Michael Waters

michael waters

Mike says he’s “a street boy and don’t take kindly to threats” but in reality, Mike comes right back with actions to help and heal, keeping lines of communication open. Kindness is Mike’s MO.

 Sitting in Mike’s office, I am fascinated by the stuff that he has brought to create this haven for residents, especially a Bob Marley poster, with Marley’s profile in a full, all-out laugh; the same Bob Marley who wrote Redemption Song. I get a sense this is the place for residents to get down to business, or to let down their guard and speak about something they haven’t shared in a long, long time. Mike often says, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” He is a force of acceptance and respect all bound up with his off the wall humor and professional demeanor.

Because of the barrage of residents at Mike’s door this morning we move to the shelter’s upstairs conference room so that he can tell part of his story. It is quiet here and Mike’s 6’8” frame eases into a chair. His stature could easily be used for intimidation, but, instead, is part of his kind demeanor. 


I was an addict which prompted me to make poor decisions. My first priority was getting my drug of choice to help me cope or become oblivious to life. They gave me 5-15 years, my first number ever. I committed a crime but the system took it to another level. It was the year of OJ (Simpson). They were not playing with domestic violence. 

I said “this is not what happened.” They said “don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it downtown.” My wife, said “This is not what happened. Mike’s an addict, he needs help, not jail.” They said, “Ms. Waters, we don’t need you.” The state picked it up and for four years we said “this is not what happened.” They said “don’t worry about it.”

I never said I didn’t commit a crime – but 5-15 years? People laughed and said, “Mike, I’ve done much worse than you.” I had a judge who was notorious for harsh convictions. It was her election year.

After four years I go to the Parole Board. It’s like The Big Sweat, going to the Parole Board. I’m there for like a minute and they say, “Step out.” They call me back and say “We don’t know why you’re here.” I say, ‘That’s what we’ve been telling you.”

“We’re going to let you go – mitigating circumstances,” they say. I was a drug abuser, not a wife abuser. Four years, but nothing compared to this guy I used to walk the yard with. They had the DNA to prove he didn’t commit the crime. It was before the time of Project Innocence and he stayed in there for years.

What makes me angry is how us crack addicts from the city were viewed as fiends and jailed. No one considered helping us with our addiction until crack reached the suburbs. We needed help, not prison. We are human beings – addicted and under the power of a drug that makes us do the absurd, the tragic. I’d do anything I could to get me out of the hell I was living in my head. On the outside I looked okay. I was a manager in retail, a double life until the last few years when I was incapable of work. Still, nobody to blame but myself. 


Out of prison I was chasing drugs and alcohol again. When I first came to 2100, I walked down St. Clair on a summer’s night and thought, “Wow, I really hit the big time now.” Meaning, nobody wants to be bothered with me. When you get to a homeless shelter, you get to the reality that the people in your life don’t want anything to do with you anymore.

I was bad. I’d crawl up to 2100 to get a bed, made sure I had a few 32-ounce beers to make it through the night. Just wanted to get sent to the overflow site at Aviation High School, it was quieter there. (Mike laughs as he recalls Dudley, another addict at the shelter). Dudley, on a scale of 1-10, is a 9 for personality. He told me “You know Mike, you can stay here.” The shelter had started programming to address issues the guys had. Dudley took me to Richie (Richard Bartow, staff coordinator of the Recovery Dorm at the time). He said, “Richie, this guy needs a bed.” Richie looked at Dudley. Richie looked at me. Then put his head down on his desk. This was Richie’s way of humor or he was praying about another one coming along. Richie took me in. 

Richie saw something in me which had always been there but clouded. Now I look at others this way. I will never ever give up on a guy. I may have to tell him, “Come back and see me a little later.” But giving up on a guy? No, that’s not my territory, that’s God’s territory.

I did a lot of recovery work and went on shelter retreats for addiction. I was starting to trust these people. I wanted to do right, but as an addict I just didn’t know how. The disease fights you, wants you dead. Kathy Walker (on staff) gave me one of those vulnerability assessments. You know, the one with a point system for how bad off you are. She came back and said, “Well, Mike, congratulations. You just scored the worst.” 

 Later Kathy reflects, “Yeah, sometimes I do that. I have to give them wakeup calls. Mike was one of those guys who you thought might be close (to the end).” 

