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.

Feeding The Hungry

By Lori Dube

When Larry Oleinick, the founder of Heart 2 Hart Detroit (H2HD), handed out his first package of food to a homeless man in Detroit’s Hart Plaza this past summer, it didn’t just feel right; it also felt familiar.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s at Passover, the living room in the Oleinick’s Oak Park home became an assembly line for creating care packages — with donated matzah, fruit and macaroons — for Jewish people living in Detroit.

The annual matzah delivery project was started by Oleinick’s father, Milton, working with the late Rabbi Solomon Gruskin of the Congregation B’nai Zion shul in Oak Park. Those Passover pilgrimages were Downtown not far from where Oleinick ventures now, three times a week, during the summer heat and the winter freeze to feed, clothe and connect with the city’s less fortunate.

“My dad taught us the importance of tzedekah, of giving back, of helping out anyone in need,” says Oleinick. “And my mom, Cru, had a heart of gold and would lend an ear to anyone who wanted to talk. What I am doing through Heart 2 Hart Detroit is an extension and a way of honoring what I learned from my folks.”

These days, Oleinick, with help from friends and relatives Ken Levy, Jeffrey Markowitz, Mark Jacobs, Harriet Kirsch, Allan Oleinick and Bill Briggs, is reaching out to a broader community than Jewish people in need. They are acting upon the fundamentally Jewish principle of tikkun olam — repairing the world — to help address Detroit’s homeless issue.

“We now hand out a dozen to 18 lunches three times a week on the streets in Downtown Detroit. I know what we are doing doesn’t solve the problem,” says Oleinick. “But if we hand food to one person that hasn’t eaten that day, or give a coat to someone who is living under the expressway overpass in the freezing cold, I know we are doing something worthwhile.

“Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, and we do that with each package we hand out and each individual we look in the eye and ask if they need shoes or socks or underwear.”

Oleinick also knows that building partnerships with individuals, businesses and organizations is the best way to have a real impact on the homeless situation. That is why his family, cousins, childhood friends and local suburban businesses and organizations like the Detroit Pistons, Tappers, the Shirt Box and Superior Materials Holdings have all come on board with the H2HD mission and have supported its work. H2HD is also networking with B’nai B’rith Great Lakes Region and the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue for contributions of clothing and toiletries and programming possibilities.

With its 501(c)(3) status in the works, H2HD, along with its board of directors, is looking to expand the mission to include more daily deliveries of lunches and clothing. Since it began in June, H2HD has distributed more than 1,000 lunches and given away more than 250 each of coats, new socks and new underwear.

“I’m proud to be a part of H2HD and offer any support I can to help them fulfill their goals of feeding and clothing Detroit’s homeless,” says Mark Jacobs of Farmington Hills, chairperson of the H2HD board of directors and also a childhood friend of Oleinick’s. “I’ve gone to Africa to help provide clean drinking water to people, but when I made the delivery Downtown with H2HD, I saw the profound needs that exist in our own backyard.”

Oleinick adds, “For me, Passover will always be a time to be with my family and to give to others. This year’s deliveries won’t have matzah in them, but they still represent the L’dor Vador tradition started by my father that I am proud to continue all year long through Heart 2 Hart Detroit.”

For more information on how to contribute or get involved with Heart 2 Hart Detroit you can visit the website at

By Lori Dube|Special to the Jewish News