Pizza, clothes bring warmth to Detroit homeless

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
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Detroit — With free pizza in hand and tears from the wind running down his face, Jovan Cooper, 41, told the group of about three dozen medical school students standing before him that they'd made his day.

Cooper pulled along a piece of oversize black luggage and a laundry bag. Both should've been filled by 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

But Cooper had mistimed his dumpster dive, and found that the two dumpsters he had planned to scour to earn his daily keep in returnable bottles had none to offer.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," Cooper said. "Sometimes I be down here trying to get bottles for a minute. If I'm not doing good, I've got to walk, and walk, and walk."

The tough start to Cooper's week was redeemed with a free box of Dearborn Pizza, a set of thick winter gloves, and three bottles of water. 

"Y'all done made my day," Cooper said. 

Volunteers unload dozens of pizza pies to distribute to Detroit's homeless during the 4th Annual 1Humanity Pizza Drive in Detroit on Sunday, January 6, 2019. 
Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Dumpster diving is Cooper's livelihood. It's what he was doing before he encountered 1Humanity, and it's the work he resumed as soon as they went their separate ways, jumping into a small one on Clifford to get four or five returnable pop bottles. 

Keeping the holiday spirit going

Sunday was 1Humanity's fourth annual pizza drive. Founder and third-year Michigan State University medical school student Ali Bazzi, 25, started the effort as a way of spreading a little joy. He chose the first week in January because, while the holiday spirit might be gone by then, the human need for help never  goes away. 

The first time the group did it, they offered those in need their own coats and gloves in addition to pizza. After that, the group bought them and handed those out too. Donations are raised through GoFundMe year round. 

This year, they were even more prepared with 10 winter coat/sleeping bag hybrids. After buying five of the coats via The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based nonprofit that hires homeless workers who make them, the nonprofit supplied another five, said organizer Nabeel Shahzad, 30. 

The approach, Bazzi explained, is not to "pass stuff out like they're less than us," but to talk to the person and learn what their needs are — if there is a need.

The first person the group encountered was a self-identified U.S. Army veteran who went by "Lefty." As the three-dozen or so volunteers watched, a few from the group handed Lefty an entire pizza, a hat, gloves, socks, a University of Michigan scarf — a little bit of everything.

"Any hoodies or thermals?" someone from the group asked.

Seconds later, the thermals were delivered.

Homeless men receive winter gloves, a jacket, and pizza during the 4th Annual 1Humanity Pizza Drive in Detroit on Sunday, January 6, 2019. 
Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Medical school, practical situations

Most of the three dozen or so volunteers Sunday were, like Bazzi, students at MSU's medical school.

Brittany Ladson of Macomb Township was the first to show up. Come Monday, the first-year med student would be back to the grind. Sunday was for service.

Helping people exposed to the elements survive is a form of preventive care, the 22-year-old said. 

"I love coming out and hearing people's stories, and learning how they got themselves here," said Ladson, who plans to be an OB-GYN. "A lot of times they're veterans, or just got out of prison, and have nowhere else to go. You learn how to help other people through their stories."

Brooke Bannon, a second-year medical student, said she participates in Detroit Street Care, an MSU medical school effort that gives students experience serving Detroit's homeless population. Sunday's volunteering was basically an extension of what she does weekly.

"I was down here a few weeks ago with Detroit Street Care, in Greektown, and we found an acutely ill patient," the 26-year-old said. "We were able to convince her to go to the ER, and we carried her into a car and dropped her off at Hutzel-Harper. That's what makes me want to keep coming out here and giving back."

Bannon said she's considering emergency medicine and family medicine. 

These days, Bazzi said, "fundraising is the easy part." 

"This is not a sustainable solution," Bazzi admits. 

But, said Trey Williams, it helps. 

"It's a good thing to see someone out here caring and helping the homeless," Williams said as he held up a sign outside the Nike store on Woodward. It read:

"Home less

Hungry an cold

Help of any kind

So please help God bless thank you"

"One thing about being here in Detroit, since I've been homeless, is there's quite a bit of people concerned," Williams said. "That's why I've got so much stuff. I can't even take nothing else because there's nowhere to put it. Every day I'm getting something else: socks, socks, this coat — you get a lotta nice things. And it's like this all the time."

Williams said panhandling is just a hustle.

"I'm working on trying to go up the ladder," Williams said, adding that he's working with a college professor on getting his resume together so he can find steady work, the kind that would make a street hustle unnecessary. 

"I'm gonna do what I've got to do," he said. "I'm in survival mode."

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