In the Greektown area of Detroit in the vicinity of my office, I often pass homeless people— prone on the sidewalk in tattered, filthy sleeping bags, surrounded by refuse, or unkempt and begging for change. A week before Christmas the temperatures started heading down below 32°F (0°C), and were predicted to go far lower. Late one afternoon, I passed by an older black man in a wheelchair. I only glimpsed the lower half of his face. He had parked over a sidewalk manhole cover emitting a small blast of moist warmer air. Although he wore a seemingly decent quality blue nylon-shell jacket, he was hunched over, shivering a little.
A couple of days later, I visited a Salvation Army store. I bought as many comforters as I could stuff into my cart. My idea was to take them downtown and give them to the shivering homeless out on the sidewalks. It was only after I got them home that I realized I could only carry one at a time as they are large and bulky. Solution? Space-saver bags! (The ones you remove the air from with your vacuum.) The next day I purchased six from Meijer and went about trying to stuff the first comforter into a bag. Ugh. The comforter was too big and the bag would not seal. So back out I went, to Target this time. They had ZipLock “Jumbo” bags. The bigger comforters fit inside!
I now had maybe 50 pounds of material to lug around the city looking for appropriate recipients. Although squished and crinkled, I still needed a large bag to carry them in so I wouldn’t have to go back and forth to the Blue Cross parking garage retrieving comforters one at a time. Solution? The carrying case for my massage table! I exchanged the table for the comforters. But it was awkward and I could only drag three at a time for a 10-15 minute walk around Greektown.
When I got downtown, it was bitterly cold. The homeless people were not at their usual stations. I did come across one black woman, probably my age, at a bus stop. I said to her, “it looks like you might be out here a while, so I have something for you,” to which she replied “I ain’t fuckin’ listenin’ to that shit!!” I took out a comforter, and handed it to her. “What is that?” she asked. I said “it’s a blanket, it’s yours.” She said “thank you,” and with a hint of apology, said “thank you” again.
I passed by one apparently homeless man, but he had that look of purposeful purposelessness about him, that urgency in your stride when you want to make it look like you have things to do, people to see, but are simply trying to stay warm. I kept looking, the shoulder strap of the big bag repeatedly sliding off my shoulder. As my fingers grew numb from the cold, I noticed a police car parked outside the Greektown casino. There was an officer in the passenger seat drinking coffee, his window cracked a couple of inches. I told him my purpose and asked “is there a shelter where the homeless can go to stay warm? The regulars are nowhere around.” He said there was one at Third and Martin Luther King, run by NSO.
I Google-Mapped NSO (Neighborhood Service Organization) and turned up a few hits, the closest one being on Bagley. I GPSed my way there, zig-zagging down one-way streets, to the alleged NSO location. It was a parking garage. Maybe there were offices on the upper floors, but nothing matching my image of what a homeless shelter should look like. Googling again, I found a Detroit Free Press story about a new shelter under construction at Mack and Gratiot a few miles to the east, set to open in 2018 and intended to replace “the NSO’s Tumaini Center, a much smaller facility on 3rd Street near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard….” Aha! That must be it! Again, I GPSed and zig-zagged my way to the Tumaini Center. The sun had just set and darkness enveloped the city, punctuated by the occasional streetlight or inhabited apartment.
Tumaini is a plain cinder block building surrounded by frost fencing, on a street with otherwise vacant lots. There was a light illuminating the front of the building (actually facing Second St.) and a second lamp above the entrance on the building’s west side. There were a few men milling about outside on the sidewalk, several others loitering under the “No Loitering” sign outside a convenience store diagonally across from the shelter. Pedestrian traffic seemed to be back and forth between the store and the shelter.
I drove around the block (up to 3rd street and back to 2nd) to let my brain figure out a plan to get my comforters to those who planned to leave Tumaini and back to begging on the streets. I thought “maybe there are NSO staff and security inside; there should be a few cars parked in the vicinity.” I circled the block again looking for vehicular evidence of NSO personnel. No vehicles in the back, or outside the fence on the west side. There was one subcompact parked on the street out front. When I returned, there were more men on the sidewalk, shouting and swearing. I sensed anarchy. Gavin de Becker’s voice popped into my head saying: “Rick, don’t be an idiot. Stay in your car. Keep driving.”
