BITING THE HAND THAT FEEDS THE MOST NEEDY

When you’re drowning, and someone throws you a rope, you don’t ask for his ZIP code.

The Detroit City Council might be wise to remember that, in light of one of the dumbest decisions I have witnessed in my time here.

The council voted to withhold certain federal funds to charities – charities, mind you – unless at least 51% of their board members were Detroit residents. One council member, Barbara-Rose Collins, defended the decision in the news media, suggesting outsiders on boards endorsed a “slave-master mentality.” She said these funds were not “created to provide jobs and salaries for people who live in the suburbs.”

What rubbish.

First of all, the federal money, in most cases, doesn’t go to pay board members at all. It goes to feed hungry people, shelter homeless people, find proper care for sick people.

So withholding that money does nothing but yank back a rope thrown to Detroiters drowning in problems. How does that make sense?

“Our board members are unpaid, and in all the block grants we received, not one penny even went to the people working in our organization,” Tim Duperron, the interim CEO of Focus: HOPE, told me last week. “Every penny goes to the citizens of Detroit.”

Not if the City Council has its way. Playing the race card

What do board members have to do with anything? It’s the people on the ground who do the work. A place like Focus: HOPE is in Detroit. Its workers are in Detroit. Its services are almost entirely delivered in Detroit.

Shouldn’t that be how you judge a charity’s worthiness? If it is located in and is doing good works in your city?

Board members generally volunteer their time and advice. “Our board members don’t get paid,” said Chad Audi, president of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries. “What they do is bring resources, they bring contacts, they connect us with corporations and foundations who help fund our work.”

Yet Collins used the term “slave master.” Well, last I checked my history, slave masters didn’t gather at night, after long working days, to meet, free of charge, and talk about helping poor people in another county.

Sadly, this is part of a pattern of inflammatory words and actions that threaten to rip Detroit from its lifeline to surrounding communities. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick threw the latest salvo when he used the N-word in a speech last week, playing the tired but effective gambit of suggesting Detroit must align itself first on color lines, instead of integrity or honesty lines.

And now this. Plucking money from Detroit charities until they purge their boards of those nasty “outsiders.” People helping people

Enough. It is time to stop painting a glow-in-the-dark line along 8 Mile. It is time Detroit and its politicians recognized that as goes the city, so go its suburbs, and vice versa. It is time to accept a simple fact: Detroiters who move to a greener neighborhood, or a more spacious one, don’t surrender their interest in their city.

And it is time to say if this us-versus-them mentality festers, the people who can most help Detroit eventually will walk away. They’ll find new causes.

“I heard from three people this week – two from Grosse Pointe and one from Southfield – who said take my name off your mailing list if this is how people view us,” Audi lamented after Collins’ remark. “Two of them donated up to $5,000 a year.”

I know this firsthand. For the last 10 years, I’ve run a monthly volunteer group. Almost all the work we do is in Detroit. I would guess 90% of our people come from the suburbs. I can’t say for sure because I never asked.

And neither did those we helped.

City Council has a chance to right this wrong. It has an appeal hearing this week on this charity issue. Whatever the council has to do, it must wipe out this misguided, insensitive and downright divisive vote.

Or one day, those board members and volunteers who dare to live one block north of 8 Mile will simply be gone.

And Detroit will see just how deep the water really is.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at malbom@freepress.com.

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