The Gold Badge:
The SS Peter and Paul Warming Center

Eric C. Novack

I was looking to do a "fluff" piece for You know…one of those bleeding heart stories about an organization in the city that does good deeds. On a whim I got in contact with Brother Jim Horgan, the administrator at the SS Peter and Paul Warming Center in downtown Detroit and requested a tour in order to do a story. Brother Horgan was very receptive to the idea, in fact I had gotten the feeling he has done this sort of thing before. So I got directions from him and we agreed on the date and time for a tour of the facility. After I got off the phone I mentally patted myself on the back for arranging the tour and subsequently the story as well. I figured I'd go there see a bunch of bums, talk to Brother Horgan and his staff for ten minutes and then get myself a big fat lunch.

On February 11th I drove downtown to the SS Peter and Paul Warming Center. I was a half hour early for my appointment with Brother Horgan, but I went inside anyway. I walked into the main entrance of the Warming Center, which also happens to be the lobby of the Jesuit Church. Once inside I found the walls lined with men sitting in folding chairs holding styrofoam cups. None of the men looked in my direction as I walked in. I was prepared to be mauled or at least propositioned for some change. But the men in the chairs (who were definitely homeless) didn't seem interested in me at all - they were more fascinated with each other as they talked amongst themselves. I stood near the entrance for a second, listening to them talk about the latest news they had heard or what happened down in Cass Corridor the other day. To the left of the main lobby was another smaller lobby with a statue of Mary in it and a sign that said "Quiet Room". Several men were lying on the floor with foam mattresses underneath them taking a nap. I made my way to the hallway right of this main lobby and noticed a woman wearing a gold name badge sitting next to another man on a bench. They were holding hands and she appeared to be giving the man advice. In the hall I found men lining the walls in folding chairs as well. Half way down the hall I walked past a TV turned to ESPN Sports Center. A couple of guys were joking back and forth about something as they watched the TV. Past the TV was a small kitchen area built into the hallway. A couple of pots of coffee were brewing and a ton of boxes of Entenmann's Donuts were on the kitchen counter.

At the end of the hallway was a stairwell leading down, a man with a gold name badge that said "Nick" walked up the stairs toward me. He asked if I was here for the free donuts. I had to smile - people always mistake me for a homeless person. I politely said "no thank you" to Nick and asked to see Brother Horgan. He went and got Brother Horgan while I waited at the top of the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs was a line of men standing in an alcove type of area. I figured they were waiting for the bathroom. Another man with a gold badge was among these men. I heard a door open and a man walk out from an unseen area and then the man with the gold badge said "next". From behind me I heard my name. I turned around and found Nick was back with whom I assumed was Brother Horgan in tow. I shook his hand and he offered to give me a tour.

The SS Peter and Paul Warming Center has been in operation for fifteen years now. It provides a hot cup of coffee and donuts or bagels, for 90-125 people daily. Originally it focused on being a facility for the homeless to come and get that hot cup of coffee and a break from the cold. But a few things have changed over the years. These days the Center offers the less fortunate a place to shower and shave, make local phone calls for job interviews or substance abuse programs. It also offers laundry facilities and provides two hot meals a week. The Warming Center is a seasonal facility, running from September to May with hours from 7 am till 11 am Monday through Friday (and some Saturdays) and holidays. The Center isn't a shelter. The staff doesn't offer substance abuse counseling or dictate how people live their lives. In fact some say it's more like a social club, I heard a few people refer to it as the DHAC (Detroit Homeless Athletic Club). But it does offer men's and women's spiritual meetings from 8am till 9am once a week. The meetings are held by a member of the staff and are provided to allow the patrons of the "DHAC" to be heard. I conducted eight interviews that day and was humbled by the character of the people that run the Center. Here are some notes of mine from the interviews.

Keith: Runs what is called the "Presidential Room" which is the main lobby of the center and the church. After "Last Call" at 11 am Keith cleans the entire place from top to bottom. When I left that day the only dirt in the place was on my shoes. During the interview Keith called himself a "Product of the Streets" I took that to mean that he at one time was one of the unfortunate souls that could be found lining the walls of the Center in years past. I have no doubt that his past experience is an integral part of the Center's success.

