15 Cities 45 Days - In Search of Stories Without Homes

OK, so I was tired when I made this video. I meant to to refer to the Chicago soup kitchen as A Just Harvest instead of Just Bread. Just Bread was where I served in Baltimore. A Just Harvest is where I went in North Chicago.  Whoops. 

 There are quite a few things that might surprise you during you a trip to Detroit…

            The first of which is the green landscape.

Especially on the outskirts of the city center, in the forgotten city suburbs, and in the ones in the midst of revival, Detroit is an extremely green city. Whether the grass is overgrown, filling now abandoned parking lots, or whether the landscape is finely trimmed like on Wayne State University’s college campus – green spaces abound in the Motor City.

Still, Detroit’s Department of Recreation and Parks needs to get it together. I recognize that there is probably little money and maybe even less private community support for such ventures. Yet with only a little sprucing up, Detroit could green over some of the city’s pavement and wasted space, using the natural scenery to create a vast system of public-use parks.

Of course, with public parks come public patrons. As most city councils recognize, the large majority of habitual public park users tend to be street dwellers and vagabond-types. So cities limit the homeless populations by removing benches and water fountains from parks, by closing down public bathrooms, and by allowing corporate entities to pave over natural spaces.

Detroit is no exception. The few parks still managed by the city look overgrown and out of shape. Trees look tortured from a lack of care, leaves and branches unkempt like the hair of the hippies who might otherwise be sitting under them.

Water fountains are hard to come by, in parks or on the city walkways. While a trip down to Ford Plaza provides a pleasant view of the Detroit River, there aren’t many places nearby to access nature’s most natural thirst quencher.

Overall, it’s as if Detroit teases people with promise yet fails to deliver successful results.

This brings me to my own adventure in the city.

Upon arriving in Detroit, the first problem I encountered was the severe lack of useful public transit. Besides an inadequate bus schedule where buses often run late, worse, simply finding public transit that travels to pertinent destination points can be a daunting challenge. Let’s not even mention trying to get to the airport, which is a more than two-hour adventure from just about any point in the city if you are trying to travel without a car. $40 dollar taxi ride? No thank you.

No wonder Motown was once the motor vehicle capital of the world.

While many of the auto manufacturing jobs have left Detroit, its deficiency in public transportation is still going strong. Mostly, I found walking to places a quicker and more adept manner of movement than trying to use the buses. Oh, and there’s a people mover tram in downtown, but the rail looked more desolate than many of the vacated city parts. Without the alternatives, I simply made the most of my tennis shoes.

I first landed at Hostel Detroit after about a one-hour walk from the Amtrak station. The hostel is relatively new to the city, a joint venture between private donors and business partnerships. The hostel is, in many ways, a standing metaphor for the city itself.

Like much of the city, the hostel has undergone recent development. Volunteer students from Wayne State built a bike shed out back so travelers might easily rent the two-wheeled people carriers. The hostel is decorated with local art, all for sell, that captures much of the energy of the music and arts scene in Motown’s makeup.

But while new paint is being applied to various rooms, others look in sore shape of a clean-up.

The city also shared this strange sense of duality. In some areas, such as Corktown, where the city originated and where the hostel is located, new businesses have opened shop, and the real estate market is in the process of recovery. Still, in many parts of Detroit, the word that best describes many areas is: vacated.

While I expected to encounter a substantial amount of street dwellers in Detroit, I found quite the opposite. Even in the downtown area of the city it seemed that Detroit suffers much more from problems of poverty than issues related to homeless populations. Of course, there are many people still living on the streets, and even more who would be classified as homeless by most censuses. But because there are so many abandoned buildings that can be accessed by simply breaking into a window or sometimes even just walking through the front door, homelessness isn’t as visible as I expected.

However, there are always exceptions. On the first day of my stay in Detroit, as I was finally getting closer to my hostel during the cross-city walk from the Amtrak station, I encountered a man at the corner intersection of Interstate 75 and Fisher Street.

He was begging for money with a cardboard sign. We’ve all seen men like this before; they exist in just about every major city in the U.S. They stand at the onramp of a major traffic way, often walking up and down the median to solicit a donation, and usually, when someone does reach out to spare a dollar, they do so precisely at the wrong moment. The light turns green and the handout stalls traffic, cars behind honking and in a hurry.

