HOW TO RESCUE A LIFE

Second of three parts

Oliver!”

“Yo.”

The man in the ski cap – who had his frostbitten toes amputated a few years ago – steps out and waves a hand, then walks to a vinyl mattress with a gray wool blanket. This will be his bed for the night, a few feet from one just like it.

“Johnson! … Kelly! … Junior!”

The church elder calling the names is perched 15 feet above the homeless men, on a deck that hangs precariously over the gym floor. His given name is Anthony Castelow – he is “Cass” to everyone here – and his face is rounded by a graying beard. He wears glasses, a brown coat, he holds a clipboard and, although he’s only 49, flashes a mostly toothless smile, having lost the teeth, he says, to “too many drugs and fights.”

He also lost a leg to diabetes.

He has a scar on his head, from the butt of a gun.

And he had triple-bypass surgery a few years ago.

Ah, but once …

Once he was a promising athlete at Detroit’s Murray-Wright High School, less than 2 miles up the street. He was a three-sport star, he recalls, and his varsity jacket was crammed with letters from football, basketball and baseball. He played on the 1979 hoops team that won the Public School League championship and was part of the “comeback kids” team that edged Birmingham Brother Rice in the Operation Friendship title game by a single point. And, he says, he still can feel the impact of a tackle he made on a fourth-and-1 against Detroit Chadsey star Marion Barber Jr. – the father of the Dallas Cowboys running back – that stopped Barber dead in his tracks and preserved a victory.

“Ooh, that kid,” Cass recalls, “he was hard to bring down.”

Sixty-two men are listed on Cass’ clipboard. Sixty-two men who will sleep on the floor at Pilgrim Church this December night. They do not have homes. They do not have cars. They do not have health insurance, credit cards, mailing addresses or jobs that are expecting them tomorrow. They are invisible in many ways. They are invisible to you, to the city, to the cars that roll past heading to the casino just a few blocks away.

But they bed down here, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, in the basement of a church that has no heat, a floor at the bottom of the world.

They were not always this way.

They have memories, same as you.

Some are about glory days.

Growing up in the projects

“I was a really good athlete,” Cass says. “When I played football, I played four different positions, and I was captain of the team. In basketball, I played small forward and guard. Oh, we had great teams at Murray-Wright. They would chant for us, ‘We refuse … to lose … to you!’ “

He laughs as he repeats the chant. “We refuse to lose!”

“Anyhow, I had some interest from colleges, Wayne State and U of D around here. But I broke my ankle and I ended up going to a little junior college in West Point, Miss. I only lasted about a year and a half. I got in a few fights – it was like North versus South down there – and a sheriff told me that it’s time for me to go home.”

“Home” for Cass was the notorious Jeffries Projects in Detroit, which in the ’70s and ’80s had become a haven for gangs and drugs, a place so lawless that tenants sometimes shot at outsiders from the rooftops.

Cass had been raised there from childhood, one of six brothers and a sister living with his mother. He never knew his father, until one day, when he was 9, a man came up to him and said, “How you doing?”

“I hollered up to our window, ‘Ma, who is this man messing with me?’ She said, ‘That’s your daddy.’

“But after that, he never did try and get in touch with me again.”

Life in the Jeffries Projects was hard enough as a child. As a young man, there wasn’t much hope. Drugs called your name – buying, selling, using, and pretty soon Cass was hooked on everything, he says, “crack cocaine, weed, alcohol, a little heroin.”

The rest unfolds like many Detroit drug stories. His sports life faded. His body thinned and grew dependent. In time, the shame of his addiction led him to the streets.

“You don’t want to go home, because you’re in the household with five boys and you’re the second oldest and the little brothers is looking upwards to you and saying, ‘Well, if he can do drugs.’… I guess you could say it was pride. I would rather live in the streets than do that to them.”

