Without any help from COVID-19, we were finally able to wrap up our 2nd annual Brews for Backpacks campaign about a week ago.
If you were around for our inaugural B4B campaign, you’re probably thinking, “So I know you guys have only done it once, but wasn’t this thing supposed to go down during the winter?”
It was originally designed for the colder months of the year, but I have to say, I was really satisfied (and frankly, surprised) with the experiences we shared during this second time around.
One thing that never changed was our mission: to help repair the relationship between Detroit’s homeless population and the rest of the community. We chose for the campaign to kick-off during the winter because we imagined that’s the time when it’s toughest to be homeless. And before I start repeating myself, watch our recap video from last year so I can tell you about the differences I saw in this year’s campaign:
So this year….
Another mountain of cans in the garage. Worldwide pandemic. Unable to return cans for a few months. Backpacks filled with supplies sitting in our garage. A couple hour-long lines at the can return. And boom, an almost 6-months-behind-schedule campaign is completed in no time.
But all joking aside, I was really surprised by the experiences we shared this time - not that this year was more valuable than last year, just different. And here’s how:
Whereas last year we were battling the polar vortex while handing out backpacks from a packed minivan, for this year, we were able to partner with St. Aloysius church and set up a table outside their doorsteps on Washington Boulevard.
I felt like I had the opportunity to actually form relationships this year. Last year, there was only a chance for conversation with our homeless neighbors to be a maximum of 20 seconds. This year, I couldn’t pull myself away from a 30+ minute conversation with my new friend, Susie, who was making her daily walk around the block.
Susie has struggled in and out of homelessness. Thankfully, she’s currently found a place and is living in a small apartment building close to where we were handing out cackpacks, coffee and sandwiches. We talked about her life. We talked about mine. We talked about what it feels like to be denied things as simple as eye contact or a smile from the people who come and visit the city.
We also talked about the well-known revitalization of Detroit being spearheaded by Dan Gilbert. Because Susie and I come from contrasting backgrounds, we both had our own perspective on the revitalization effort. I had always been blindly supportive of the efforts by Mr. Gilbert - and I still am, but only to a certain extent.
Susie’s experience as a Detroit resident gave perspective to my experience. She mentioned something with the same sentiment as the line I mentioned above - people visiting Detroit act like the inner city community doesn’t exist, even as they pass them on the sidewalk.
This is what made me take off the blinders that I used to look at the Dan Gilbert revitalization push through. I still believe his heart is in the right place and that he’s trying to make the city a better place - but a better place for who? The development of new restaurants and shopping centers seems to be intended to enhance only the visitors’ experience, and Susie felt that. I haven’t done extensive research, but I haven’t heard of any primary efforts that aim to revitalize the city for the current Detroit residents.
None of this is a shot at Dan Gilbert or any entrepreneur that’s trying to bring more to Detroit. I just hope they’re considering all of the factors involved because there’s a huge problem with homelessness in urban areas. If you make a place that’s only ideal for visiting, then why try to live there if visiting is enough?
The last thing I need to address is this relationship between visitors and residents that I keep bringing up. I believe there’s a larger parallel to be made regarding how Susie feels like she can’t even get eye contact on the sidewalk.
There’s something to be said about the lack of empathy in this scenario. If the majority of the people who visit Detroit refuse to look in the direction of the downtown community or won’t even afford a “hello” to a person they pass on the sidewalk, what’s their opinion back at home? If they can’t show mild empathy towards a person that’s 6 feet away from them, what do they feel towards this community when they’re 50 miles away?
I believe this is a big problem. If we only go down to Detroit to suck the night life out of the city, what kind of mess will we leave behind? We will continue severing the connection if we don’t at least acknowledge that we have neighbors that call that city home.
So in closing, say “Hi” to people you pass on the sidewalk. At least flash a smile so that they can see you know they exist. For each year we’ve done B4B, that “Hi” has made someone’s day.