By now, I was hungry and had a taste for BBQ. I started GPSing my way to Slows, and at a red light, there was a white man holding a piece of cardboard, its lettering illegible at night. I rolled down my window and he jogged up to my car. I handed him the thick king size comforter saying “I hope this will help you stay warmer,” to which he replied “Thank you, brother!”
I parked about a two-minute walk away from Slows, but walked right past the front door. A tall black man greeted me with “Are you going to Slows?” I replied yes, and he showed me the brass door handle integrated into a tall wooden slatted door. He pleaded “Could you spare some change? I’m homeless. Please help me out.” Me: “I have something else for you. Be right back.” I retrieved comforter #3 and returned, handing the man the comforter. “What is that?” he asked. I explained his gift and he said “Thank you. Could you spare some change?” Other folks could give him money for food, I wanted to do something out of the ordinary for the man. I drove home after some good BBQ, but still with half the comforters to give out!
A homeless man is usually camped out on the northwest corner of Woodward and 8 Mile, with his dog (likely a German Shepard mix). When I drove by his spot a day earlier, they were not there. There were make-shift tents made of shopping carts and sleeping bags under the Woodward overpass, but no homeless there either.
I returned to the spot this morning, with temperatures barely above 0°F (-18°C). He was at his station, wrapped in a large white comforter. He had fashioned a kind of nest-dog-house for his canine companion out of old sleeping bags and comforters, the nest’s opening facing the road so the dog could watch the traffic. I rolled down my window and passed him a comforter, and half-smiling, he mumbled something. After driving off, it occurred to me he was probably more hungry than cold. But the temperatures continued to drop, and more people have spare change than a stack of comforters on the passenger seat of their car.
Heading home, I noticed the beleaguered veteran on the curb of the eastbound I-696 service drive, growling at cars as they passed by. From the center lane, I opened my door and tossed a comforter toward him. He was another grumbler. Turning north on Dequindre, I noticed a hunched over figure struggling with a shopping cart on the westbound service drive. Circling the block, I pulled up next to her at the light and passed her my last comforter. “You can keep the blanket or trade it,” I suggested. “Oh, I’m gonna keep it! Thank you!” she replied, smiling back.
Not long ago, I would have scoffed at the notion that I could be the sort of person who gives a damn. Living in suburban subdivisions and in smaller university towns, working in suburban industrial and technology parks and universities, I lived behind an insulated border of adversity-blind middle-class comfort.
In a callous mood, I would to think to myself, “let the lazy-ass parasites freeze to death.” But in the last year a new friend—a remarkable young woman—has opened my eyes and my heart to those for whom dealing with adversity is a way of life.
I’ve never been acquainted with anyone living in a highly unstable, unpredictable environment; dealing with the fallout of the kind of sociopathic behavior that tears families apart; at times having no opportunities but to work within transient interstices in law enforcement; whose so-called friends will steal given the opportunity, never even intend to repay loans, or exploit their emotional or financial vulnerability for their own twisted amusement.
Her story is disturbing testimony to how the experience of neglect, rejection, violence, betrayal and unrelenting misfortune can fracture a person’s psyche, wipe away their hope, and at worst, leave them struggling to support themselves week after week, bear the agony and hold some faith in the goodness of humanity. She is sharp, resourceful, plucky and amiable. She will grind it out, likely even to flourish in time.
Many more will not. For them, depression snuffs out their passion and drive; their dreams will disintegrate. With no access to psychiatric services, self-medication through drug and alcohol use is an attempt to blunt the emotional pain under which they suffer. Having lost their jobs, their homes and their possessions, each becomes a shadow under a bridge with a shopping cart and a cardboard sign, or shivering in the bitter winter cold on a city sidewalk. No one chooses or deserves such a fate. They deserve our empathy and compassion.
Philosophers and ploughmen—
Each must know his part
To sow a new mentality
Closer to the heart