His first night as a homeless man still burns in his memory. He went to a warming shelter operated by the Neighborhood Service Organization, and he peeked inside and saw hundreds of men, just sitting in chairs, gazing out to nowhere.

“I had never been homeless. I was asking, ‘Do you get to eat here?’ They said no. There wasn’t no beds, either. I didn’t want to stay there, so I left and walked around until I found this empty house, not far from where I grew up. And I kicked in the back door. And I stayed there, on and off, for three years.”

What happened after three years?

“They knocked it down,” he says.

Finding a helping hand

Cass went on that way until his middle 30s. There was a night when a pipe burst and he was nearly washed away. There was a night when he came into an apartment building where he had been squatting and “a guy hit me over the head with a .44 Magnum. He left me there for dead with my pants pulled down and my pockets turned out. I never did get the whole story. But they busted my skull. See?”

He ducks his head and shows a worm-like scar.

“Somebody woke me up the next day. I was bleeding. ‘Get up, get up,’ they said. ‘That guy like to have killed you!’ I told myself, ‘OK, I’m really homeless.’ “

Anthony Castelow might have died on our streets, another silent death that doesn’t make the papers, were it not for a man named Henry Covington – the pastor of Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries – whom Cass first heard about as this guy who gave out food from his home on Lincoln Street.

Hungry as he was, Cass began showing up regularly. He offered to help unload food from the trucks, but applied a “one for the church, one for me” approach, stealing hams, corned beef, anything he could sell to feed his drug habit. Then one day Covington said, “You don’t have to steal. If you’re hungry, I’ll feed you.”

“Nobody ever said that to me before,” Cass recalls. “I ended up staying with him for months. He let me live in his house. I been to rehab three different times. It never worked. But one day, the Rev said, ‘You done tried everything else. Why don’t you try God? I’ll help you.’ “

Today, Cass is an elder at Covington’s congregation. He leads Bible studies. He does administration. All for no pay, because nobody here gets paid. How can they? There are no dues. There are virtually no sources of income, save the odd contributions from outsiders. The heat has been cut off by DTE Energy. Kerosene air blowers try to keep things warm.

Cass, meanwhile, goes on cheerfully as “The Keeper Of The Door,” a man with a ring of keys as thick as a softball. He checks the homeless in on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and he assigns them tasks, because nobody can spend the night here if he doesn’t contribute in some way.

Cass says he has been clean for more than a decade. He is married now, with seven children between him and his wife. He has his own small apartment. But mostly he is here, in the halls of this church, or in a chair by the door, or sitting on the stairs next to his crutches, chatting with despairing clients, people who remind him of himself a few years back. Sometimes he talks about God. Sometimes he talks sports.

He does it, he says, because someone – Henry Covington – did it for him.

“I would say you almost need a jump start like that once you out in the streets. Us people in the street, we live carefree, and then we slowly start losing the reality that we can do anything else. You figure if the church feeds, you’re gonna eat. If the church sleeps, you’ll go to sleep.

“But you don’t have visions for doing any better – until someone actually restarts you.”

He calls more names from his clipboard now, some just phony names the men give themselves -“John … Willie …”- and one by one they move to their mattresses. The air smells of fried catfish from dinner, and the lighting is so dim and muted the whole thing seems surreal. Christmas is just days away. It is blowing snow outside Cass’ door. He stays on task and marks his list.

Once he played in a city championship, once he made a crushing tackle and won trophies and wore a varsity letter jacket. Now his crutches sit nearby, one leg and many teeth are gone, but he still smiles and thanks God for his life, and you wonder how and you wonder why and you wonder a million things, but mostly you wonder this: How can this world and our world go on day after day, night after night, in the same city, so close in proximity, yet as far apart as heaven and earth?

“Us people in the street … we slowly start losing the reality that we can do anything else.”ANTHONY (CASS) CASTELOW, 49, a formerly homeless Detroiter.

The final part of this series will appear in Wednesday’s Free Press. 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.

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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