Deborah Foster was doing casework in a Pontiac shelter one day, when a woman knocked on the side door just after 5 o’clock.
“Could I have something to eat?” she asked.
The woman was dressed well, in a business suit with a briefcase and a purse. Her makeup was nicely done.
“It’s after 5,” Foster said.
“I don’t get out of work until 5.”
“It’s too late to get a bed.”
“I don’t want a bed. Just a meal.”
“Then what will you do?”
“I’ll go sleep in my car.”
This was 14 years ago. Foster cried all the way home.
“This woman told me she’d drive to 24-hour places like Kmart and sleep under the parking lot lights,” Foster recalls now. “In the morning, she’d use the bathrooms, get fixed up and go to work.
“I began to hear about more and more working women who had jobs but had lost their houses or apartments and were living in their cars. It became my calling.”
Her way to help the homeless
Foster, a product of southeast Detroit, had inherited her childhood home when her parents passed away. It was a four-bedroom colonial, built in 1910. Like the neighborhood, it had seen better days.
But even better days lay ahead.
In the spring of 2003, Foster, who says, “I asked God to tell me what to do,” got an idea. She decided to fix up the house, clean it, paint it, then opened its doors under a new name: The Bethlehem House.
A couple months later, a woman Foster knew from church knocked on the door. She worked in an eyeglass store, had lost her apartment, and because of credit issues, couldn’t get into another one. She had two suitcases with her, clothing she had brought, once again, from a car.
She moved in that night.
A few months later, a second woman joined her, a security company employee who’d been living in a van.
Two months later, housemate No. 3 arrived, a woman who worked at a bank.
The next month, an executive assistant at a church took the fourth room.
Foster, 61, who lives with her husband about 15 minutes away, kept a key and came whenever she wanted. But she trusted the women to keep the place clean, cook their own meals and obey certain rules (stay employed, no drugs, no male visitors). Otherwise, they came and went as they pleased.
Foster visited often. It made her smile to see her childhood bedroom being used by women who needed a hand.
“In 13 years, there hasn’t been one bad person,” she says. “The friendships they make are so special. They can live with dignity, they can get their lives back together and their credit issues straight. The house may not be a lot to look at on the outside, but there’s love on the inside.”
Home is where her heart is
With all the current events that overwhelm us — random shootings, the Flint water crisis — it often feels that there is no act big enough to help. Maybe doing something small is an answer. Deborah Foster didn’t have an apartment building or a large shelter or a nonprofit organization. But she had a house at 5063 Van Dyke, near Gratiot.
And she had a heart.
And so today, the longtime radio industry veteran has given shelter, she says, to more than 65 women. “I’ve had an attorney for the 36th District Court, teachers, registered nurses. Most have just made a poor financial decision or lost their place because of somebody else’s financial issues.
“They’re not here because of drugs or things like that. Sometimes, it’s just bad things happening to good people.”
The women can stay for up to two years. They pay a nominal $70 a week to keep the place up. The shelter and comfort are the gifts Foster provides. The hugs and thank-yous are the gifts she gets back.
“If I could afford to do this full-time, I would,” she says. “My father, before he died, said he wanted me to have the house because I’d know what to do with it. I think this is what he meant.”
Foster often thinks about that night in Pontiac, and that woman in the business suit, whom she fed and never saw again. Whatever became of her, that woman, in a strange way, has helped dozens more like her. And inspired Foster to turn an empty house into a home.