A Detroit’s Snapshot: From College-Educated to Homeless

DEADLINE DETROIT  | December 8th, 2014, 9:30 AM

Mark Jacobs, an attorney and longtime community activist, is involved in nonprofit work and is chairman of Heart 2 Hart Detroit, a nonprofit organization that feeds and clothes Detroit’s homeless population. It relies on donations and volunteers. This is the first in a series featuring homeless people in Detroit.

By Mark Jacobs

“I am Detroit,” says J.R. Mills, as he gazes at the Detroit River and looks for answers that do not come. If you had met J.R. 10 years ago, you would think – you would know – that this is exactly the kind of man that will be part of Detroit’s turnaround. J.R. was a rising star: college educated, quick-minded, an infectious smile and a passion to serve his community. He was strong and ambitious, with a loving family and a good job. With a natural gift for gab, J.R. could inspire others and it didn’t take long for people to take notice, from employers to city leaders. J.R. was going places, on the fast track, or so it seemed. But that was before it all crashed, and now he spends his days mostly alone, homeless, injured and frightened, staring at the River and trying to collect his thoughts.

J.R. Mills

J.R. Mills

There was a time when life came easy for J.R. He loved to study and learn new and challenging things. He started college at Wayne State before transferring to the University of Michigan, his dream school. He loved engineering, especially electronic graphic engineering, and landed a job at Delphi and collected numerous advanced vocational certificates.

He was all about helping Detroit, especially people who were down on their luck. He got involved in the Detroit Action Commonwealth, an organization that, ironically, fights poverty, homelessness and injustice. He rose through the ranks and became one of its leaders. Soon he caught the eye of a local councilman, and became a media spokesman. He appeared on tv, including a WDIV commercial for the Detroit Rescue Mission. He believed in the city’s rebirth and thought that he, with all his skills and eastside pride, could play a vital role.

J.R.’s crash was sudden. Several years ago, while waiting for his friends to celebrate his birthday, a scuffle erupted and he got shot in the arm. The wound never quite healed and he had no health insurance. He lost his job, couldn’t find other employment, his benefits ran out and had no long-term place to go. Another casualty in Detroit. Just like that.

Today, J.R.’s life is no longer about the promise of tomorrow; it’s about the daily struggle for survival. “The benches are too scary to sleep on,” he says, “and so I usually go from casino to casino until 6:00 am when I can go to St. Peters for a shower.” He gets many of his meals and clothes from Heart 2 Hart, a local non-profit that aids the homeless.

He wants people to know that there are homeless people like him, people who once were educated, determined, going places. We walk by many of these people and may dismiss them as untidy, unambitious, maybe a drug addict or an ex-con. But among the almost 20,000 homeless Detroiters are many people that don’t fit that mold, people who are literally left out in the cold. “I don’t just speak for myself,” he emphasizes, “I am Detroit.”

J.R. stares at the Detroit River every night and prays. Gazing at the cold water, alone, a long way from the University of Michigan and the bright future he was certain was just around the corner, he asks the Lord for guidance and safety.

And he throws in the one wish that he believes can turn his luck around: “I just want a job.”


A Snapshot: The Stories and Faces of Detroit’s Homeless

DEADLINE DETROIT  |  October 19th, 2014, 9:29 PM

Mark Jacobs, an attorney and longtime community activist, is involved in nonprofit work and is chairman of Heart 2 Hart Detroit, a nonprofit organization that feeds and clothes Detroit’s homeless population. It relies on donations and volunteers. This is the first in a series featuring homeless people in Detroit.

By Mark Jacobs

Willie Foster is gazing at the traffic on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit.

The streets of Detroit have been his home for four months now, and he spends his days staring at his surroundings, struggling to survive and trying to piece together how he got to this point.

Willie Foster

Willie Foster

Just yesterday, it sometimes seems to him, he had a loving family and home in North Carolina. But that was a very long time ago, before Vietnam changed him forever.

When Willie returned home to North Carolina from two tours of duty in Vietnam, 22 months altogether, he no longer resembled the young man who had left.

Grief-stricken, confused and angry, he eventually made the biggest mistake of his life.

One night he and his buddies committed an armed robbery and before he knew it, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and he served every minute of it.

He’s free now, released just four months ago, but must somehow figure out how to get by in an unrecognizable world. It’s not clear exactly how he landed in Detroit.

The anger is gone as is the tough guy, but, at age 64, he’s broken, sad, alone, frightened and homeless, one of about 20,000 in the Motor City.

Willie loves trucks. He once drove a big rig, as did his father and grandfather. It was what the Fosters did in North Carolina, and Willie carried that mantle, if ever so briefly.

