Last fall, Texana Hollis, 101, sat in her wheelchair in her front yard, sobbing as she watched workers drag her furniture and personal items out of her home and stack them on her lawn. A great-grandmother, Hollis had lived in her house for more than 60 years, ever since her husband purchased it after returning from World War II.
Now she was being evicted. Her son had failed to pay taxes on the property, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- the government agency that owned the home -- was foreclosing.
Mitch Albom, author of the popular memoir "Tuesdays with Morrie" and also a longtime Detroit resident, heard of Hollis' troubles one night on the local news. He was stunned. "This is what happens when people forget people," Albom told the Detroit Free Press. "You can't throw someone out like that; I don't care what the numbers are."
Albom was one of many people upset by the story, and in January the agency reversed the foreclosure in the face of mounting media attention. But Hollis was not allowed to return home, as HUD had determined the property to be unsafe after years of neglect.
Undeterred, Albom offered to buy the house from HUD for $100 and take responsibility for repairs. HUD agreed to the deal, and on Wednesday Hollis returned to her home, which had been renovated with volunteer labor and more than $20,000 worth of materials paid for by Albom's charity, S.A.Y. Detroit.
Homelessness -- and its many insidious tentacles in Detroit -- is an issue that's captured Ablom's attention for the past five years. It all started with a strange party, Albom recalled in an interview with The Huffington Post. In 2006 Detroit was hosting the Super Bowl and the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries was throwing a Super Bowl party for the city's homeless residents.
"It intrigued me," Albom said. "I didn't know what it was. So I looked into it, and it turned out to be a euphemism for gathering up homeless people off the streets and getting them out of the way so they wouldn't disturb paying customers coming to town for the game."
"They were gathering in a shelter for a few days," Albom said. "And on Monday morning, they'd be kicked back out on the street again. It was really cold here, so it seemed inhumane."
Curious, Albom attended the party, checking into the shelter just as any homeless person would. While waiting in line for his bed assignment, a man recognized the famous author and asked him what had gone on, so that he landed in a shelter.
"I never forgot that," Albom said. "It really struck me. It was a perfectly acceptable question to him. To him, I was just another guy something must have happened to and was now homeless. That was the moment I realized it's not that far away for any of us."
Rattled, Albom vowed to raise $60,000, the amount needed to keep all the party's attendees housed until April, when the weather would improve. Instead, within a week of soliciting donations, he had collected more than $300,000, so he started S.A.Y. Detroit, which he explained stands for "Super All Year Detroit, instead of super for a weekend."
Since then, Albom's organization has financed a variety of projects, including a kitchen for veterans, a day-care center for homeless mothers in need of a safe place to drop off their children during job interviews, as well as a health clinic for homeless children.
"Health issues are a huge problem with the homeless because it can be hard to see a doctor," Albom said. "They may get a cold and be gone two weeks instead of two days. And then they fall behind in school, get left behind and end up being 15 years old and still in sixth or seventh grade. It's a total cycle." One of the clinic's early users was a 9-year-old who had never before seen a doctor, Ablom said.
Recently, Albom launched a new initiative called Working Families, Working Homes to help homeless people who are working but still can't afford to house their families. S.A.Y. Detroit is renovating blighted homes in established Detroit neighborhoods and offering them to families with children.
Instead of charging the family rent, S.A.Y. Detroit requires the parents to set aside money for their children's education. The family is assigned a caseworker from a partnering nonprofit, which provides guidance in creating a budget and managing finances. If members of the family maintain the home so it stays in the condition received and pay for utilities and taxes for three consecutive years, the charity gives the family the home, while maintaining a lien on the property. If the family continues to take good care of the residence and keep up on the taxes and bills for two more years, the nonprofit lifts the lien and the family becomes the home's owners, free and clear.
To date, the program has assisted five families, including Hollis, and Albom insists there is demand for much more. "Since that day at the Super Bowl party, the only thing I've seen in Detroit that's steadily increased is homelessness. All the time I see people, who used to serve on the shelter lines now receiving on the shelter lines. The people who used to dole out meatloaf, mashed potatoes -- now they're there getting it."
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