In This Campaign Cycle, Barely a Peep From Candidates About the Homeless

By Mark Jacobs, Deadline Detroit,

article_landing_Screen_Shot_2015-11-04_at_12.20.11_PM_19156Another political cycle is gearing up and once again the candidates are eager to offer solutions to society’s most vexing and elusive issues. And once again, we hear barely a peep about one issue that continues to plague every state in the country: Homelessness.

The homeless population in America is now at about 600,000, roughly the number of U.S. cancer deaths last year.  Every major city in America faces the problem. In many cities, the issue has exploded into a full-blown crisis, with tens of thousands of homeless people literally ‘unsheltered’, living on sidewalks, parks, abandoned buildings or anywhere else. There are now ‘tent cities’ in many cities, which are really just mass gatherings of lost people sleeping in makeshift shelters. It’s impossible to view these scenes and not realize that something is very, very wrong here.

Candidates are barely saying word about it.

On the upside, this past year, there has been a step up in new, aggressive and often creative strategies to combat homelessness. New York City, with a staggering 60,000 homeless population, is proposing a bill to make it the first in the nation to guarantee representation for tenants facing evictions.

Its proponents argue that the measure would save the city money in the long run, as the costs of an attorney in an eviction proceeding are approximately $2,500 compared to the roughly $50K to shelter a homeless family. Hawaii, facing a surge in its homeless population, just recently declared a “state of emergency”, a proclamation that would allow the state to spend over $1.3 million to fund temporary shelters and transitional housing facilities. Last month, the city of Los Angeles, facing a 12% increase in its homeless population in the past year, also declared a “state of emergency”, calling for $100M to find solutions.

Michigan’s Homeless Problem

In Michigan, our numbers are especially daunting – about 100,000 homeless people, roughly half of whom are mentally ill, 30% are “unsheltered”, 17% are veterans, 69% are single mothers with children and the average age of a homeless child is 7.

Michigan now has the highest homeless rate in the Midwest and the 5th in the U.S.

This year has signaled a number of proactive efforts in Detroit combat homelessness.  Mayor Mike Duggan has directed the Housing and Revitalization Department to organize its “Housing First” program which brings together a coalition of aid organizations to locate housing solutions as a top priority, while also addressing the essential support services needed.  The approach is very ‘back to basics’: the solution to homelessness, the simple logic goes, is housing.

At the Detroit City Council, Councilwoman Mary Sheffield has been a beacon of leadership for the homeless, forming the Detroit Task Force on Homelessness, which has had a busy year working with private and government agencies to find safe and stable housing for the homeless.  Councilwoman Sheffield was instrumental in assuring that housing was secured last winter when the residents of Detroit’s ‘Tent City’ were forced to relocate, and she has demonstrated her continued commitment (without seeking publicity) by returning to the area and staying active to get more people off the streets.

Among the state legislature, perhaps the principal champion for the homeless is state Senator Bert Johnson.  Aside from his hands-on efforts at interviewing homeless people, Senator Johnson has formed his own Task Force comprised mostly of homeless activist groups, with the express purpose of drafting a ‘Homeless Bill of Rights’, a concept which four states have already codified into law.

The Homeless Bill of Rights (already drafted in preliminary stage) seeks to assure homeless people the express right against discrimination based on housing status.  National organizations advocating the adoption of a Homeless Bill of Rights have conducted extensive interviews with literally thousands of homeless people and have detailed a regular practice of harassment and discrimination.

A Homeless Bill of Rights would, among other things, offer legal protection for people to seek medical treatment or move freely or seek a job with facing discrimination strictly because of their housing status. Homeless advocate groups regularly hear reports of Michigan’s homeless population facing de-humanizing treatment just because they’re homeless, where it’s beaten, spat upon, arrested, physically displaced and verbally harassed.

Later this month, the week before Thanksgiving, is the annual ‘Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week’, an annual event sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless.   It’s an opportunity to spread awareness of hunger and homelessness in America, as well as to promote future involvement. The Coalition’s message is that ending homelessness is not impossible as long as the public doesn’t see it as someone else’s problem.

To most of us, the holidays are a time of over-eating and excessive consumerism. But to the hungry and homeless, the holidays are just a brutal reminder that they are literally and figuratively left out in the cold. Please consider supporting an organization that helps lift up the most vulnerable among us this coming season.


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.



Positive Progress for the Homeless in Detroit

We are thrilled to share this very positive sign of progress and hope on this difficult issue —

Residents of Detroit tent city move to housing

Christine Ferretti, The Detroit News 5:34 p.m. EST January 9, 2015

Detroit — The unofficial mayor and others residing at a makeshift tent city downtown have accepted an offer for refuge, officials confirmed Friday.

After spending seven months at the site on Jefferson, Stephon Charles Jones, the “mayor” of the tent community, agreed to a stable housing arrangement. The campers have moved to a private location within two miles of where they had been residing, said Alexis Wiley, the chief of staff for Mayor Mike Duggan.

Wiley confirmed that Jones and about 10 other campers have taken up the offer facilitated by the Neighborhood Service Organization.

News of the move comes one day after Duggan vowed to continue sending social service workers to the tents to try to move the homeless individuals into buildings. The mayor also stressed that the conditions were not safe and that the city could soon take action on the tented living quarters off east Jefferson Avenue, between Rivard and St. Aubin.

“We’re going to have to solve that,” the mayor told reporters as he toured the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center on Thursday.

In a Friday phone interview with The News, Jones said he feels good about taking the help and that it was provided to everyone. Initially, he resisted any offers for housing.

“What basically made me change my mind is everybody got the chance to move, not just one individual,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.

“I feel good about it,” he said. “Nobody is out in the cold no more.”


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.”


Happy Thanksgiving


Lots of turkey sandwiches made with extra love today, along with gloves, handwarmers and other essential items. Hopefully we put some smiles on some cold and hungry folks who are down on their luck. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all!


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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Support from Quicken Loans

Received a generous donation from Quicken Loans to help support our hunger relief efforts.

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.