When a big truck rolls past him on Jefferson Avenue, for a quick moment his heart warms and a slight smile passes his lips. It’s the closest he’ll come to a smile all day.

Willie went thirty years without seeing a truck. His meals and clothes were supplied to him, but his spirit died within those walls.

Thirty years, another lifetime ago.

When he was released, he had no clue where to go or whom to seek. His only focus these days is on the basics: food, clothing and shelter.

The furthest he can think ahead is the knowledge that a Michigan winter is right around the corner, and he fears he’ll freeze to death one night in Hart Plaza, where he currently calls home.

He left Vietnam over 40 years ago but, like so many other veterans, he still can’t shake it.

His mind is consumed with horrific flashbacks, and he still sheds spontaneous tears that he doesn’t understand.

He never got the help he needed to deal with those flashbacks, and these days, a time when he must especially rely on his survival skills, the ghosts of Vietnam haunt his soul and paralyze his body.

He didn’t die in those jungles, his name is not listed among the dead on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., but Willie’s a living victim, nonetheless.

We walk past Willie and, if we notice him at all, we see an elderly homeless man, clearly weathered by a hard life. To most, Willie’s just another homeless guy, barely visible to our busy eyes.

We await Detroit’s rebirth, and guys like Willie are an inconvenient eyesore to our vision of what that rebirth should look like.

But Willie’s story is inextricably part of America’s story. Boyhood aspirations, family traditions, a faraway war that changed it all, personal struggles, poverty and, finally, consequences.

We don’t see Willie, but he sees us. What must we look like to him as he sits alone, hungry and frightened, watching us scurry about to our lunch dates, meetings and ball games?


Share the Warmth: Annual coat drive underway

Local 4 is teaming up with Tapper’s Jewelry and Morgan Stanly for an annual coat drive.

Heart to Hart Detroit is one of the many organizations that benefit from the generous donations.

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H2HD 2014 Funraiser Event Video

Heart 2 Hart Detroit hosted its annual fundraiser at the Orchard Lake Country Club on August 16, 2014. The event benefited the organization’s mission of providing food, clothing and support to Detroit’s homeless population.

Heart 2 Hart Detroit Annual Fundraiser 2014

From DBusiness / Events and Party Pictures:

Heart 2 Hart Detroit hosted its annual fundraiser at the Orchard Lake Country Club on Aug. 16. The event benefited the organization’s mission of providing food and clothing to Detroit’s homeless population.

View photos by Patrick Gloria

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Heart to Hart Detroit delivering essentials to those in need

WJBK  |   Jan 24, 2014 4:29 PM EST
Heart to Hart Detroit, as in the human heart to Hart Plaza, is a local nonprofit foundation that delivers essential supplies to the homeless and people in need in Detroit. The foundation sends a car at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays that is full of essential items like socks, hand warmers and food.

“It might be food; it might be compassion; it might be just someone that they can count on and that’s what we do,” says Larry Oleinick. He and his team are trying to service as many people as possible and are now in need of a bigger vehicle to transport the items downtown.

To those like Christina, who is currently living and sleeping on the streets, this help makes a world of difference.

“No matter what happens, as cold as you get, as bad as people are to you on the street, you’ve got somebody that knows you’re here and that’s looking for you on a daily basis. I know I’m going to get fed. I know I’m going to be warm. I know I’m going to get to smile at least once a day,” she tells FOX 2’s Jason Carr.


Interviewed by Mitch Albom

We were interviewed by Mitch Albom for his show The Heart of Detroit airing Thursdays during Local 4 News (WDIV-Detroit) at 5 p.m. The Heart of Detroit shares inspiring stories of metro Detroiters who make others less hungry, less troubled, less impoverished or just a little happier.

We Appreciated Tigers Icons, But Did We Care About Them?

DEADLINE DETROIT  |  August 3rd, 2013, 5:39 PM

Mark Jacobs, an attorney and longtime community activist, is involved in nonprofit work and is chairman of Heart 2 Hart Detroit, a nonprofit organization committed to feeding and clothing Detroit’s homeless population.

By Mark Jacobs

Mark Jacobs, an attorney and longtime community activist, is involved in nonprofit work and is chairman of Heart 2 Hart Detroit, a nonprofit organization committed to feeding and clothing Detroit’s homeless population.

““Dreadlock Mike” Alston was buried on Saturday, alongside his street pal, James Van Horn. The two homeless men were fixtures outside the Tigers’ games.

The fans affectionately called out their names, gave them spare change and shared a brief smile as they entered and exited the ballpark.

