Getting off the street

The other day I drove over to Covenant House, which is on Martin Luther King Boulevard, not very far southwest of my office at Wayne State University.A small, valiant band of folks there do more good for the city of Detroit every week than most politicians will ever do in a lifetime. They offer sanctuary and showers to troubled late-teens and twentysomethings who have been living on the streets. They help these kids to help themselves, saving them from a life of prostitution and gangs and drugs, of death in a few years.

There are thousands of these kids — scared, dirty, living from couch to couch and Dumpster to Dumpster, huddling in the thousands of abandoned buildings in the postindustrial ruins of Detroit. Important people are arguing now whether the revitalized glittering few blocks of Greektown and the area around Comerica Park and Ford Field are enough to justify Kwame Kilpatrick staying in office.

But the truth that no one likes to admit is that much, too much more, of Detroit resembles the world I used to like to scare myself with by reading about as a kid: the world after the nuclear war. Except that we never quite had the war itself. Just the aftereffects.

Sam Joseph, who runs Covenant House Michigan, showed me around their compound six or seven years ago, soon after their first residential center opened in what had been a run-down senior citizens' housing complex owned by the Roman Catholic Church. It wasn't much to look at then. But today, thanks to donations and a lot of sweat equity, it's quite impressive.

Last week, I was shown around by Melissa Golpe, their marketing and public relations director. A trim, attractive 31-year-old who grew up in Dearborn, she easily could be making far more money. She certainly would be richer if, for example, she had stayed with the major commercial PR agency she spent a few years with after graduation.

But she found out that wasn't her. "This really seems much more meaningful, gives me much more satisfaction, telling their stories," she said. I saw a number of the young adults who are staying there, working part-time, getting clean, getting right in their heads, working on their high school degrees.

There are two main residential buildings: the Crisis Center, for young people fresh off the streets; and then a long-term dormitory, Rites of Passage, where young people can stay a year or more while they finish school and get it together.

There is also a medical center and an administration building. All of them are low-slung, freshly painted, clean but not quite institutionally sterile. The rooms are much neater (if more spartan) than the average teenager's room; the residents are expected to keep them neat themselves. Most, but not all, are black or Hispanic.

I had thought the vast majority would be male, but only about 55 percent are. Most of both sexes have stories that would make a stone weep: kids who have been literally discarded by society, or aged out of foster care.

In a nation where rich and middle-class adults pay thousands to get kids from China or Romania, we throw many of ours in the garbage.

Covenant House can only accommodate about 75 residents at any one time. They do, however, have community service centers on both the east and southwest sides of Detroit, where they provide counseling and mentoring programs and teach English as a second language.

Volunteers also send a van out on the streets at night, dispensing sanitary supplies and counseling and referral to those kids not ready to come in from the cold. Over the past decade, they have contacted 31,910 kids.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that, technically, the people they are helping aren't kids, but young adults, 18 to 22. (I wasn't anything close to an adult at 18, and doubt that almost anyone is. Even if they are killing people in Iraq.)

Many younger teens are at risk, and homeless, but legally, Covenant House can't take them in. Too often, the authorities merely take them back to a situation where they are being abused or are unwanted. Wouldn't you think this cries out for laws to be changed?

Covenant House has notched hundreds of success stories. One formerly homeless girl now living at Covenant House is about to start at Michigan State University. Another, Nichale Black, is a respiratory therapist in Atlanta, about to finish her college degree. There are many, many others.

When I was at Covenant House, I thought that this was a world that had nothing to do with politics at all. (When I asked one counselor if Barack Obama inspired the kids, the answer was that the presidential race was so far removed from these kids it might as well be happening on Mars.)

But then I realized that the world of Covenant House had everything to do with politics, and what is happening in Detroit. This is the world that Detroit's leaders should be terrifically concerned with. And yet it is a world Detroit's mayor hasn't the slightest interest in. Kwame likes living the high-life, as we all know: limos and casinos, fur coats and courtside seats at Pistons' games. He has never visited Covenant House — or responded to invitations to do so.

Don't expect him to anytime soon. There's no money in it. But you should, and volunteer to help, in one way or another; what they especially need, Melissa told me, is age-appropriate clothing (not your dad's old Brooks Brothers suits).

Contact them at 313-463-2000 or The 24-hour crisis line is 313-463-2500. You may be struck, by the way, by a strong flavor of Roman Catholicism; the Catholics gave them the property, and someone paid to name the administration building after Cardinal Adam Maida.

But as far as I could tell, they don't push any form of religious instruction or dogma on anyone. They are doing what I would call the Lord's work, and I only show up in churches when someone gets married or embalmed.

Just asking: Does anyone with the IQ of a salamander really believe the Northwest-Delta merger is going to be good for the average person? Do you really believe that it won't eliminate service and cause you to pay more for worse service than you are getting now? Time was when we believed that competition was a good thing, and that monopolies were bad. Bad for the consumer, bad for incentives to build a better mousetrap. Matter of fact, the U.S. Department of Justice used to have an anti-trust division. Still does, in fact.

You might want to write to them, and to some influential congressmen who may not have completely sold out yet.

Doing it for the animals: I have written before about Sasha Farm, the sanctuary in Washtenaw County where animals live out their lives happily after a nightmare of abuse. They include Jefferson, the famous steer who escaped from a slaughterhouse in Detroit at Christmas a few years ago, wild burros the government was going to kill, and everything from dogs orphaned by Hurricane Katrina to a goat named Stephen Colbert. This Saturday night is their annual fund-raising banquet, and I am the guest speaker.

I don't know if I am worth listening to, but the animals are more than worth helping. It is at the Comfort Inn and Village Conference Center in Chelsea; for more information see

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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