Party On, But Keep On Giving

by | Feb 2, 2006 | Detroit Free Press | 1 comment

A homeless man spots me across the shelter table.

“You the fellow from the news, right?”

I nod.

“See, I told you guys.”

Two other men shrug.

“So,” the first man says, “you staying here now?”

I am not staying here. I am spending a night, that’s all. There are two sides to everything, and the other side of the Super Bowl plays out just a few miles from the glitter of the parties and the bustle around Ford Field. Here, in a homeless shelter on Third Street called the Detroit Rescue Mission, men line up before suppertime in a muddy alley behind the building. They are patted down. They are signed in. They are given a bed number. They are offered disinfectant, and paper towels for the mattress.

On Tuesday, I did this with them – checked in, ate there, slept there, woke up there – not to pretend I was homeless, but to try to tell their Super Bowl story. It is not meant to take away from Detroit’s Super Bowl story. Detroit deserves its party.

But the Super Bowl is the world’s largest movable feast, and you shouldn’t feast without at least acknowledging – and, hopefully, helping – those who will never make it to your table.

This week, Detroit’s homeless will get increased police “attention” and a three-day shelter “party,” which, along with giving them something to do, will conveniently keep them out of sight. When I wrote about this shelter last week, readers responded with incredible generosity. They understood that when the game is gone, these men will be back to where they are now, coming in off the streets to sit under the dim lighting of a cafeteria. They are bearded men, crooked-nosed men, men in soiled clothes, men with limps, intelligent men, babbling men, men who speak up, men who keep their heads down.

The first thing you learn in a homeless shelter is that there are a lot of ways to become homeless.

“Can I ask you a question – off the record?” a bony man with thinning hair named Gene asks me.

Off the record?

“Yeah. Who do you think is gonna win the Super Bowl?”

He is wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt.

“Pittsburgh,” I say.

“I think so, too,” he says.

He rubs his chin. He asks if I’m staying the night. I say yes. He doesn’t seem fazed. I ask him how long he has been like this, with no place else to go.

“A few months. But it’s gonna get better. You gotta have hope every day, right?”

Thousands of stories

There are several thousand homeless in Detroit shelters on any given night. Some are down on their luck. Some are mentally ill. Some are recently released from jail. Some are virtually dumped off from the hospital.

“There are times when a cab pulls up here and a man gets out still wearing green hospital pants,” says Marcella Allam, 50, the shelter’s counselor.

Doesn’t matter. There is no status at this place, only rules: no drugs, booze or weapons. Everyone gets a bed, a shower, a chance at fresh clothes and a dinner – on this night, it is fish and potatoes. There is a voluntary chapel service, also held in the cafeteria, which is also where men will later play dominoes and watch a fuzzy television screen.

Space is at a premium. There are cold nights when every bed will be taken, and men will have to sleep in chairs, resting their heads on a table or a wall.

Sitting with these men, I hear many stories: Most are from Detroit. Most had work at one time. Most wear boots, jeans, layers of shirts, sweatshirts, cheap coats. They look similar. But their reasons vary.

There is Darryl, a Vietnam veteran who had never been to a shelter, until the loss of his wife and the arrival of cancer sank him. There is John, who says he was struck in the face by muggers at a bus stop, and they broke his occipital bone, and he lost his job. “I was renting a room at the King’s Arms Hotel, $85 a week,” he says. “But I don’t have that right now.”

There is Andre, who says he played basketball in high school and doesn’t look much older than that now. There is a tall man named Claude who – like a surprisingly large number of the occupants – reads the newspaper and watches television.

I ask him about the homeless being “rounded up” during Super Bowl week.

“Yeah, the police are doing more of that,” Claude says. “Telling us to get going to someplace. But I understand it. We got all these people here for the Super Bowl. We can’t be hitting them panhandling, asking for money.”

Does he feel shut out of the celebration?

“I’m from Detroit,” he says, proudly. “For me, if this Super Bowl can help bring the city back to respect, that would be the greatest thing in my lifetime.”

Here is our most unlikely civic booster.

Pointed in right direction

Sleep and shelter is what these men have come for, and by early evening the room full of bunk beds is filled to capacity, and the air is warm and smells slightly foul. Some men, despite the mattresses, sleep as if they are still on the ground in an alley, ignoring the pillow and blanket, scrunching instead into a ball, holding their possessions in a locked grip against their chests.

I have been given a bed upstairs, in transitional housing, where those homeless who have agreed to seek help for their issues can stay longer term. There a man named Darryl slumps in a couch and asks if I’ve ever been out of the country.

I tell him I have. He asks what countries. I tell him.

“Man,” he says. “I’d like to go there.”

He is here, instead, he says, because his girlfriend used up his money for a drug habit. He is a truck driver, but he owes money on old bills. Soon, he says, he is getting out. Soon. Most of the men plan to get out “soon.”

Before midnight, I wander back to the cafeteria area. A few men remain in chairs, rubbing their heads, some mumbling. A TV drones softly. A few new faces come in. Although the shelter tells people they must be in by 8 o’clock, “the truth is, we won’t turn anyone away,” says Bill Pilgrim, the Detroit Rescue Mission director.

