A Floor at the Bottom of the World

First of three parts

The men keep their coats on. It is cold inside this church. They sit at tables, hungry for food, and listen as a woman tries to rouse them with inspiration.

“I AM” she yells.

“I AM…” they yell back.

The lighting is dim. Some men hold their chins in their hands.

“SOMEBODY!” she yells.

“SOMEBODY!” they yell back.

It is a gym floor on a basement level, but two nights a week it is something else, a safe haven, a place to sleep during the frozen Detroit winter. Most folks come here for one reason.

“BECAUSE GOD…”

“BECAUSE GOD”

They have no place else to go.

“LOVES ME!”

“LOVES ME!”

This is a floor at the bottom of the world, a place from which you can only look up and dream of something better. It is a makeshift homeless shelter, a storage space of compassion and hope, run by a pastor, Henry Covington, who tends his flock even as his church is falling down around him. There are holes in the roof. Water seeps in everywhere. DTE Energy shut off the heat – overdue bills – so the only warmth comes from kerosene-powered hot air blowers.

Sixty-two men will sleep here tonight.

It is the week before Christmas.

Maybe you think this can’t happen in a major metropolis – but this church is just a few blocks from the popular Motor City Casino.

Maybe you think these homeless aren’t normal, they’re physically challenged or sick in the head – but many used to have jobs and homes, they have wives and children, and they read newspapers every day.

Maybe you think, in a dingy place like this, the memories are all about drugs, prison or mean streets. But pull aside almost any man at these tables, get to talking, and in a few minutes, you’ll stir the embers of youthful fancy that unite American men everywhere.

Sports stories.

A field of dreams

Kerry Oliver has no toes.

They were amputated, he says, after he spent a frozen night sleeping inside a Mercury Topaz parked on the eastside. The temperature dropped to 10 below, and the next morning, his toes were black and purple and he couldn’t feel them. A few days later, he says, when he finally got to an emergency room, they hurt like crazy. “The doctor looked at ’em and said, well, they’re frostbitten. He tried to save ’em. But they had to amputate.”

He is 40 years old. These days, he walks flatter, back on his heels. “I’m a little slower than I once was,” he says.

He shrugs. “A lot slower, actually.”

Ah, but once.

Once, he says, he stood 6 feet tall and weighed 220 pounds and he played small forward in basketball with the Metro Youth Foundation, and he played football one fall at Cody High School and once even slapped his glove in centerfield in Riverfront Stadium. The Riverfront Stadium. Where the Cincinnati Reds played.

He still can see it. He was in the Job Corps, the educational and vocational program started under Lyndon Johnson, and his baseball team was in a regional playoff. He was 18 and in great shape.

“I remember that game,” he says, “because I went 3-for-3, with two home runs and a triple.”

He nods at the memory.

“We beat ’em, 18-1, I think.”

He looks away.

“Yeah, 18-1.”

Today Oliver’s eyes are still youthful, but his face is weathered from days and nights on the street. He wears a cap pulled over his ears and a navy V-neck over a sweatshirt and loose pants. His is still built like an athlete. His sports memories are good ones.

He also has his homeless memories.

Those are the bad ones.

Working Joe to the streets

“The first night in my mind that I officially became homeless was on Christmas Eve, five years ago,” he says. “It was a cold night and I didn’t have nowhere to go. I didn’t have any money. I was employable, but not too many people want to hire homeless people because they figure they can’t do the job.”

Where did you sleep that night, he is asked.

“I actually sat all night by the waterfront behind Joe Louis Arena. Just pondering things. I think that’s the first time in my life I ever had suicidal tendencies. Coming from a high point, being a teenager, being very athletic, and then, you know, losing my toes – not following through on things like I should have.”

He pauses. “I guess that got to me a bit.”

The next day, Christmas, he followed a group of other homeless men and tumbled into a world on the Detroit streets that most of us don’t even know about, a world of getting by and making do with different places to sleep each night, none of them your own. He discovered, at first, a warming center, operated by the Neighborhood Service Organization, where you can sit in chairs to escape the cold. Later he found the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, where meals are served and beds offered, but the line-up time was in the afternoon, and Oliver often missed the cutoff because “I was out trying to find work.”

Now on Tuesday and Thursday nights he comes here, to the Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry on Trumbull and Brainard. He likes it here. He knows the routine. If you help out early – set up the tables, take out the trash – then you can eat and stay the night. He did his chores a few hours ago, and he already has had a plate of catfish and spaghetti, with cupcakes for desert. Soon, he will hear his name called and he’ll find a spot to sleep.

Kerry Oliver had a tough upbringing – foster homes, he says, and different schools – but to meet him and hear his story is not unlike meeting and talking to any average working man. He has held jobs, he says, in the furniture business, in a pressing plant. He once had his own apartment, where he lived with his girlfriend and daughter, but he came home one night and they were gone. He hasn’t seen them since. It is part of what led to his downward spiral.

“I never thought this could happen to me. I thought I’d just be the average Joe-Blow-working-hard kind of guy.”

What does he hope the New Year brings, he is asked.

“Employment,” he says.

He gets up to go. In a few minutes, the vinyl mattresses will come out, and so will the pressed wool blankets, and the men will lie down, side by side, and Oliver will take his place among them. He says thanks for getting to talk about sports for a while.

He cocks his chin.

“Hey. I still know what it feels like to hit a grand slam.”

He goes back to the gym, where the smell of fried catfish lingers.

Don’t think this is another country. Don’t think this is another world. This is real and it is now and it happens every night just a few miles from where you live. Maybe you have photos of your sports story. Maybe you have trophies on a shelf. Here, men who once ran fast and jumped high and hit grand slams now take only those memories to sleep, on a floor at the bottom of the world, trying to stay warm.

“I never thought this could happen to me. I thought

I’d just be the average Joe-Blow-working-hard kind of guy.”KERRY OLIVER, 40, a homeless Detroiter

Mitch Albom’s Dreams Deferred has been a holiday tradition in the Sports pages of the Free Press since 1994. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

HOW YOU CAN HELP

To make a donation or to help in another way with the homeless program in Mitch Albom’s column, call Pastor Henry Covington at 313-974-9227 or contact Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries, 1435 Brainard, Detroit 48208.

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