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LAURA BERMAN

Backpack project shoulders support for the homeless

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Driving south on the Lodge Freeway one day, a flash of humanity caught the eye of Danielle Kaltz. A blur of clothing, a human form hunched beneath an overpass.

A spontaneous act of kindness spurred Danielle Kaltz to start a project giving homeless people a backpack filled with supplies and essentials.

The next time, she slowed down enough to confirm what she suspected: A man living under the bridge. When she went home that night, she put together a supply kit, assembling canned goods, granola bars, socks and sweaters that had belonged to her father.

Kaltz, a former Detroit News archivist, is offbeat, full of passion and energy. She packed up the supplies and, a few days later, stopped at the edge of an I-75 underpass where she had spotted a different homeless man barely noticeable in a corner.

Tentatively, she got out of the car. “I stared at him and he stared at me and we were both frightened,” she recalls. “The gentleman would not approach my vehicle until I asked him to.” She handed him clothing and told him her name.

When he realized she was there to help him, he cried and so did she.

She was overwhelmed by emotion and thankful to be able to help. That was in 2007 and she kept going. She organized a Detroit chapter of Burners Without Borders, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to giving direct help to people that grew spontaneously out of Hurricane Katrina. And she began to tell friends what she was doing.

Her ad hoc homeless project became “the backpack project” after a friend donated backpacks. Over time, it’s become known as the Burners Without Borders Homeless Backpack Project. Volunteers pack donated backpacks with supplies, including food and clothing, and then take responsibility for delivering them. There are no real rules or protocol for finding the homeless or giving out the supplies beyond looking people in the eye and sharing names, taking a moment to help and offer kindness.

Last year, the volunteers filled 430 backpacks in less than two hours. “It went from Me to We,” she said, describing the spirit of the enterprise.

The logo for burners without borders. (Special to The Detroit News)

This Sunday, volunteers will gather from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Tangent Gallery in Detroit to fill at least 330 special backpacks designed for the homeless and donated by Shinola and CityPak of Chicago. A potluck dinner, open to all, will follow. She never knows who will show up or how they find out about the event.

She includes a $5 McDonald’s gift card in every backpack, knowing that the card makes a homeless person a paying customer, able to buy coffee or a burger and the right to sit in a clean, warm place without challenge.

From December to April, Kaltz often spends more time with the homeless than with her friends. She has stood in the biting cold for a few hours, wondering how the homeless she meets stick it out.

“I can’t feel my fingers or toes, can’t imagine how they do it. They have a willpower I don’t.”

She has no illusions about their lives or their relationships: “They’re not my friends,” she says. “They are living moment to moment, trying to survive.”

And yet she has formed attachments, relationships with the people she helps. Among them, she found a couple she calls “Mr. Jerome” and “Miss Vicki,” who live in a tent on the city’s west side. When she first approached with supplies, Mr. Jerome asked her for batteries for Miss Vicki’s Walkman. Kaltz bought the batteries and food for their cat, the beginning of a relationship that has lasted years.

Kaltz, who grew up in Roseville, moved back to Detroit in 1998 and has watched the city decay and rebound since then. Not long ago, she bought a home of her own.

On this Sunday, as she dedicates her weekend to help those living on the street, she expects to be amazed once again by how an impromptu act of kindness seven years ago has led to hundreds of people reaching out to help strangers in their midst.

lberman@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2032