Image credit: Jared Erondu

The Soup Kitchen

The person next to you probably has nothing

I’ve been homeless twice. The first time came when my financial aid at Wayne State fell through suddenly. After attempting to resolve it with administration, I was forced to pack up everything and move to a relative’s house. The arrangement didn’t last long before it became abusive. Fortunately, there was a homeless shelter around the corner, where I stayed for three months. The dean of WSU found out about my case too late, but extended what help he could to make my time there easier.

The second incident came years later after making a poor choice of rooming with someone with a mental illness. I didn’t know it when I met them. They seemed perfectly fine at first. But things escalated, got strange and scary, and I fled again. This time, I was able to afford the option of not enrolling at a shelter. I got an office and decided to live with different friends instead, retreating to my workspace when I wanted to avoid interacting with others. Taking trips out to Livonia and other parts of the suburbs was not foreign to me at the time.

It was a cheap solution and worked well. I started out working at an internship to save money for an apartment while working on my own company. But then, disaster struck: my boss didn’t want to pay me for earned wages one day. I reported him to his supervisor. I was fired three weeks later.

“So what?”, I told myself after wondering what to do next. “I’ve got this. I’ll just cut back.” And that’s what I did. I ate ramen, I ate pb&j. My plan worked well for a while.

But my body began to speak up after six months. Whenever I tried to eat instant meals, my chest began to burn. Sandwiches weren’t filling me up like they used to. I became worried about becoming the person you find dead, slumped over a desk, like that one guy overseas who died after a long period of gaming. I looked for a solution, and wouldn’t you know? There was a soup kitchen right across the street from my office building.

I have been freelancing for a year. I’ve published eight novels, comics, or graphic novels in the past year alone. I’ve written for the Detroit News and Deadline Detroit, I’ve penned essays that have contributed to the conversation of revitalization in Detroit and what it means to everyone. But this is probably the riskiest article I will write, because it means telling the side of entrepreneurship and authorship that no one wants to hear.

There are often bad times in working for yourself. People will see your business and believe you are too rich for them to hire you for a desk job, or that you are too busy to need the money. The opposite will be true but you’ll smile to the world and carry on, because Detroit believes in people like you. You, who can shoulder anything and walk through any fire without getting burned. You represent that phoenix-like spirit we hold onto so dearly.

I have many friends who were or are like me. During the period of transition, they moved around, they slept at friends’ houses, or slept in cars. I cannot name them but I remember spending a winter with one person who’s been written about by VICE and Complex at this point. These are what I call “invisible homeless” — they look like any other person in the community, but they couchsurf to avoid ending up in a shelter.

You’ll probably walk down the street with an “invisible” one day and pass by a man in rags shuffling in the opposite direction. That person in rags looks gross, right? You wouldn’t dream of touching them. You might make a disparaging remark about them, and not realize the person next to you is almost the same. In reality, there’s very little difference between the two of them. They probably even get their aid from the same place.

The stairs at St. Leo’s church wind downward as you enter. It’s a pretty sudden drop-off, something you don’t want to attempt if you still have snow on your shoes. The stairs will take you past a door with the sign EPIPHANY ROOM written on it. Sometimes I wonder if stepping into the room will cause me to receive sudden clarity.

The narrow hallway at the end of the stairs opens up to a small cafeteria. To the right, there’s a desk with either a doctor or dentist waiting, depending on what day it is. Next to this is where you sign in to get a free lunch. They ask that you put your real name in order to earn more money for their program; if you put a fake name and address, St. Leo’s doesn’t get any aid for it. It results in the kitchens closing early or offering just hot dogs and bread for starving crowds.

I have seen the days when the soup kitchen staff begs people to put their real names. There are many who are not homeless who attend: parents, with children, people who are getting something to eat before they go to work. They sit away from others and facing the wall, as if they don’t want to be recognized. Some parents just bring their kids by on Saturday because it’s the only time they have to do so. I can only speculate that they are the ones who don’t want anyone to look at the sign-in list and see someone they know there.

On the days where there is little funding, some patrons become angry and approach the kitchen table where they are usually served. They beg the chef for bread or anything else they can take home. Usually after a period of this, aid improves and signups yield more honest results. I’m sorry to say that this pattern repeats itself quite often.

“So what?” you say. “There’s always people like that.” It’s easy to dismiss a situation when you believe the person affected is different from you.

But I’ve gone to parties in New Center and Woodbridge where the kids who crash there at night can’t sleep on the couches on the first floor, because there’s rats down there. The house is unfinished. There’s hardly any furniture. There’s no food in the fridge. You wonder how the house’s owners are eating. You think, there’s no way with this large house and the remodeling costs, that they’re simply eating out all the time. Even though the homeowners make it work because they dress better and receive a grant, it’s the same situation. If you offered one of them a hot meal, they’d still take it.

They won’t speak up because it would damage their reputation and possibly even their workplace security. But is this going to be a large secret in our community, that some people are homeless or starving all the time and you simply don’t talk about it? I know artists who have gone through prestigious fellowships and were dealing with the same thing. They looked incredibly successful from the outside, but on a personal level, they didn’t even have the basics. Some didn’t even have a place to live.

Aside from tackling the issue of gentrification and urban planning in Detroit, we should take a look at the number of, and state of, our homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Did you know there aren’t that many? Do a search for them on Google. Try to think of the ones nearby that you can list. How many programs can someone walk to? Why are they so strewn about across town? Not everyone can hitch a ride or even afford the bus.

And why are they so stigmatized? There shouldn’t be any shame in seeking out a healthy, balanced meal. We talk about eating well and supporting what’s local on social media quite a bit. If more people attended public health services, these services would receive more funding. It’s reciprocal, and paying more attention to them would cause less shame for those who seek them out. It would normalize the facilities just as much as going to Goodwill or Salvation Army to go thrifting. Then they would become “community kitchens” or “public housing”.

Sometimes I worry about the people who come to St. Leo’s. They are largely from what they refer to as “Zone 8” (the zip code 48208). Down the street, I see and hear of development beginning to build from downtown and the GRCC, and more people driving down Grand River to attend the nightclubs nestled on side streets. Though revitalization on Grand River is slow, it’s inevitable. I hope whoever lives here currently has a place in their neighborhood’s future by the time it arrives.

Not only because they’ve lived here for so long that they have a right to remain here, but also because for many, they’re barely holding on. There are not enough shelters to hold the displaced. I don’t want to think of where they would go if they had to leave.

K. Guillory is a current member of Red Bull House of Art. The opening show for Cycle 10 will be on April 24th.