Shared sacrifice?

Tough times at Detroit Rescue Mission, and Gannett's goofs

Mar 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

The staff at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries didn't need economists to tell them how devastating the lingering effects of this recession have been. They see them every day, in the faces of the people they feed, keep warm and to whom they try to give hope.

They see people who aren't like the clients they've had before. These are people who never imagined they'd be jobless, let alone homeless. "Recently, one of our volunteers saw a man standing in line for a meal with two children," Chad Audi, DRMM's president and CEO, told me the other day.

The day was bitterly cold; the man tightly gripped the hands of his kids. The volunteer suggested they come inside with him. No, the man said; he just wanted to wait in line like everyone else. They asked about his situation.

He had relatives he could stay with, he explained, but didn't want them to have to feed him too. The volunteers got him and the kids, who looked to be about 12, meals. DRMM has transitional housing available, but he politely said no. He just wanted to get his family some food.

"What we are seeing now is more and more of the working homeless," said Audi, who has a doctorate in business and gave up a high-paying job to do what he feels is the Lord's work.

"You have people who do work full time, but who can't afford somewhere to live. So we try to help them." That's been a special challenge this winter. The weather has been so cold, and money has been so short. But DRMM never turns anyone away who needs a safe and warm place to sleep.

"Sometimes, yes, we run out of beds. But we can at least put chairs together, and they can get some rest," Audi said, in the melodious lilting accent of his native Lebanon.

Money is, naturally, never in sufficient supply. "Because of all the bad economy we've seen, we're not able to get donations at the level we expected in the past, to sustain operations at the level we need," said Audi.

Yet something remarkable has happened. Large institutional donations have fallen off, true. But ordinary people have stepped up — big-time. "We're getting a much broader base at this point. They are actually covering what the bigger donations did in the past, or almost as much."

"But the demand is so much larger," he said. Every day, they serve, on average, 1,400 people. Five years ago, it was about 900. Then the economy tanked, demand exploded, and Audi and his troops have scrambled to keep up.

By the way, there are still those who think of DRMM, which has been around for more than a century, as a soup kitchen. Once it indeed was that, back in the Great Depression, when it was housed in the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, and the founder, David Stucky, used to bring in canned goods from his own shelves to keep people alive.

These days they have educational programs, transitional and some permanent housing, and an array of rehab facilities. They have recreation and camping programs for inner-city kids. They've opened a restaurant called Cornerstone in Highland Park — that city's only sit-down restaurant — where they are training people for jobs in the hospitality business.

They are a faith-based group, clearly Christian, but vow not to discriminate against those who aren't. They are nonpartisan, nonprofit, and are doing what Republicans say they want groups like this to do — helping people with voluntary funds provided by the private sector.

Yet Chad Audi is worried by the governor's budget, mainly because it proposes to end the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. That, he fears, would cause a financial disaster for those working hard to keep heads above water, and create a new tidal wave of need.

The Michigan League for Human Services estimates ending the credit would tip thousands of children into poverty. Polls show most people are dead against ending the credit, but it's likely to happen anyway, unless people get to their lawmakers and register enormous disapproval.

Regardless of what happens, Audi is going to do his best. Fourteen years ago, he turned down a job paying three times as much to go to work for DRMM. He was young and single then; he's 41 and is raising four kids now, and has no regrets.

You'd think with all the stem cell research going on, somebody would have the decency to have him cloned.

Saving the newspapers:
Two weeks ago, the Detroit Media Partnership made an announcement that stunned even those used to the appalling idiocies of the Gannett-controlled newspaper agency. Having failed to stem either the flood of red ink or the steep decline in readership, the secretariat essentially conceded it was intellectually out of gas.

They are offering $5,000 a pop for the two best ideas "that help the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News better serve the community and help grow their audiences." You've got till March 31, Al Gore's birthday, to cash in.

Growing their audience is something they certainly haven't done. In 1985, before Gannett began destroying the News (and later the Free Press) the News sold 670,000 papers a day. The Free Press was close behind, with a circulation of 630,000. Know what those numbers are now?

As of last September, Free Press circulation had dwindled to 245,326. The News was a ghastly shadow of its former self, at 146,962. They've undoubtedly declined further since then.

Their grand experiment to convert readers to reading the things online four days a week has more or less failed. Now, they are doing what they first refused to do, allowing independent contractors to bring the papers to homes on days the mighty partnership declines to do so.

True, newspapers all across the country have lost readership. But none quite as disastrously.

My guess is that the "media partnership" would rather print the things in Old Church Slavonic than give me a prize, but as a lifelong reader of newspapers, writer and editor for newspapers, journalism professor and student of the industry, here's my two cents worth, absolutely free of charge: Try the radical step of putting out newspapers aimed at people who care about what's happening, and who like to read. That may be a smaller number than it once was, but still includes many people.

Gannett, which seems to have a kind of contempt for its readers, has been trying for years to produce papers for people who don't want to read. They haven't been very successful. Here's a secret, Detroit failing daily newspaper monopoly: People who don't want to read don't want a paper aimed at people who don't like to read. They want to watch television instead.

So let them. Devote your energies to putting out a well-written, intelligent newspaper for people who care. They may sneer and say that wouldn't work. They might even be right.

But it is hard to imagine that a really good newspaper could fail any more miserably than what they are doing now.

I'm not hopeful that my advice will be followed; the contest judges include the CEO of Domino's Pizza, a finance guy from USA Today and the former mouthpiece, now CEO, for the money-losing newspaper partnership. But, hey.

For those who still read, it was worth a try.