This is how Joe has survived. 

At 56, Joe leaned over, knees bent, as he held up a sign that said: “Please, anything helps.” With 8 outstanding tickets for panhandling, Joe said he worries about the police, but it usually just means a ticket with no jail time. “The jails are too full for them to keep me overnight,” Joe said to me.

Joe said he is also used to the violence that accompanies living on the streets of Detroit. He said a friend of his was jumped about one week back, his cane stolen among other goods. “I’ve been beaten lots of times,” Joe said. Ironically, he almost said it with a smile when he explained the dangers of Detroit to me. He said it all comes with the territory.

Joe also said he blames Detroit’s crime for ending up on the streets. He said that he was living at his home when everything was stolen from the place by robbers. He said the robbers took off with all of his savings and when he could no longer pay rent soon after, he was evicted from his place by his landlord.

But Joe did admit that the robbery was just one in a series of unfortunate events in his life. First, he said he started having problems with drug addiction. Having been mostly clean from drugs and alcohol for the large part of his life, in his fifties, Joe said he found heroine. Up until that point, he said he experimented with other drugs but never used habitually. With the black tar, experimentation turned to abuse for Joe.

Soon after he began abusing the drug, Joe said his girlfriend wouldn’t tolerate him anymore. Joe often had fits of anger which led to domestic arguments. After his girlfriend finally moved out on him, Joe soon found himself out of a job as well.

He worked for a siding company, painting and putting up aluminum siding for work. Joe said he plans to go back to the work as soon as he gets clean. And he said his boss will re-hire him because he’s a good friend and knows Joe is good at what he does. But first Joe said he has to stop using heroine.

So he claimed that he’s saving up each day to buy methadone instead of heroine. He said he can get a month’s worth from a friend for about $200, so he insisted that’s why he panhandles instead of trying to work for the money. “I can’t get work til I’m clean and I can’t get clean til I get the money for the Methadone,” Joe explained. Joe said he believes the methadone will help wean him off heroine.

I didn’t want to tread on his money-making opportunities for too long, so I left Joe after a brief conversation to go find food. When I returned some 3 hours later, there was Joe, still standing at the corner, soliciting free cash.

I watched Joe work through the night from nearby. Most cars paid him no attention. About every five minutes, one would roll down the window and hand him a dollar or change. I’d say he averaged about five dollars made for every hour. Not great, but not terribly bad either.

I spoke with him later in the night when traffic mostly died down. He said he would be traveling to the city center in two days for a dentist appointment. With persistent pain in his mouth, Joe was to have all of his teeth removed to alleviate the suffering. He smiled when he told me about the appointment, his remaining teeth almost spiked and sharp as with a vampire’s pearly whites. Only, all of Joe’s teeth were jagged.

In addition to his mouth pain, Joe also said he suffered a hernia about a month back. But without insurance, he said he cannot get the surgery which would cure him of the chronic pain. Joe also explained the hernia has resulted in his slouch.

Around midnight, I asked if I could follow Joe to his sleep spot. He agreed, and we walked about a half-mile to an abandoned gas station. Joe had rigged the door so only he knew how to get in and out.

When I looked inside, let’s just say it wasn’t a room in the Ritz. The floor was dirty, and Joe had about three garbage bags worth of clothes piled in the corners. About three pieces of cardboard lay on the ground to protect Joe from the hard tile. He at least had taken the time to clean out the area near the urinal, from which I felt like I could still smell remnants of urine.

After a few more minutes of conversation, I left Joe to stay at my hostel for the night. The next day I was due at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in East Detroit. So I said goodbye Joe, sure I would see him the next day as I traveled to the hostel.

But he was gone. And I didn’t see him again throughout my stay. But I guess, like his teeth, he was supposed to be gone…

The next day I woke up and went to the Capuchin Kitchen to serve food. On the bus ride over, I met a 36-year-old man named Yusef. He asked me if I knew if the soup kitchen still operated. Luckily, this was about the one thing I could help him with in Detroit. We walked together from the bus stop to the kitchen, and I told Yusef I would talk to him after breakfast.

