23ºF

Kevin Dietz hits the streets to gain perspective on being homeless

Dietz begs for money at corner


DETROIT – Local 4 showed viewers the dangers of living on the streets for regular people who once were just like anyone else but now find themselves homeless and struggling to stay alive. On Monday, Kevin Dietz went back undercover in disguise on the streets with a sign asking people for money.

More: Defenders undercover: Being homeless in Detroit, part 1

As the sun came up on the Detroit river, the homeless began to stir. The three thousand people turned away from shelters each night have done their best to blend into the fabric of the city. If they can hide or become invisible they can get a few hours rest before being shooed away by society.

We find them on park benches in Hart Plaza, on church steps near the Renaissance Center, in the bushes by the casino, and in neighborhoods on makeshift beds from couches you may have thrown away. We watch to see where they go and what happens next. It seems like there are two different trains of thought: Either go lay around until lunch is served or go to work.

We followed a group of men as they went street by street, taking different paths but ending up at the same place: outside a shelter on Martin Luther King Boulevard and 3rd Street, which isn't far from Cass Tech High School. They go there to sit, some in the shade and some in the sun, hour after hour, afraid to leave because this is where free meals are delivered. If they stay put, someone with a generous heart will be able to find them.

While some will waste away another day waiting for handouts at the shelter, others have more ambition, setting out to a street corner hoping to make a few bucks.

You see them all the time, on street corners with their signs saying "will work for food" or "hungry, please help." They sit or stand on the busy corners where those from the city and suburbs are most likely to see them. If you work in Detroit you may pass a half dozen homeless people with signs. Some give them a dollar, but the vast majority do not, most likely thinking that the money will just be used for drugs and alcohol.

"I ain't made nothing, and I've been out here a couple of hours," said one homeless man. "I ain't made not a dime. Nothing."

To find out what the real story is like, I decided to hit the streets in disguise during the morning rush hour, dressed like someone down and out. I made a simple sign and stood by the side of the freeway, watching as a Mercedes and Cadillacs rolled by, the drivers barely noticing me. Moms taking their kids to school in minivans looked away from me until the red light turned green.

Every thousand or so, a window would roll down and the driver would hand me a dollar, saying "here you go" and I'd say "thank you."

There was no rhyme or reason to who would give money and who wouldn't. Race, age and income didn't seem to play a role, it just seemed like people were either compassionate about my plight or they weren't.

I could stand out there holding a sign for a long time before making enough money to eat. In fact, the first person to help me was a homeless man offering a bottle of water. I was standing at the corner for more than 15 minutes and had not collected a single donation when an older man with a long beard shuffled toward me. my guard went up, not knowing what to expect, but he surprised me by offering half of his full water bottle.

The man didn't want anything and he didn't stay to chat. He just saw that I didn't have water, so he gave me his. I immediately noticed another homeless man coming with a sign and learned that I was on his corner. I was a little afraid, thinking he might fight for his turf, but he didn't.

He asked me how long I planned on staying at the corner and to tell him when I was leaving so that he could take over at the busy corner.

I went back to begging. It was hot, dirty and humiliating work, and I wasn't making much money.

We found out you can make about four dollars an hour standing on the street corner with a sign, but every once and a while you catch a break. As rush hour started to slow, I noticed the most recent homeless man returning, certain he had had enough of this stranger collecting on his corner. But he had another surprise for me: He was sending a secret street angel my way with a little help.

As it turns out, there is a man who drives the streets of Detroit with a fist full of five-dollar bills. He had just given the homeless man a 5, and he was sending him over to me.

Sure enough, a car appeared and a man inside slipped me a five-dollar bill, more than doubling my take for the hour of begging. It was enough money to get into a fast food restaurant and order a meal, the purchase is also permission to use an indoor bathroom, wash my face and fill up water bottles.

If you don't want to give money to homeless people, keep bottled water in your car, or granola bars, socks and underwear. These are all items the homeless people desperately need.

As our series continues, we will look at the plight of homeless women and the agonizing frustration of trying to find work.

I will also look at those who are on the front lines helping the homeless.

Here are some local resources for poor, homeless and mentally ill people:

The Sisters of Christian Love
Detroit Michigan Food Pantry (Pantries), Soup Kitchens
Detroit Michigan Homeless Shelters & Services for the Needy
Neighborhood Service Organization
Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries
Women's shelters
Homeless Veterans
Detroit Central City Health Center
Homeless Action Network of Detroit
NOAH

Housing Assessment and Resource Agency

Community Housing Network

Macomb Homeless Coalition

Shelter listings in Michigan