On Call in Detroit

1390 Chalmers blog

“Hurry up and get in here. They’re shooting out there.”

The old woman held open the door as we ran from our car, up the front steps, onto the porch and into the dark house.  She closed the door behind us.

“Who’s shooting? Where are they?” I asked.

“They’re always shooting out there. You shouldn’t be here. This is a bad neighborhood,” she said.

(True. But we get to go home. You live here.)

The windows were covered with various curtains and the bare spots were taped over with swatches of fabric, blocking out most of the remaining patches of daylight. The old woman pulled on a light switch. The dim bulb revealed a sparse room. There was a couch with coffee table to the side of the front window and a tall bar-type table with no chairs across the room. The wood floors were bare. There was no TV. It was cold. She looked at us and said nothing.

“My name’s Ann and this is my husband Jack. We understand you need some help.”

That’s how the visits start. At least the good ones.

My husband I work for a charity that provides emergency relief to people, we call them clients, in the form of food, clothing, utility assistance, furniture, household goods, appliances and just about anything else we can think of that can help get them through some sort of crisis. In general, the clients we work with tend to have a lot of problems and we can’t solve them all. As one of our colleagues says, we just try to get them a good night’s sleep once in a while. We are “on-call” every four to six weeks. For that week, we visit whomever calls in requesting help.

Even in the emergency help business, you get your regulars, your frequent flyers. Heck, with a lot of folks we meet, their whole life is an emergency. It’s like if today you crashed your car, had a root canal, and your dog died. And then tomorrow the other driver sued you, the tooth got infected and your cat died. I keep waiting for one of our clients to identify the proverbial last straw. But that’s the funny thing. No matter how many straws get piled on their backs, most will claim they are blessed. Go figure.

Struggle and chaos become a matter of routine. And one place you can count on this is 3200 Alter Road. 3200 Alter is a 6-unit apartment building on the east side of Detroit. On the plus-side, it has very reasonable rent, especially if you have been recently released from the penitentiary. (We never say “prison” or “jail” in Detroit. It’s demeaning.) On the negative-side, there is no doorman or working doorbells. The only way to reach a resident of this exclusive building is to phone the one man who always has the funds to keep minutes (and the same number) on his cell phone, Robert C. Jones. Robert’s apartment is centrally located in the building, one above, one below, one across. Robert is like an old-time switchboard operator, except instead of inserting plugs into jacks, he simply beats his fists on the appropriate paper-thin wall and pages the resident to come to his apartment and answer his phone. For the two apartments that don’t directly connect to his, well, if they’re lucky, they’ll hear the pounding and pay attention, just in case they hear their names. The only kink in this otherwise perfect system is that Robert is an insulin-dependent diabetic who tends to fall into a coma every so often. Lucky for him, one of the other residents usually notices and calls 911. But while Robert is in the hospital, so is his phone.

So you see, if we go to 3200 Alter to help some resident, Robert knows we’re there. And Robert wants something: food, a new table, clothes, whatever. Is he taking advantage of us? I guess it depends on how you look at it. Does Robert have an emergency need? Maybe not. But I think my husband says it best.

“Look around. Look at this place. He is living in a run-down, bug-infested tenement in a dangerous neighborhood. If he is working the system, he’s not doing a very good job of it.”

So, yeah, we give Robert what he asks for (he does provide a valuable service) and then try to help the other guy who called using Robert’ phone. The clients from 3200 Alter are really not typical for us because they’re generally men. Most of our clients are women with kids. But I’ll get to them later. Like I said before, this place was kind of a half-way house for ex-cons. And, as far as I can recall there was only one woman who ever lived there.