And when the fans were gone, Eat Em Up and Dreadlock Mike were alone again, roaming the streets in search of food, warmth and shelter, until one summer night when a driver killed them both and drove away.

Eat Em Up’s funeral was on Friday and Mike’s was on Saturday. I was at Mike’s funeral. A nonprofit group I’m with, Heart 2 Hart Detroit, had helped Mike out from time to time, and we felt compelled to attend the funeral and pay our respects.
The funeral was attended by approximately 40 people, a mixed crowd of ages and races, each having their own reasons to be there. Mike’s family recalled the man the public never knew, the Mike who had no catchy nickname, and for 30 minutes or so we heard a piece of Mike Alston’s story.

Mike was 55, the eldest of 5 children. He was educated in Detroit Public Schools and later worked at Chrysler. His sister tearfully recalled her big brother’s big heart and his over-protectiveness over her when they were kids.

She told us how her brother never stopped trying to turn his life around. She and a cousin told stories of Mike’s boyhood and alluded to a “traumatic teenage experience” that led him to life on the mean streets of Detroit.

There was a powerful eulogy, some poignant comments from an old friend of Mike’s, State Senator Bert Johnson, and then lots of hugs from strangers to the gracious family.

But beyond the warmth of the moment, it was the unsaid words that were most profound: what happened to this man, and where were we when it was happening?

Mike was 1 of 20,000 homeless people in Detroit, a mass of people that includes children, veterans, the mentally ill and other victims.

In death, Mike was praised as a Detroit icon, a man who alongside his buddy were  part of the colorful and  fun experience of going to a Tigers’ game.

They were the guys you’d high five, yell out their name and maybe toss them a quarter as you flooded in and out of a game. But, in reality, as we exited to the suburbs these two men went back to their struggle for survival. And then one summer night they died a violent death.

So where were we? And where are we today with the other thousands of other homeless people who  are hungry, tired, vulnerable  and frightened at this very moment you’re reading these words?

“What are we doing? What are we doing?”, State Senator Johnson implored the crowd.

It was the question of the day, and of these harsh times in our beloved but troubled city.

Heart 2 Hart are regular guys helping the homeless


by Terry Foster

Detroit — His name is Eric and he wore a sport jacket and neck tie Wednesday. His new attire symbolizes the transition in his life.

Eric and other homeless came to meet the good folks at Heart 2 Hart Detroit, a group of area folks that distribute clothes, food and love every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Hart Plaza and other places around downtown Detroit.

Eric said he is a former drug addict and alcoholic that spent nights in Hart Plaza. He was lost in life aimlessly roaming the streets downtown, grabbing hobo showers in Cobo Arena when the bathrooms opened in the morning.

Now he is in transition housing and hopes to have a permanent home soon. He is also looking for a job. Eric is one of the main reasons why I’ve decided to make Hart 2 Heart Detroit one of two organizations that I plan to help as we try to try to battle this homeless problem in Detroit.

I was told there are 20,000 homeless in Metro Detroit and there are 1,900 beds for them.

I met Chairman Mark Jacobs and Founder Larry Oleinick from Heart 2 Hart to see the work they do. They packed cars with boxed lunches of a turkey or peanut butter sandwiches and socks. They even got a case of T-shirts from the Detroit Pistons this day. They do this every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon rain, snow or sun.

They are just a bunch of regular people that need help to help others. They told me they are barely making it and I want us all to join in and help them with their mission of feeding the homeless and helping them get off the streets.

They need food, socks, gloves, jackets, sleeping bags, baby wipes and have a new request of cologne. Their website is h2hd.org and I ask that you visit their site to see how you can help. I plan to donate and champion their causes to my 45,000 followers on twitter, face book and on this blog.

Every little bit helps.

I wanted to do this after seeing so many homeless laying on the streets downtown near steam vents as I walked to my car after Lions games. The jolt to finally act happened when two Detroit sports icons, the Eat ‘Em Up Tigers guy and Dreadlock Mike were killed when they were hit by a car.

It was time for me to do something to help.

I found a similar group that goes out into the streets. I will tell you about that group on Friday.

(Join me tonight at Dirty Jerseys in Windsor (7:30 – 9:30 pm) as I sell and sign my book 100 Things Tiger Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. Books are $15 or two for $25 and part of the proceeds will help Heart 2 Hart Detroit.)



Officials Turn Blind Eye to Detroit’s Growing Homeless Crisis

DEADLINE DETROIT   | June 3rd, 2013, 8:45 AM

By Mark Jacobs

Detroit teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, but that hasn’t stopped self-proclaimed experts from laying out big bold visions for the city’s turnaround.

