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Lewis Hickson

Poor People Treated Poorly

May 16, 2014

I will always be inspired by the words of Focus HOPE ‘s founder, Father Bill Cunningham: “Just because a person is poor, he or she need not be treated poorly.”

As the Operations Manager of the Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO) Tumaini Center, a Detroit walk-in shelter for the homeless, I see more than 250 men and women each day seeking food, shelter, social services and human kindness. One of these individuals is Prince, a very proud consumer who rolled to me in his wheelchair. He had lost his leg as a result of severe frost bite from our devastating Michigan winter. He very sadly stated, “You all put me in an Adult Foster Care facility. At the beginning of my time there, I paid $500 a month for room and board, but now they want $700 a month and my food stamps. All I get is $721 a month and I gotta buy some lucys (one cigarette at a time from a local store.) I can’t live like that. I would rather live in a chair.”

Visiting the Tumaini Center that day was Tom Watkins, President/CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority and COO Sandra Peppers. They were standing less than twenty feet from Prince, while speaking with another wheelchair-bound person. There are often times when it appears to be a convoy of wheel-chaired consumers seeking our services. I directed Prince to Mr. Watkins so he might hear his plight firsthand.

This is one of many heartbreaking occurrences during a time when our social services funding is being severely cut by the State of Michigan. We wanted to visibly demonstrate that many of the basic and much needed shelter services that NSO provides at Tumaini are no longer reimbursable; because they are not covered under a “fee for service category”, despite that most, if not all of our consumers are enrolled in the “Healthy Michigan” initiative. The State had sent three staff from Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that our consumers were enrolled in “Healthy Michigan”.

Another Tumaini Center guest is Caesar, who had a similar experience as Prince. He, too, was in an Adult Foster Care Facility. Before referring Caesar, I had interviewed the “home owner” to get a sense of the empathy imparted to their consumers and had visited the facility to make sure it was appropriate for Caesar and his needs. I knew I had performed due diligence. The facility initially charged Caesar $450 a month for room and board and then soon raised that to $700. Caesar also had to surrender his monthly food stamp allotment. He went shopping with the home owner so he could be helpful and choose some foods that he would enjoy. As they went down the aisles in the supermarket, he put food items in the grocery cart, but the home owner returned them to the shelves. Caesar said to us, “If I have to eat spam, I might as well lick a salt block!” Several days after the grocery incident, he was back at the Tumaini Center seeking our services.

These are classic examples we see everyday of how poor people are treated poorly. These two homeless consumers have a full complement of their faculties and are not mentally challenged to the degree they fail to comprehend their circumstance. Most of the men and women for whom we provide services, however, are far less mentally capable, but still realize they should have the funds they are rightly entitled so they can secure food, clothing, and shelter.

Several years ago, as General Manager of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, I recognized that many of the people we fed daily were miserably housed in the Adult Foster Care facilities on nearby East Grand Blvd, but were compelled to seek a nourishing meal and welcoming hands at the Capuchin tables. (Note: There are more nursing homes and adult foster care facilities congregated on East Grand Blvd. in Detroit than anywhere else in Michigan.)

Like the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, many of the Tumaini Center’s homeless guests are refugees from less than scrupulous Adult Foster Care providers who profit from monthly monetary allotments while neglecting to provide quality and caring human services to the mentally and physically challenged. Other consumers are victims of a flawed guardianship and payee system which also fails to adequately care for the needs of frail, disabled, young or elderly poor. These are just a few examples of those who daily swell our doors.

Michigan is supporting and allowing a miserably failed system of care to perpetuate itself without adequate checks and balances to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. Surely, there must be a state in the U.S. that has developed a better and more humane model to assist its most unfortunate citizens.

Lewis T. Hickson is currently Operations Manager for the Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO) Tumaini Center in the Cass Corridor area of Detroit. He has more than 40 years of experience and leadership in the areas of hunger and homelessness in Detroit, with 28 years as General Manager and then Executive Director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

Mr. Hickson was the co-founder and served as board chair of several organizations that continue to play a key role in addressing and alleviating the dire societal issues of hunger and homelessness: the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Gleaners Community Food Bank, and the Hunger Action Coalition.

May 15, 2014 · Filed under Lewis Hickson


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