Rob: Is what you call Center Alumni. He isn't on staff anymore, because he lives in Kansas City now. But he's in town for a bit and felt that a few hours at the Center couldn't hurt. I asked him his most memorable moment at the center. He answered with the story of Jamaica Joe. Jamaica Joe was a homeless immigrant a couple of years ago who had no identification. Joe at the time was trying to procure a place to live, but without ID there was no way he could. Until Rob and other staff members from the Center got involved that is. They took Joe to the places he needed to go (Immigration, Secretary of State) and helped Joe get the ID he needed.

Carol: Heads up the Women's meetings on Tuesdays. The first thing I asked her was where are all the women? From what I had seen every patron of the DHAC was male. Carol said that women tend to make "compromises" during the winter. But on Tuesday's they can still be seen at the Center. In her Women's Meetings she addresses all sorts of issues from physical violence to feminine hygiene. I also got the feeling Carol was the number two person on the staff and asked her if working at the center was a volunteer program or did they get paid. She said it was a little of both. She personally was an "uncompensated staff member".

Bob: Is famous at the Center for his Taco Salad. The two hot meals that are provided during the week are cooked and cleaned up afterwards by Bob. I wanted to talk to him a little bit longer, but Bob is all business and had some important things to do. I can respect that, in fact I can really admire that.

Nick: Apologized as soon as we sat down to talk. I assured him that I wasn't offended. But the mistake led to an interesting conversation about the homeless. Nick said there really is a fine line between those with a constant roof over their heads and being homeless. I couldn't agree more. Our lives can make chaotic turns and that rug might be pulled out from under us at any time. Luckily there are places like the Warming Center for people to turn to. I also asked Nick what brought him to the center. He said he belonged to the "Jesuit Order" and volunteered at the center. Nick has the time to volunteer because he's retired, but still I found it to be humbling to sit and talk to someone so willing to give so much and get so little in return. Then again what I might think as "little" might be "a lot" to a gentleman like Nick.

Trevor: Is currently in the process of becoming a priest. Originally he had a different notion about the work he would be doing at the center. He thought that it was all coffee and donuts, instead he found the job entailed encouraging and listening to others. With all the bad press about priests in the media these days talking to Trevor was like a breath of fresh air. He is extremely intelligent and knowledgeable and when he does become ordained I would gladly become a member of his congregation.

Herbert: Like Keith, he is a "product of the street". He is in charge of the Hygiene area. He monitors the time for each of the rooms where the patrons of the Center can clean the street grime off themselves. Herbert is also in charge of the laundry facilities. I asked him why the Center only provided seven or eight showers a day. Herb smiled and said there wasn't enough water pressure for more than that.

I took a break before Brother Jim Horgan's interview. The staff of the Center graciously offered me a soda and of course a donut. Brother Horgan found me just as I was finishing my lunch.

Jim: He said one thing in particular in his interview that I think can sum up the story about the SS Peter and Paul Warming Center the best. "There is an old saying. There are only three things you need in life. A place to sleep, a place to labor, and a place where every one knows your name, the Warming Center isn't a shelter, it's a place where you can socialize and get someone that will listen to you."

After all the interviews and the photographs of the staff were taken and my "Big Fat" lunch I found myself a little reluctant to leave. I went to the SS Peter and Paul Warming Center intending to do my "fluff" piece, but what I found instead was a Social Club for what society has dubbed the "invisible". I also found a little bit of hope as well. My nature has always been to worry about number one, and when all was said and done the staff made me wish that I could be the one wearing one of those gold badges. I want to thank Brother Horgan and his staff for all that they have done and will keep on doing. I look forward to the day that I cross paths with them again.

For more information about how to donate or partner with the Warming Center Mission, contact Br. Jim Horgan SJ at 313-961-8077 x 202.

Eric Novack is the author of "Killing Molly," founder of Elitist Publications, and…lit section editor.


© 2002