Holy f*ck, It’s cold today. Did you hear they said it was warmer on Mars? Wow, my beard froze almost instantly! Who lives outside in this!? I could hardly stand the hour I spent walking around Ann Arbor while I looked for people who might need the supplies I was carrying in this backpack. I don’t know how they do it. Sadly(?) on this day, I only found one person in need, but she was far too disturbed to accept my help. As I stood on the corner, I watched her talk to her cart. She seemed rather upset by a recent encounter with the police and was in no state to accept my gift.
I asked her how she was doing andhow long she was spending outside today. She responded that she was very angry and simply couldn’t deal with me right now. I watched her meander off into the distance as I made my best attempt to shelter myself from the wind. Although most have been hit with economic hardships, mental health is also factor for those living on the streets. With 1 in 10 being afflicted by a mental disability and 1 in 10 of those being a veteran, it’s a serious problem (www.Michigan.gov/mshda). Many people just aren’t aware of the help available to them.
For starters… how do I give this backpack away? Sometimes it’s obvious and a person in need will be sitting on the corner with a witty sign, asking for help. Very often though, it isn’t easy or obvious at all. Walking around Detroit and observing people made me sympathize even more with those on the streets. Why stand out? So few people are willing to make eye contact, let alone offer actual assistance in some form. Looking around, it wasn’t obvious to me at first. Everyone is just bustling around with blinders focused on their next task. Occasionally though, someone seems different. They’re a bit more bundled up than necessary while “waiting for the bus”, or they’re walking in a direction that doesn’t make sense… sometimes they’re even spread out on the ground with their drink or food. How do you approach a stranger to ask if they’re homeless?
No… that’s not Frost Burn. It’s a tent city that my girlfriend and I found recently while exploring a bit of land in Ypsilanti. This vacant lot has been tied up in development with the city for over a decade and local youth have taken it over for various art projects (art- hut.org). Although the area is active, tent city residents said that they aren’t bothered by the city. It’s easy to approach this situation. On the streets of the default world though, how do you ask if they are homeless? Its one thing when they’re huddled in a doorway, covered in blankets in their attempt to find shelter from the night’s cold. It’s another thing all together to offend someone who just really hates being exposed during winter.
You’d be amazed how easy it is to make a connection when you just take a moment with a fellow human being. “How are you doing tonight? It’s so cold!”, “Are you staying warm? I’m freezing in this kilt!”, “How long will are you planning on being outside in this weather? I can’t wait to get home!” There are some amazing and tragic stories that come out when suddenly someone realizes that you are willing to listen instead of just waiting to talk.
Josh and Stephanie used to live in a house over on 8 mile and Livernois. Unfortunately, their home was firebombed by vandals for no apparent reason. They took to the streets with their two kids and a tent but even that was short lived. After their tent was destroyed by the harsh winter storm, they were fortunate enough to meet another couple willing to take them in. Their new home is an abandoned trolley that although offers better shelter from the weather, offers little solace from life on the streets. Today they spent their time being harassed by casino security for loitering near the parking entrance. They’ve been in this situation for over two years now without any end in sight.
There are many others out there with similar stories. Living in Detroit his whole life,
Raymond used to be very successful before his factory shut down. “My whole life has been ups and downs”. There’s also Mike, who has been living in Detroit since the riots in the 60s. He thinks Detroit is “coming up” and he loves the view on Woodward. Regardless of his situation, he never wants to leave the city. My favorite interaction of the night is pictured to the right. His name is TJ. He’s been on the streets since 2002 and he taught me that “the best place to hide anything is under construction barrels because no one ever messes with those”. Like Mike, TJ also loves the view on Woodward as he spends a majority of his time there pondering life. He was beaming about his recent interview for an upcoming reality show about life on the streets. TJ was easily the most cheerful and outgoing person I encountered on my journey. Lastly, I came upon Sadie, who was sleeping near a bus terminal with a blanket over her head to keep warm. I might not have noticed her at first, but she reached under a traffic cone for her blanket before settling down for the night. She was ecstatic for the help and immediately dove into her new backpack.
What am I even talking about? Backpacks. Backpacks full of winter survival supplies. Bags of love, care and concern. Hundreds of people have volunteered their time and resources to manifest these backpacks into existence. Doxie’s backpack project for Burners Without Borders has been an inspiration to the community in Detroit. They’ve stepped up and provided assistance where the local government and others in society have not. Did you know there are over 1.4 million 501c3 organizations in America (nccs.urban.org)? Many of these are run by groups and individuals who passionately volunteer their time to support and improve their locality. In our sister community Chicago, the CHIditarod Foundation collected 21,788 pounds of food and raised over $40K for the Greater Chicago Food Depository in 2014 (www.chiditarod.org). This annual charity event /race/costume contest/pub crawl/debauchery is a beautiful way to direct public and burner motivation into societal benefit that didn’t exist before.
What is my point in all of this? These organizations and efforts were all started by individuals who saw some need and were enthusiastic enough to pursue their interest. Spend five minutes really thinking about what you want to change in the world. Would you take the next step? A million problems exist, but what if you just focus on the one problem that you can’t live with anymore? By donating a few dollars or hours to some cause you support, a difference is made to someone, somewhere. The moment you reach out and connect with your neighbor might just end up being the catalyst for the next great change. Reach out to your local community like they’re a tertiary family. The next great change is you.