They were looking for help. Ferndale resource fair brought hope

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Ferndale — Paper bags filled with hand warmers, beanies and socks were lined on a table in the tent set up outside the Baymont hotel on Eight Mile on Sunday afternoon, with piles of warm winter clothes to be picked up by families and others who came for the homeless resource fair inside. 

Dozens of people showed up in the bitter cold to get clothes, a hot meal, housing and job assistance and free health screenings at the fair organized by New Era Detroit, which also bought about 40 families a night's stay at the hotel. 

"It's so cold, people have a hard time walking to their vehicles right now, let alone sleeping on the street," said Zeek Williams, the nonprofit's founder. 

The group, formed in 2014 to "restore Black unity in Black communities in Detroit as well as across the nation," partnered with local organizations to help families they serve figure out long-term solutions while fulfilling their short term housing needs, according to Williams. 

Zeek Williams, background, founder of New Era Detroit, speaks with some of the people for whom the nonprofit bought a night's stay at the Baymont by Wyndham hotel in Ferndale on Sunday.

The organization relies mostly on donations to secure essential supplies for the communities it serves, Williams said, and has adopted the term "mudroots" for the kind of outreach work it does. 

"Mudroots allows us to go deeper than grassroots work," said Williams. "(It's about) being able to go a bit underground, and start from the core of our issues and build from there." 

Raymond Williams, 31, came to the resource fair with his 2-year-old, Adonis, and said he thought the job resources would help him take care of his son. 

Williams lost his job as a maintenance man almost three years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and with it he lost his home and car. He said he would spend the night at the hotel, and begin the job hunt the next day.

He hoped to get a job with an energy provider. 

"I'd like to get up on the lines," said Williams. "That's some good money." 

For the resource fair Sunday, the nonprofit partnered with local organizations such as Unified, which provided free condoms and rapid onsite HIV testing as well as information about PrEP, a daily pill that can be taken to reduce the risk of contracting it, and Focus: Hope, which provide work, housing and food assistance. 

A tent was set up in the parking lot of the Baymont by Wyndham hotel in Ferndale where people could pick up free winter clothes provided by New Era Detroit, a nonprofit formed in 2014 to do outreach in and support Black communities in the city.

The other organizations were enlisted to help New Era with its goal of providing holistic, long-term services to the nearly 200 people that showed up, according to Nilajah Alonzo, who works on the nonprofit's administrative team in Detroit, including those who sought a hotel voucher. 

Inside the hotel's meeting room on the ground floor, Alonzo signed Williams and other people in and guided them through the tables set up with representatives from each of the organizations.

After a person went around the room and spoke with representatives, she waved goodbye to them as they exited and handed them a paper bag containing vegan chili from SevaTruck. 

Alonzo said that in addition to the help coming to the partner organizations, New Era had gotten pledges from five employers who needed truck drivers, home care assistants and movers to provide jobs to people who Sunday, as well as an event planner who said she needed a 360º photo booth attendant. 

"I thought that was an awesome, unexpected job," said Alonzo.