences living below the poverty line.

Johnson lost his job, his apartment and all his possessions after moving to Bloomington from Chicago to help his daughter. He ended up homeless, eating at Shalom and sleeping on the streets.

But on this golden spring morning, Johnson shows no signs of struggle. He is happy to help a friend. Enrique has been working 12-hour days for $50 under-the-table.

"It's hard to imagine things like that happening in Bloomington," Johnson says with a sigh. "But they do."

According to the 2006 Census, 37.3 % of Bloomington residents 18 and older live below the poverty line.


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Originally from the South Side of Chicago, Johnson moved to Bloomington to help his daughter Michelle, who was struggling.

"One day she called and said, 'Dad, I need you,' so I moved down here," he says.

Johnson worked at a grocery store before landing a job at a local machine shop, where, one day, he got laid off. Struggling to pay his own bills, he could no longer support his daughter.

"I was standing there with the eviction notice in one hand and a gas bill in the other," Johnson says.

The next day he came home to find his apartment padlocked. He notes this is not legal, but it is often done to Bloomington's economically powerless.

Johnson lost every possession that day except for his clothes. The following winter he lived without a home in Bloomington.

"Stayin' dry's the first thing," he recalls, "and cardboard to sleep on makes all the difference."

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Photograph by Emily Schlatter

Johnson came to Bloomington from Chicago to help his daughter out of a crisis. Writing songs helps him cope with his situation.

In a way Johnson faced and endured what all working-class Americans fear, increasingly so as energy costs rise and economic depression looms -- suddenly sinking into poverty from a layoff or an accident.

Citing the Urban Institute and U.S. Conference of Mayors, the USA Today reported in 2003 that "an estimated 3.5 million people are likely to experience homelessness in a given year" and that "people remained homeless for an average of six months."

Johnson believes he came out of the experience with a "greater sense of compassion." That winter he met Bloomington's homeless community and the advocates who try to understand and make their lives better.

"This is not your average town," he says, smiling. The difference is in student volunteers, IU, local businesses, churches and open-hearted people.

The Shalom Center, whose motto is "helping people in need," assisted Johnson in a variety of ways, from providing laundry services and hot meals to helping him create a resume and find a job.

With help from Shalom and other services, like Job Links, Johnson found a job 10 days after finishing his resume.

Now he works Monday through Friday at Tree of Life, a food distributor that specializes in "natural, organic, specialty, ethnic and gourmet food products," according to its Web site.

Taking advantage of Shalom's computer resources was critical to Johnson's success. "To be able to put in applications online was, I think, instrumental in getting the job I have," he says.

He found a place to live on the North Side of town, near Kinser and 17th Street. Although Bloomington is a small town, Johnson sees transportation as a major problem for those who live below the poverty line.

"Most homeless people walk," Johnson says. "There are a few that have bikes, and a couple have scooters."

He owns a bike but largely depends on the bus system for transportation.

"Thirty bucks a month for a bus pass, and I might use it eight times a day," he says, "It's very reasonable."


"Stayin' dry's the first thing, and cardboard to sleep on makes all the difference."
- Kent Johnson


***

Johnson's favorite possession, a deep red, acoustic guitar, usually travels with him around town in a black guitar case strapped on his back. Gold Mardi Gras beads dangle from the head of the guitar, and an "Obama '08" pin on the black case marks his political leanings.

Johnson recalls trading a "French" jacket for his first guitar, a -- Gibson LGO -- just inside the border of Arizona in 1972. The first song he learned to play was Crosby Stills Nash & Young's "Teach Your Children Well."

Through songwriting, Johnson appeases the "artist" inside him and copes with the daily struggles of life. In his song "Framed," he addresses how society ignores the poor and needy.

"See the blind man, on the corner," the lyrics go, "don't even stop to care. Bleeding mothers, starving children, pretend like they're not there, don't stare."

Johnson estimates his total number of self-written songs is between 2,000 and 3,000. One of his joys in life is sitting with people, playing his guitar and letting the music do the communicating.

In the song he wrote about the Shalom center, Johnson says, "It's a hard life, life in the street. There's a finer class of people here than you might think you'd meet."

He performed this song on a Shalom Community Center promotional video.

Although Johnson no longer struggles to find a home or work, he is far from being financially secure. Working more than 40 hours a week, he can no longer take advantage of the same social services that once helped him out of homelessness.

After great strides forward, Johnson is stuck.

"I mean, I'll get there one day," he says, "but it's a slow haul. Especially when you live at the very end of the budget just trying to come back from getting evicted and getting your electricity shut off and your gas shut off."

Emily Schlatter can be reached at emschlat@indiana.edu.