Her name was Gwendolyn Green. Gwendolyn lived in the apartment right across from Robert. She lived there with her husband, Willie Price. Gwendolyn was a tough old girl, hard drinking, chain smoking, fit right in with the Alter boys. We had a rule about not helping a household more often than every three months just so we weren’t supporting them on a day-to-day basis. Gwendolyn and Willie used to take turns calling us from Robert’ phone. They must have marked it on a calendar. Willie would call, wait three months then call again. Gwendolyn would do the same but in between Willie’s calls. We pretended they weren’t living together in the same apartment and helped them out every month and half anyway. It seemed like they needed checking on.

One day Willie called and said Gwendolyn had just come from the hospital. She had lung cancer. He needed a food voucher and some money to go to the laundromat. When we got there, Willie wanted us to “say hello” to Gwendolyn who was in bed in the next room. People who ask for charity are used to showing proof. This is no cocktail party. When clients meet you, they don’t just introduce themselves, they automatically pull out their state-issued picture ID, their social security statements, their food stamp letters, whatever they think it will take to convince you they’re legit. Now Willie wanted to show us Gwendolyn. We already knew Willie was legit and with all my being I didn’t want to see Gwendolyn right now. But I knew I had to.

We followed Willie into the bedroom. Gwendolyn lay on a mattress and box spring on the floor, no frame. Some sort of IV tube was draining into a bag next to the bed. Gwendolyn’s eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling. She looked scared. I told her I was sorry she was sick and I would pray for her. We followed Willie back out.

Willie called about a month later and said Gwendolyn died. We gave him some cash (our own money – against the rules) to buy a suit to wear to the funeral.

Like I said, most of our clients are unmarried women with kids. Like Adrian Johnson. Adrian’s been coming to us for a lot of years now. Adrian’s mother had been coming to us as well. And now, Adrian’s daughter, who just had her own baby, had started calling. Adrian, her mother, Doretha, and her daughter, Shantelle, try to help each other out. For a while, Shantelle lived with Adrian, and just like Willie and Gwendolyn, we pretended they weren’t calling from the same household so we probably helped them more often than we should have. Doretha lived in a fairly decent house on street with many houses still inhabited but was looking to move to a senior home. She was getting too old to watch her grandbabies.

Adrian had been living with her mother for a while but recently had a “financial setback” as she put it, and now lived in a very rundown house, next to an abandoned, burned out house that no one had bothered to board up. When I first met Adrian, she lived on another street, the only house on the whole block. She had just returned from driving a very young Shantelle to the hospital for treatment for an asthma exacerbation. She looked stressed. Seeing your baby struggling to breathe will do that.

And now it’s deja vu all over again. Adrian looked stressed. She had been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Her mother, Doretha, had recently died of lung cancer. We give her a food voucher and wished her luck. We’d be back in a couple of months if she was still around.

Shantelle just moved into a section 8 house with her baby. She won’t have to pay any rent but utilities aren’t included. She’s getting food stamps and nothing else. No help from the baby daddy. No cash assistance from the state. When we went to visit, there were no appliances in the kitchen and she had no furniture. As she leaned against the living room wall in her low slung jeans with her butt crack fully exposed, she told us she was finally “independent.” We asked her how she planned to pay for utilities or furniture or the appliances she needed and she looked at us if we were speaking French. “I thought you could help me,” she said.

Now, back to the old woman in the dark house. Remember how I said this was a good one? Well, let me tell you what I meant by that.

Most of the time, when we visit people and find out about their lives, we hear a litany of problems so long, had you the authority, you’d be hard pressed to find a saint in heaven to assign to each one. But every so often, you find someone who has one problem that we can actually help solve. That’s what happened with the old lady. She owned the old house and paid all her bills on time. But, although she paid her gas and electric bill every month, the required minimum payment wasn’t covering the actual usage (due to a really cold winter and nonexistent insulation of the old house) and she was a couple of thousand dollars behind. As soon as spring hit (waiting until spring was a courtesy DTE paid to seniors citizens) she would have her power turned off. We could get this bill paid for her. She wouldn’t have to worry about heat and lights for the next year. But, as for the shootings …

(Note from the author: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)

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