Come Christmas the retreat team was planning a party and they trusted me with a big check for supplies. Richie knew better and begged, “Don’t give the check to Mike.” I took that money and did what I do. Woke up in a hotel in East Cleveland on Christmas morning. I realized I had just blown off all these people I cared about. It was like in a movie: I got to walk back to the shelter on one of those cold, blustery days, streets empty. I go sit in a Bando (abandoned building). Luckily, I had 2 beers (32 ounce). Sat there all day with the wind blowing through.

They describe in AA, “a moment of clarity” when you know you are destroying your life. That was my moment, but it didn’t mean I stopped. Just meant I kept drinking in spite of the truth looking me in the face.


I understand what the men are going through- a despair you cannot imagine. The most hurtful thing you can do is tell an addict the truth. Remember Charles__? “The little short guy about 3 feet tall,” as Mike describes affectionally. One day a guy comes into the dorm who was having a bad day. He says, “You know Charles, why don’t you just go out and get high and die? No one wants anything to do with you. You can’t stop using. You really don’t give a crap about you or your family.” He hit Charles with the truth. You could hear a pin drop because he was talking to every man in there. When you get to a homeless shelter you get to a point somewhere inside knowing people really don’t want anything to do with you – they don’t. 

I can see the death in a person’s face. Eyes can’t focus. There’s nothing there. No sense. No purpose. No hope. No way to encourage them, or even love them. You just survive. Best thing to happen is a football game on TV in the shelter. A church comes in to provide a good meal. The guy in the bunk next to you doesn’t keep his radio on all night. Nobody’s chasing you. That’s a good night. Oh yeah, and you have cigarettes and a little jingle in your pocket, so if you need a beer later in the morning, you can get one. As long as you can have that beer you can always create your own reality. Tomorrow will be better. I have guys like that in my dorm now. When they’re at that point, I just want to keep them comfortable. I don’t want them to die on the street.

 I’ve talked with other addicts and we say we know when death is near because we just don’t care anymore. We say, “I need some money. Let me go rob the dope man who carries a couple of pistols. If he kills me good, fine. All I want to do is get high anyway.”

 If a person tells me he wants to kill himself, I’m careful and, making sure no one’s listening, I tell him, “No you don’t. Why don’t you just come out it, I need help.” The truth of the matter is the guy who wants to commit suicide is going to. He’s not going to tell you – that’s the scary part. When I finally got sober they asked, “Did you have a plan?” Yeah, I had a plan but I didn’t reveal it. I’ve had two or three attempts, drinking this much Drano (measuring with his hands), followed up with 40 ounces of beer. And you’ll see the scars where I slashed my wrists. But God said, “Not yet. No, not yet Mike – I’ve got work for you.” 


How did this happen? Who, really, can explain a person’s recovery? I know there’s something greater because I could not have done this myself. I’m a crack fiend in an abandoned building.

I used to pray when I stayed in the shelter, 3-4 am, when the shelter was quietest. That’s my best time to commune with the Spirit, whatever the Spirit is. I still do, before I come to work. I can’t explain it, what happens in prayer. 

And the clincher: Richie and the team didn’t lose hope with me. I kept on with the retreat team. As a matter of fact, when they gave me money for the next event, I didn’t spend it. For me that was huge. Then, after a few attempts, I completed inpatient treatment.

Now my job is to be love, to be mercy. Not just to display it but to be this. 

My work is here. These are my guys. I can’t give up. I can always see the person. I’ve been allowed to see their pain. I can see it and I can see the human being beneath. My focus is that person who everyone else rejects. I represent the convicts, the drug addicts, the homeless guys; the guys no one wants anything to do with, the deadbeat dads. I represent them all. At the base of it, they’re good dudes. They got caught up. We don’t know what happened. Maybe they were abused and now it comes out as self-hate.

I let the men know there’s no magic here. I did it. (recovery) Just look at me – I made some different choices. I tell them I pray. I say ‘You don’t have to, but I do. Let’s see what happens. Try to do the right thing and let’s see what happens.’

Even yesterday my focus was___ (name of newly banned client from the shelter. Being banned is pretty hard to do in this low barrier shelter).  I told him, ‘Listen, it’s you and me, man. I’m the only one who cares about you. You know I care. But give me something to work with. Let’s cut out the bullshit.’

Two, three days in a row he told me, ‘Next time I see you I’m going to smack the you-know-what out of you.’ I told him, ‘You know what man? You can’t threaten me like that.’ So, he’s banned. But even so, I care. I told the security staff, if you find____, tell him to come see me and we’ll sit down and talk.’ I don’t want anyone out there.

 That’s what self-hatred looks like: a guy who can’t even put himself down long enough to comply with the rules that will keep him off the street; keep him from freezing to death. Can you imagine the hell he’s in?