Mayoral candidates, business leaders and policy wonks on Mackinac Island are all quick to expound on how Detroit can once again be a great American city. But for all their sage advice on economic revitalization, once again there’s barely a peep on how to solve the city’s mounting homeless crisis, which has swelled to approximately 20,000 people.

While Detroit is hardly alone in facing a homeless crisis, many other cities have addressed it head on with both words and actions. Some cities have dedicated homeless departments and city-sponsored housing, transportation and counseling services.

Santa Monica holds fundraisers, conferences and publishes a monthly newsletter on homelessness. Denver has specially designated parking meters where the money goes to homeless aid. Chicago set up a Task Force on Homeless Youth. Philadelphia established a Supportive Housing department for the homeless. And Dallas operates a city homeless resource center called ‘The Bridge’.

Detroit tried in past years to address the issue, but between mayoral scandals, economic collapse and now a state takeover, the plight of the city’s homeless problem has once again settled into a mostly silent backseat.

“No one’s talking about it anymore within the city government”, says the director of a local housing shelter. “There’s just no conceptual vision on what to do about homelessness.”

Mind-Boggling Number of Homeless

The statistics on homelessness in Detroit are mind-boggling. Of the approximately 20,000 homeless people in Detroit, there are only enough shelter beds for about 1,900.

Twenty-five percent of the homeless are children, 13% are veterans, about 60% are families with children and almost half are mentally ill. State mental institutions closures, shelter shutdowns and early prison release programs have literally pushed ill-prepared people into the streets of Detroit, adding to an already dire situation.

The remaining shelters are full, often turning people away and furiously trying to provide basic survival services to people who are often hungry, cold, ill and traumatized.

“There’s no hope here for these people,” says David Allen, homeless services at Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO). “They don’t even know what it is anymore.”

The Tumaini Center on Third Avenue, run by NSO, gets a daily reality check of Detroit’s homeless crisis. The Center is one of the few shelters that remain open 24 hours every day.

High Number With Mental Illness

It provides a respite to 150 people a day on a first-come basis. But there is a catch: there are no beds, only chairs. Residents enter a bleak, bright room after passing through a metal detector. Well over 90% of the people there suffer from mental illness. Outside an assorted crowd of homeless people and drug dealers (food stamps for crack) congregate.

The hospitals and jails routinely drop people off, including recently a person who is a quadriplegic, as well as post-surgery patients, people who have frostbite or are  disoriented or deathly ill.

“We’re a dumping ground, there’s a lot of broken spirits here,” says Reggie Huff, Tumaini’s Director of Homeless Services.

Last month a woman gave birth there and EMS took her to the hospital. She was returned two days later with the baby, but the shelter doesn’t accept children.

Recently a man sitting on a chair keeled over and died. It was a another anonymous person picked up by the morgue and untracked by the city.

One Homeless Man Was a Harlem Globetrotter

The Center’s regular residents include a former Harlem Globetrotter and a Houston Astro. Their glory days over, the Center is now their last resort. “This is the last rung,” says Joe Healy, NSO’s VP of Real Estate Development and Management.

All of the homeless shelters in the city face similar challenges, leaving many of the staff feeling overwhelmed and not particularly optimistic.

Lewis Hickson has been fighting for the homeless in Detroit for over 40 years, going back to the early days of Gleaners and C.O.T.S.

Currently the Operations Manager at Tunaimi, Hickson does not believe he’s ever seen real leadership from the city on homelessness, “and it’s even less of a priority now” in light of the appointment of the Emergency Manager.

‘The city is just unfocused on homelessness. I’m discouraged”, he says.

Burden Rests With Nonprofits

As Hickson sees it, the real leaders are the nonprofit organizations operating to eliminate homelessness, all linked to the diligent leadership of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit (H.A.N.D). H.A.N.D. serves as the strategic quarterback for solutions to homelessness in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park. Members include many of the brightest local visionaries, yet they encounter constant barriers to success, often from Lansing.

Many shelter workers see politically popular proposals as merely a prescription for more homelessness.

Proposed legislation to cut off welfare benefits for failed drug testers, for example, or laws seeking to eliminate social services for certain criminals may be ostensibly appealing, but for those battling the city’s homeless crisis these laws “will only put more people into homelessness” notes Allen.

Lawmakers, he says, “just don’t get it”.

Soon the mayoral race will heat up, and we will hear grandiose plans for the city’s rebirth. We’ll want to believe it’s all possible. But if the city fails to truly launch and lead an all-out war on homelessness, Detroiters will be talking about its even greater homeless crisis in a generation.