I was looking to do a "fluff" piece for
thedetroiter.com. 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.
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.
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
Eric Novack is the author of "Killing
Molly," founder of Elitist
Publications, and thedetroiter.com