At Capuchin, most of the men and women who came in for food looked as if they relied on the kitchen for their meals. They could access both breakfast and lunch at the kitchen, but they weren’t allowed to stay in the facility between hours.

Capuchin had a friendly vibe throughout my service. Regular volunteers worked the food line, and I helped serve in an assembly line of volunteers, handing out breakfast to anyone who wanted it.

Besides breakfast, Capuchin was unique in that it offers art time Monday and Friday, and that it is also home to a children’s center. In addition to a children’s library the center also offers a day camp over the summer at little to no cost, depending on the economic situation of local families. The center estimates that it serves more than 800 children per month.

Capuchin also operates a 25,000 square foot urban farm project, a unique way in which it can grow its own food. The kitchen operates with care and compassion, but in an orderly fashion, and a quick prayer was held before the service. The atmosphere was relaxed and provided those who attended a place to sit and eat in peace.

Sure enough, when my two-hour service was up, Yusef was waiting for me outside the center. We started to chat. Really, I listened as Yusef told me his life story.

One of five children, Yusef said he grew up poor but not in the worst conditions. He said his father worked for Cadillac and all was relatively well until Detroit’s crack epidemic of the 1980s. That’s when Yusef said his family fell apart.

First, Yusef said his father started using and dealing crack cocaine. This led to his father losing his job, and among other problems, introducing Yusef and his three brothers to the drug. Without a steady job, Yusef said his father started having troubles with his mother.

When Yusef told me his life history, he struggled to keep his eyes open. He claimed he was jumped by 20 men the night before. He said he tried to fight them off but that they were too many and too strong. Bleeding, he said the men left him in a bush to die.

But he said he woke up the next morning and hopped on the bus, where we found each other.

Among other life setbacks, Yusef said that in 1993 his family first experienced real tragedy. Yusef’s father’s crack addiction had spread throughout the family. Yusef claimed he and his brothers were using regularly. He said they avoided gang life, instead fighting to protect themselves as a family. But conflict led to two murders in the family.

While Yusef said he and his younger brother were playing basketball, “having the best time in my life,” Yusef went inside to get slippers. “The next thing I know I heard gun shots…I went outside…little pieces of brain.” He didn’t finish the sentence.

Yusef went on to explain that one week later another of his brothers was killed. His older brother was looking to retaliate for Yusef’s younger brother’s death, and in searching for information, Yusef said his older brother was murdered by a gang member.

I asked if Yusef had been shot before. He pulled up his shirt to reveal a six-inch scar near his navel. Yusef said he was shot for a robbery his brothers had committed. He said that gang members were looking for his brothers and took their anger out on him instead while he was buying cake and pie for the family at K-Mart.

It seemed to me that lies interspersed with truth in Yusef’s narrative, as it often does with people on the streets. Still, his eyes showed a lot of pain, and he often said he wished he could do better for his two children.

Yusef said he has an 18-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. They live with their mother in Chicago, but Yusef said they visit on occasional weekends. He said he wanted to buy his daughter a nice gift for graduation.

Yusef also kept saying that he wanted to something with his life like me. He liked how I was serving at kitchens across the country. He wanted to collaborate on something. Really, he just wanted to finally do something good with his life.

And though his brothers’ deaths were traumatic, Yusef said his own downward spiral occurred when his mother was killed a few years after his brother. “How did she die,” I asked Yusef. “Oh, it was my old man that did that one.”

Yusef said his father served time for the murder but that he’s still around. Ever since his mother’s death though, Yusef said he has followed, unfortunately, more in his father’s footsteps. Yusef said he stopped working to sell cocaine. He said his girlfriend then kicked him out of the house. He said he became homeless.

Yusef said he was staying at his cousin’s for the night to recover from the previous night's assault. We parted after agreeing to speak on the phone as soon as he got his phone fixed. We exchanged numbers.

I doubt I’ll ever hear from Yusef again.

The next day I caught a flight out of Detroit to the west coast. In so many ways, I loved the city of Detroit. I could feel its love for music, its people’s strength, and its sense of recovery from recently hard economic times.

But I also left with a sense that Detroit still has a long road to recovery. It better not try and take the bus.


For more info on the Capuchin Kitchen check out: http://www.cskdetroit.org/index.cfm

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