Thompson: Sadly left behind in Detroit’s comeback

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, a leading 20th century Jewish theologian, who struck a pivotal relationship between blacks and Jews during the early days of the civil rights movement, in his book “The Prophets” wrote: “The niggardliness of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of our misery caused by our own failures is a fact which no subterfuge can elude.”

Herschel, a former ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., further observed: “Some are guilty but all are responsible.”

No place better exemplifies Herschel’s blunt observation than Detroit, where one year into its narrative comeback from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the city remains challenged in meeting the needs of its residents. Many families and individuals are living in abject poverty; some without water. Others have severe health issues exacerbated by conditions in the city itself as more and more studies have found that people living in poverty are more likely to suffer from chronic health issues than those who are not.

Two recent stories in The Detroit News offer instructive perspectives for us to rethink Detroit in post-bankruptcy.

In the coming year, this story should not be only about how well the downtown area is doing in becoming a “Taj Mahal” or highlighting the number of investors buying and renovating buildings. It should be a story addressing how Detroit beats the odds to help its majority population rise out of poverty.

It should be about getting City Hall and its political influencers to make poverty a major focus of the city’s turnaround plan. City residents need a bold plan that addresses the problem of income, housing, employment and health disparities for the majority of people, who are spectators to the glittering of downtown.

This neglected discourse is found in a News story about how some Detroiters are struggling to survive without water. The story cites Fayette Coleman, a 66-year-old Brightmoor resident who has not had running water since May 2013.

“You use your brain. You scramble. You survive because you’re used to dealing with nothing,” Coleman told the News explaining her perseverance. But that is not what a comeback city ought to look like.

The other story is about the ordeals of the homeless and sufferers of poor health, such as 9-year-old Malik Cole, who is battling asthma and whose family is among many willing to give up their children for adoption to the state. Thanks to the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, which responded to a story that laid bare the grueling reality in the city, young Malik and his family got a new place to call home before Christmas.

As the story indicated, Malik is among 24,000 Detroit kids reported as living with asthma.

Many of us have no conception of the breadth of suffering in the city because it is not dominating the high-profile public forums. But Stephanie Taylor, the manager of street outreach at Covenant House that provides housing for homeless youth, knows of the culture of poverty in Detroit. On an average day, she talks to about 30-40 children idling on the streets looking for a place to sleep or a life mentor.

“You have to be on the ground to hear and see the struggles that people are going through in this city. We travel in areas where you might see young people selling drugs, you might see prostitution,” Taylor said. “Some of these young people didn’t ask to be born into certain situations. You have to meet them where they are.”

At Covenant House, about 75 youth, ages 18-24, receive three meals daily. Many of these recipients have aged out of the foster care system, are school drop-outs, homeless and suffer from mental health issues. They are provided with life coaches, skill training and can stay in the shelter from 90 days to two years. Some program participants have gone on to better themselves; even enrolling in colleges, including Harvard University.

“This is not a blueprint. The young people — who are out there committing crimes and those who are not — are all our kids. We are responsible for all of them,” Taylor said. “These kids want an opportunity and sometimes an opportunity won’t take place until their mental and physical state is OK.”

Taylor added: “This is about poverty, education, lack of love and family. We should not be ignoring young people and adults who need help. We have to reach out. If you see it (a problem), you don’t do anything about it, then you are part of the problem.”

At the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, director Maureen Taylor has made a crusade of fighting to get Detroiters water turned on.

“The view from the residents is that we are being cocooned,” Taylor said. “Our views are completely ignored because we don’t think living in asthmatic conditions is OK, living without water is OK.”

Taylor said the body politic in the city has not responded to the needs of the majority of residents and she has lost faith in elected officials.

“I’m convinced that elected officials are useless,” Taylor said. “They are only concerned about getting re-elected. No amount of wailing and weeping will change their attitude.”

During the holiday and in the New Year, Detroit should refocus its priorities and, Taylor said, “think about the homeless, veterans and half of the people below the poverty level who are going to bed hungry every night.”


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.