A small, skinny man wants to use the phone. A security guard, Riley Jordan, firmly tells him no, the phones are not for personal use. The man shrugs and sinks back down. Jordan and I enter the common bed area, where 60 to 70 men are sleeping. It is dark and quiet, save for snoring.

“Did you know I spent 20 years of my life doing crack?” Jordan says quietly. “Finally, I came here. They got me straightened out.

“I’m not ashamed of where I’ve been. I’m just glad I found a place like this. Now I know what I’m here for – God is getting a message through me …”

He points to the beds.

“To them.”

The room is so dark. The beds are so close. Fans crank from the back of the room to keep the stale air circulating. So many men, just lumps under sheets or blankets. You can’t help thinking every one of them was once a baby in his mother’s arms.

I go upstairs, get in the bed. Someone through the wall is coughing loudly.

Helping the multitudes

“Good morning!” the staff member bellows. “How we doing this morning?”

It is still dark outside, not yet 6 a.m., but the cafeteria is already full, most of the men in the clothes they slept in, some half-asleep on the tabletop.

“Good morning!” he repeats. “Who got you up this morning?”

“God did!” a few men answer.

“That’s what I’m talking about. God did! Now, anyone want to say a prayer?”

A man from the back speaks up. He is an older man, his voice thin. “Thank you, Lord, for getting us up this morning …”

Before the morning is finished, hundreds of men will come through this room and line up for a bowl of oatmeal, two sausage links, an English muffin, a packet of honey sauce and a Styrofoam cup of coffee. Some come down the steps, some bang on the door, some line up in the alley behind the building. A nearby shelter whose plumbing has broken sends over its people to use the facilities. Tables are cleaned, moved, cleaned, moved again. There seems to be no end to the hungry people who wait patiently – not a single incident of pushing or cutting or confrontation.

I pick at the oatmeal between a young, talkative man named Anthony and a pruned, bearded man who says he is from Thomasville, Ga.

“You know what they make in Thomasville, Ga.?” he asks.


“Furniture. Yes, sir. And they got pecan trees 300 years old.”

He is missing most of his top teeth.

“Hey,” Anthony says, “you that newscaster, right?”

I shrug.

“You going to the Super Bowl?”

We are five minutes from the stadium. We are five minutes from the media parties, the DJs, the limos. We are five minutes from the packed hotels, the Winter Blast, the NFL Experience.

We are a million miles away.

A way to do more

So what is the point of this story? I did nothing special or brave. I spent a night with some hard-luck cases, brushed my teeth next to an old man, slept poorly, ate a bowl of oatmeal, and did a lot of talking. I was merely a witness to events that happen every day.

But a Super Bowl isn’t every day. And with the money that is circulating in our town this week – game tickets selling for thousands, parties rumored to cost millions – well, it’s a waste of this column not to make at least one appeal on behalf of those who aren’t going anywhere near Super Bowl XL.

We started a fund last week called S.A.Y. Detroit – Super All Year Detroit – to try to raise money to keep the Detroit Rescue Mission going 24 hours a day and to add beds, a mental health professional and a staffed 24-hour van. The idea was that if we could boost our homeless efforts for one football weekend, we could at least do the same until the winter weather was over.

As it turns out, other programs need help as well. A walk-in shelter down the street is receiving daily meals and drop-off service for 10 days – until the Super Bowl ends.

And then, according to National Service Organization president Sheilah Clay, “It’s going to stop – unless we can get some new funding.

“We had a lady eating out of a garbage can this morning. She didn’t know we were offering food. But next week, we won’t be able to.”

I don’t know about you, but knowing someone is eating from a garbage can this week – while we are feasting on steak and lobster a few miles away – doesn’t sit well with me.

It is not a knock on Detroit. Detroit does as good a job as any big city. Every Super Bowl host faces this dilemma. But we have a chance to do something about it – both Detroiters and our welcome guests. We can raise money – we already have raised more than $57,000 in a week – and boost our homeless services – for numerous shelters and organizations – beyond one fantastic football weekend.

If you can give something – and yes, it is tax deductible – here is a phone number: 313-993-4700.

Here is a Web address: [updated]

Here is an address for checks: SAY Detroit, 29836 Telegraph Road, Southfield, MI 48034. [updated]

After one restless night in a shelter, a four-inch mattress, a group bathroom, a late-night card game, I can’t pretend to tell you what it’s like to be homeless.

But I can tell you that it felt longer than one night. And few of us – myself included – know how “super” we really have it.


Here’s a list of some homeless shelters people can contribute to:

•Coalition on Temporary Shelter: 26 Peterboro, Detroit 48201. 313-831-3777

•Detroit Rescue Mission: 3535 Third, Detroit 48201. 313-993-6703

•New Day Multipurpose Center and Shelter: 511 S. Post, Detroit 48209. 313-842-9117

•Grace Centers of Hope: 35 E. Huron, Pontiac 48342. 248-334-2187

•MATTS (Macomb’s Answer To Temporary Shelter): 4844 E. Nine Mile Rd., Warren 48091. 586-755-5191

•Salvation Army: Harbor Light Center, 2643 Park, Detroit 48201, 313-361-6136; 34 Oakland, Pontiac 48059, 248-334-2407; 55 Church, Mt. Clemens 48043, 586-469-6712

1 Comment

  1. Theresa Ramus

    This experience truly must of been an eye opener for you. It gave you such an insight to the situation that exists.


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