What does self-hatred look like? It’s the guy who’s always getting into arguments with the security staff; the loudest guy down the hall. Give me that person. The loudest guy is the most hurt guy. Give me THAT person, because I understand. I’ll get him in my office and eye to eye, tell him, ‘You’re mad at yourself, I was the same way.’ Somebody’s got to care – I’ll do it, even if it’s not at that moment because he’s so angry. 

There’s a lot of pain here. That’s why I take a lot of cursing. But just stop threatening me. I’m a street boy. We don’t take kindly to that. We’ve seen a guy say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and they do it. But, it’s rare that the person doesn’t come back and apologize. 

Can’t sell the American Dream 

With the 100+ men I oversee in my dorm, I can see they’re stuck. I do the pep talks with them: ‘Go get a job.’ They lose it. ‘Okay, get another.’ Then, ‘Get an apartment in East Cleveland, the only place you can afford.’ 

Me and Terry, (Terry Vaughn, Coordinator of Central Intake at the shelter), go out and look for apartments for these guys, walking through the trash to the front door. All you got to do is find the run-down properties – those are the ones our clients can afford. It’s frustrating; I can’t sell the American Dream. I don’t know what to sell…just life and hope for a better tomorrow…. I don’t know.

I want them to experience a good life out there. Like the guy I drove to the West side. The dude is 26 years old. I’m driving down Route 2 and he goes, 

‘Wow, the lake.’ 

I said, ‘You serious, man? You’ve never seen Lake Erie before?’ 

So sometimes when I go for a walk at Edgewater, I take a few guys with me. That’s the difference between me and the college grad who’s never had street experience. I learned from the heart. There’s one guy in particular moving out this week. No one understands the import of this except me and Terry. When he arrived, all he could do is cuss me out. So, I arranged to have him in my dorm. I just let him sit there, covers over his head all day. I couldn’t force my agenda on someone like that. After a while he calmed down and started to talk.

Nobody understands what has occurred. He said to Terry and me, ‘Thank you, I’m really going to try not to let you guys down.’ We had The Talk telling him, ‘The difference between staying out or coming back is staying on your medications. You need something, you call us.’ 

But I can’t sell ‘the Dream.’ The part of the housing piece that is missing is the follow up case management. 70% of these guys would not come back to the shelter if somebody would just follow them. 

I got guys right now who can’t get to me – two guys. They have no food. Where’s the case manager? I’ll drive to the guy and give them bus passes so they can get around. But we’re dropping the ball somewhere. I can do it, where are the others? 

Mike understands that the problems don’t end with the move out.

I know what it’s like to be without food. No money. You’re just sitting in an apartment, nowhere to go. No one wants to be bothered with you. The world is going on around you. You’re watching it like it’s TV. You’re not part of it. Just sitting there wondering, ‘How did I get here? What happened?’ 

I want them to find and sustain housing. That means, if the guy is adamant about not going into a group home, don’t go force it because he’s going to leave. If a guy is a drug addict, don’t send him to East Cleveland. Find something else – viable, suitable housing. And then, stay with the guy.

Housing and Trauma Informed Care

The case workers at 2100 rely on Mike. He is the primary link for the Rapid Rehousing program here at the shelter. Mike represents the caseworkers at weekly meetings with EDEN, a contract agency of the Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Service Board of Cuyahoga County. All the shelter providers are on the call. Mike cuts through the verbiage making sure that shelter clients are in on any County decisions on housing. He has this command of the details for each client and works with all these partners to get them the mental health support, housing, or any other treatment they need. The caseworkers see him as the one to go to with any questions on their clients.

All shelter staff are required to go through trainings. Mike mentions a few trainings that have given him the most insight. 

When Rosie Hart retired from the position Mike now holds, her advice to him was “Learn as much as you can about mental health. If we don’t know or at least understand the demographic we work with, we end up trying to fit them to our agenda instead of applying best practices for someone in their shoes. So, Mike focuses on trainings around Trauma Informed Care.

Society demonizes these guys. Maybe I can’t do anything about that,

but maybe society can see me, see where I’ve come from – that I’m no different from the person they’re demonizing. Maybe I can represent us all a little better. Because I believe in these guys. I model the work ethic, like sweeping the dorm. Guys will ask me what I’m doing, incredulous. Later, I’ll see them, the bad guys, making their beds. I tell you, it’s awesome. The reward goes both ways- good for them and good for me to see their change.

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