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Detroit — Michael Colbert's iPhone rang nonstop Tuesday with reports of where to find some of the city's homeless people, but when he showed up in his white van, eager to usher them out of the bitter cold, most refused.

Colbert, transportation manager with Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, and caseworker Herbert Morris run shifts on a 24-hour period, patrolling city streets and trying to persuade people to come out of the cold. 

"It's always a battle to get people to come with us," Colbert of southwest Detroit, told The Detroit News during a ride-along Tuesday ahead of plunging temperatures.

"They would rather stay where they know and feel comfortable. A lot of our job is building that trust so they will come and save themselves."

The ride-along found varied reasons why, despite persistent outreach, the homeless or those who panhandle may remain resistant to help, even when it's in their best interest, say shelter workers.

The ministry receives about 175 calls for pickups a day, said Dr. Chad Audi. Of those, about 40 people often agree to go to the shelter, but on Tuesday afternoon, none of the homeless people or panhandlers would leave their posts. The temperature dipped to 12 and was expected to plunge further overnight.

Morris, of Southfield, came to the ministry as a client eight years ago while he was battling homelessness. After the 90-day program, he now owns two cars, just bought a house and stayed on as a caseworker so he could help others.

He finds that people refused to leave their spot on cold days because they don't want to miss collecting money from people driving past. 

"They won't leave before rush hour because they know it's brutally cold and that people will feel bad for them," said Morris. "You know they can get frostbite in minutes, but they won't leave. It's heartbreaking."

People also refuse because they are struggling with mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse or don't trust the shelters, Morris said.

"I was in their shoes," he said. "I said no because I was in the midst of alcoholism and drug abuse, as many of these people are," Morris said.

A man sleeping beneath an overpass on Telegraph and Eight Mile on Tuesday refused to go with shelter workers, along with more than 10 panhandlers on street corners across the city.  Some declared that they were all right;  others said they weren't homeless, didn't trust shelters or were trying to make enough money for rent or pocket a couple of extra dollars. Leaving the corner, or moving from their well-worn spot, wasn't an option.

"It's a job to them, Audi said. "They're not really homeless. They're a panhandler. We know that because we go to places like Eight Mile and Woodward, where they sit on all four corners and they are a team.

"On Saturday, we told them it's important for you to leave because it's cold, and they said 'Pay our motel room for the night.' We did, they left and we came back three hours later and they were on the corners. 

"It seems like there's more to it than just a homelessness issue. It's a structured job where they even have arrangements with the motels."

During the ride-along Tuesday, the rescue ministry approached a man named Willie holding a help sign on Grand River Avenue under a stoplight near Davison. Colbert asked if he would like a ride to the shelter.

Willie said he was OK and would only be out until 5:30 p.m. He had a place to stay, he said, and was trying to make enough money to buy a sandwich. Just as Colbert was about to leave Willie to his panhandling, Detroit police officers yelled through their vehicle's loudspeaker: "Go home, Willie!" 

"In most of our cases, (the people who refuse to go) have mental health issues," Audi said. "They're typically high or very much alcoholics, and many will consume alcohol just to stay warm. It's very dangerous in weather like this because it can cause them to have a heart attack quick."

On Monday, the rescue mission had nearly 500 people at their shelters or warming centers and were at capacity.  Even if they don't have any bed available, they won't turn anyone away. 

Other outreach groups in the city like Cass Community Social Services are stepping up efforts to find a warm place for the homeless or others.

Cass Community Social Services has patrol vans operating from 4 p.m. until midnight, during which they attempt to get people to come in from the cold. It has been at double capacity since last week, said Executive Director Faith Fowler. 

"We are contracted to provide shelter for 40 in the Warming Center and the (population in the center) has been in the 90s plus, now, we have added the dining room at the Scott Building," Fowler said. "Last night, eight new men came in to escape the elements. I suspect tonight the team will pick up many more."

National Weather Service meteorologists predict wind chills of between minus 25  and minus 45 in some areas over the next few days, meaning exposed skin can get frostbite in as little as 15 minutes. The temperature is expected to reach a low of minus 10 Tuesday night, a high of minus 2 and a low of minus 11 on Wednesday. On Thursday, a high of 2 and low of minus 5 is expected  on Thursday. 

More: School closings, weather forecast through the weekend
More: Snowfall from 2 to 10 inches coats east side of Michigan

So far this month, Metro Detroit has seen about 14 inches of snow. January's average monthly temperature in Detroit is about 32, according to the National Weather Service. Average monthly snowfall in Detroit is 12.5 inches. 

Colbert said on their route, they have found people who have lost limbs to frostbite.

"It's tough for them and us," Colbert said. "We don't want to scare them ... you have to give them their space and have them understand you're trying to help."

Counting Detroit's homeless

An annual count of homeless people in Detroit for a snapshot of  the problem was canceled for Wednesday, due in part to the governor's declaration of a state of emergency over weather conditions.

The annual “point in time” count, facilitated by the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, or HAND, had about 150 volunteers and 25 teams ready to scour the city’s 139 square miles to find individuals living on the streets. The effort aims to provide a glimpse of homelessness on one night.

Tasha Gray, executive director of HAND, said officials made the decision Tuesday to cancel its traditional street count after consulting with federal housing officials, volunteers and others.

Gray said volunteers still will conduct follow up interviews from Thursday through Saturday.

“We’re focusing this year on doing follow-up interviews and will expand the number of sites we go to,” she said.

Site visits, Gray said, will take place in partnership with local soup kitchens, churches and other drop-in centers to capture information on individuals experiencing homelessness.

Under federal rules, next-day interviews are among the allowed methods of assessing the homeless population in addition to a street count. Historically, the group has done both, Gray said.

“Are we concerned about the impact on the numbers? Of course. But we don’t know that we would have gotten better numbers tomorrow by having teams out there,” Gray said.

HAND and the Detroit Continuum of Care, a network of homeless service providers, had planned to join for the census from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. The data, HAND said, helps the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local agencies better understand the magnitude of homelessness.

Gray said that there still will be seven outreach teams out Wednesday evening working to bring people in out of the cold. Those teams, she noted, aren’t part of the count but crews that typically go out daily to help get individuals on the streets into emergency shelter.

“These are more so the outreach teams that do this work day-in and day-out as part of their day-to-day job of doing sweeps to get anyone and everyone off the street and into a warm place,” she said.

Contact the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries at (313) 999-1972 and Cass Community Social Services at (313) 424-2202 for emergency shelter and transportation. 

Two Detroit churches will provide overnight sheltering through Wednesday at:

  • Pope Francis Center, located at 438 St. Antoine, Detroit 48226, which can accommodate 46 people.
  • Augustine/ St. Monica, located at 4151 Seminole, Detroit, 48214, which can accommodate 47 people.

srahal@detroitnews.com
Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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