Outside insiders

Leonard Wilczynski’s world is full of simple rules that are hard to follow. Homeless and jobless, the 51-year-old man frequents Pontiac’s park and sidewalk benches, but is careful to avoid ones next to "no loitering" signs. From this vantage point, he watches the game of life in which he is sidelined.

"My mind is preoccupied thinking right now of how I’m going to get my life together," says Wilczynski, who used to live in Macomb County but these days finds himself in downtown Pontiac, one of the city’s estimated few hundred homeless.

Oakland County, one of the richest counties in one of the world’s wealthiest nations, might seem an odd place to be homeless. But Pontiac, with its central location and abundance of low-income housing and services for the poor, draws homeless people not only from Oakland but from other counties.

"We do our work a yard from hell," says Pastor Kent Clark, who heads Pontiac Rescue Mission, a Christian shelter and substance abuse treatment program on Huron Street. It’s just a block east of Saginaw Street, which appears to be the homeless’ main drag.

"Nobody wants them," Clark says of the homeless. "They’ve stolen, lied and cheated to buy their drugs."

Men, women and children have 30 days to stay at the mission while deciding whether to join its one-year residential substance abuse treatment program. Anyone caught doing alcohol or drugs at the mission forfeits that opportunity, Clark says.

Pontiac’s other shelters include HAVEN (Help Against Violent Encounters Now) and New Bethel Outreach Ministry. HAVEN houses domestic violence survivors, who are almost always women and children. New Bethel also houses women and children, but no men.

According to Felecia Jackson, case manager at New Bethel, there are at least as many homeless women as homeless men in Pontiac. But you aren’t likely to see many women or children on the street.

"Hopefully, the kids are in school, and the women are out working or are either looking for work or trying to secure housing," says Jackson.

Also, HAVEN and New Bethel are open 24 hours, while the mission turns its homeless, or at least those not enlisted in its substance abuse program, out on the streets after breakfast. They return for lunch, head back out, and then arrive for dinner beginning at 4:45 p.m.

That gives Wilczynski, who says he is staying at the mission temporarily, time to kill. Some manage to get up by 5 a.m., early enough to hang around one of the centers that send homeless people out on various temporary jobs. Wilczynski says he signed up with one of those places, but hasn’t returned. He’s looking for something more permanent.

"I’m trying to find a gainful means of employment," he says. But there’s a problem: "Who’s going to hire somebody who says ‘Well, I don’t know where I’m living’?"

If they don’t stay in the shelters, the homeless often sleep on the streets or in vacant houses. One man is said to have slept in a nearby cemetery. Some occasionally surface in hospital emergency rooms. In addition to the shelters, churches, the Salvation Army and a number of other organizations provide for their basic needs.

Wilczynski says he’s been wearing the same dirt-smudged gray shirt and jeans, and the same pair of black boots since he arrived in Pontiac more than a week ago. Next to him is a heavy blue coat. It doubles as a storage bin, he explains, for paperwork, medications, and hat and gloves for cold weather. He also has a white plastic bag, which contains some shirts and underwear given to him by a local church.

Wilczynski is joined on the bench by Alphonso Marsh, 35. Although Marsh isn’t homeless, he says he comes to Saginaw almost every day, where he gets coffee or pop in restaurants and tries to avoid the police. Marsh, who says he’s been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, lives in a nearby adult foster care home where he was placed by his uncle and aunt.

"I’ve got a bad habit of asking for money," he says. "I’ve been in jail for it before."

Marsh recalls the day, years ago, when he was living with his aunt and uncle on the south side of Pontiac and they said he would have to quit his construction job because they were taking him somewhere else to live. He believes it was because he did poorly in high school, and dropped out during his senior year after being diagnosed with his mental illness.

He remembers thinking, "I don’t know nothing about math or history. Oh, no. If only I had remembered some of that stuff, maybe they wouldn’t be putting me in a foster home."

Pontiac’s Clinton Valley Center, a state psychiatric hospital, was closed in 1997 as part of the Engler administration’s budget-cutting measures. For the mentally ill population the hospital once served, there are now community-based outpatient mental health services in Pontiac. There also are a number of adult foster care homes in the city.

Erik Hufnagel, a spokesperson for the Mental Health Association in Michigan, says it is common for many mental health patients to stay in the area of their closed hospitals. But many fall through the cracks because they refuse treatment or can’t support themselves.

Some make their way to the mission, which Clark says isn’t equipped to help them. He mentions someone known as Billy, who wanders the streets each day picking up papers and meticulously folding them into smaller and smaller shapes, only to come back to the mission and unfold them on his bed. The pastor points out that one is unlikely to see someone like Billy in downtown Birmingham.

"If you’ve got a person in Troy who is on crack cocaine, they’ll end up here," he says. "It’s called Greyhound bus therapy. Give them a one-way ticket."

Hedy Nuriel, executive director of HAVEN, puts it differently. She says the homeless end up in Pontiac because it has a reputation for being a place where people who are down-and-out can get help. Wilczynski said he heard Pontiac was a good place to find shelter. His story, as told to the Metro Times, claims the lives of several ink pens. It begins when he was 25 and his life began to go downhill. He had a good job, but communication with his wife became difficult. He began drinking beer, then whiskey. The marriage ended. Now, he says, his family won’t have anything to do with him. When he talks about it, his eyes flood with tears.

Angelo Secreto joins Wilczynski and Marsh on the sidewalk bench. He too recently found himself on Pontiac streets, but he has a slightly different hard-luck story. Several years ago, he walked away from a beautiful home in Bloomfield Hills, a cat, a dog, and the lover who rounded out his American dream.

He got his own apartment, but fell into what he describes as a deep depression. So he quit his job as a chef, sold his belongings and moved in with his parents in Dearborn Heights. After a few years, he began to stay in various relatives’ homes and cars and even strangers’ backyards before finding himself in Pontiac.

As the hot afternoon drags on, two men in suits walk briskly by, headed for cars parked at the curb of Saginaw Street. Wilczynski says there isn’t room to park around the city’s courthouse. "I know this town backwards and forwards," he says.

It’s difficult to imagine one of those men stopping to talk with someone like Wilczynski long enough to benefit from his outside-insider’s knowledge. Another man, wearing a green windbreaker, passes. "Hey, you motherfuckers," he says into the air.

Back at the mission, Clark says that, given the nation’s booming economy, few people have time to stop and worry about the less fortunate. Still, those most closely affected by the homeless situation in Pontiac aren’t shy about offering their own solutions for homelessness or society’s generalized ills.

The pastor pits Christ against the never-ending war on drugs. Wilczynski says he could do a lot of good if only they’d let him on a TV show, perhaps "Oprah," where he could provide helpful hints to others in case they become homeless. To a group of teenage squatters who approach Wilczynski’s bench saying they are begging to buy marijuana and heroin, the solution is anarchy, brought about by giving the homeless sawed-off shotguns.

By now it’s about four in the afternoon. Still sitting on the sidewalk bench, Wilczynski asks for the time.

"Is that all?" he says. "It’s going to be a long afternoon."

Scroll to read more Culture articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.