August 13, 2013 // Uncategorized

Detroit's bankruptcy seen as chance for city to become livable again

By Dennis Sadowski

Capuchin Franciscan Brother Jerry Smith, executive director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen Ministries on Detroit’s east side, poses for a photo in the garden Aug. 9. Brother Smith said the people seeking help from various ministries desire work but many jobs being offered are in the suburbs, far from the homes of city residents who are dependent on unreliable public transportation to get to them. (CNS photo/Jim West)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The bankruptcy of Detroit does not mean the city is dead, said Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron.

Residents and political leaders certainly are challenged and remain uncertain, the archbishop of Detroit told Catholic News Service.

“I would say people are responding with a lot of grit,” he said.

“Stories about the city being on its death bed are wrong.”

The archbishop was not alone in his assessment. The bankruptcy, announced July 18 by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn D. Orr, was another blow to the city’s already deteriorated reputation, but social service providers and other observers said they have great hope that the former manufacturing behemoth will begin a gradual recovery as long as its 700,000 citizens are tapped for ideas and advice.

“The bankruptcy might help,” said Harry Veryser, professor of economics at the University of Detroit Mercy, who grew up in the city in the 1940s and 1950s and recently rejoined St. Joseph Parish in downtown Detroit. “Bankruptcies aren’t all bad. It may allow a certain breathing space and it may allow people to say we’ve got to take things seriously right now.”

That breathing space is needed. The city owes nearly $18 billion to creditors. It’s estimated that 40 percent of the city’s streetlights do not work, buses run notoriously behind schedule, trash pickup is sporadic and police response times are close to an hour even in emergencies. More than 70,000 buildings are vacant.

The bankruptcy threatens the pensions of thousands of retired city workers. Orr has said that, for the city to begin its recovery, the pension structure must be altered. However, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has gone on record saying that the state constitution identifies pension plans as a contractual obligation that cannot be diminished or changed.

It is expected that specifics for emerging from bankruptcy will take months to work out.

Raising taxes will not work because such a move will fail to entice new business startups and will likely serve to force many of those that remain to close or relocate, Veryser said.

A former tool-and-die business owner whose company employed 65 people, Veryser said officials must undertake a plan that will help the city to become “more livable” so that young married couples relocate and start raising families within the city. With kids come the need for viable schools and with an education, people can enter the middle class, he said.

For those remaining in the city, where the population reached more than 1.8 million in the 1950, jobs are in great demand, said Capuchin Franciscan Brother Jerry Smith, executive director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen Ministries on Detroit’s east side.

“My sense overall is that people want to work,” Brother Smith said, identifying a young man who takes three buses and then walks 30 minutes to a job at a laundry service company in the suburbs. “It takes two hours to get there. I don’t know that most people would go to those kinds of links to work.”

“There are no jobs available. It seems to me that after years of fruitless searching, people, individuals, lose hope and don’t expect that things can be any different,” he explained.

Across town at St. Dominic Outreach, based at the former St. Dominic Parish, executive director Sherron Jenkins said that as jobs have left Detroit, her client base as increased. Since 2011, she said, the program has seen more than a 50 percent increase in the number of people seeking food assistance. The program now distributes 700 to 800 bags of groceries a month.

St. Dominic serves working-class communities surrounding Wayne State University northwest of downtown. Jenkins also said she regularly hears complaints about the lack of services delivered by the city, but is uncertain what the bankruptcy will mean to the people coming through the doors.

As the client base has grown, St. Dominic Outreach has struggled in recent years to meet the growing demand, Jenkins said.

“We have hit hard times before. But I think this is about the roughest,” said Jenkins, who has worked at St. Dominic for nearly 18 years.

“The most important thing is feeding the families and making sure that we help with the families and the seniors and the single people and the working poor. But I have a lot of faith in God and usually something always turns up. Without faith I don’t think we would be in this business.”

Beyond such ministries, the bankruptcy’s direct effect on the Catholic Church is expected to be minimal, Archbishop Vigneron said.

Without offering specific comments about the bankruptcy, the archbishop said the Catholic Church was prepared to help rebuild Detroit by assisting its parishes in meeting the needs of people living in the city’s stressed neighborhoods.

“What the Catholic Church needs to do is to provide a word of encouragement that there is good news and the good news is that God is with us and he will give us the strength to meet this challenge, Archbishop Vigneron said.

“One of the things we can do is witness to the truth that people have a lot of talent, that God will strengthen us to withstand this challenge,” the archbishop added.

The archdiocese has undergone its own restructuring under a plan announced in February 2012 by the archbishop, who pledged not to abandon the city of Detroit. The process will find greater emphasis on evangelization and catechesis, Christian service and outreach, increased focus on youth and young adults, lay leadership, stewardship and administration, strengthening Catholic schools and promoting vocations.

The archdiocese also in April announced that it sold four buildings housing its offices in or near downtown Detroit and would relocate its administrative offices in 2014 to another building downtown where it will be the anchor tenant. The sales will net the archdiocese $3.2 million.

The end result is a stronger church and a stronger church through its ministries and presence will benefit the city, the archbishop said.


Living in car with sons, Detroit woman embodies city’s challenges

By Dennis Sadowski

Katrina Robinson hugs Sherron Jenkins, director of St. Dominic Outreach Center, at the center in Detroit Aug. 7. Since May, on the nights when they are unable to crash with family or friends, the family car is the only shelter Robinson and her two young sons have. The center provides food, clothing, and other supplies. (CNS photo/Jim West)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — After three months, Katrina Robinson and her two young sons are getting tired of roaming Detroit’s suburbs to find a safe place to sleep.

Since May, on the nights when they can’t crash with family or friends, the family car is the only shelter Robinson and her two young sons have. The 24-hour big box stores, with bright lighting, security cameras and a decent amount of foot traffic that deters robbers from lurking offer the safest place to bed down for the night.

“If you want to sleep in your car, a Walmart, Meijer or a store that’s 24 hours in suburban areas (is best). With public bathrooms. That’s the safest I feel with my kids,” Robinson said.

Shelters are not an option.

“We sleep and we get up early in the morning and start our day,” Robinson told Catholic News Service by phone from the St. Dominic Outreach Center, near Wayne State University, where she gets food and her sons, ages 7 and 11, can join the activities for kids.

At some point throughout each day, Robinson will visit her three older children, a 17-year-old daughter and two 19-year-old sons. They have stayed much of the time with their father since she decided to give up her rented home after being laid off from a job as a hotel clerk. She said she moved to avoid having an eviction on her credit record.

Robinson’s father has a home on the city’s east side, but she rarely stays there because he works until late at night. Even with an alarm system and heavy bars on the doors, Robinson does not feel it’s a safe place for her boys.

“You don’t want them living in a block with drug dealers shooting it out every night,” she said.

Despite having no place to call home, Robinson said she has found little housing help from social service agencies. If she had been evicted, the help would have been easier to come by, the agencies tell her, she explained.

Robinson receives a $700 a month unemployment benefit, but $200 is committed to paying for storage for furniture and other possessions. That leaves too little for a place large enough for six people in the city’s safer neighborhoods like the one near Wayne State where the family formerly lived. So she has turned to the St. Dominic Outreach and its two-person staff and several volunteers for assistance.

St. Dominic serves residents in a wide area with a food pantry, children’s programs and family activities.

Director Sherron Jenkins said more and more people like Robinson are showing up at her door. Jenkins, who has worked at St. Dominic for nearly 18 years, said the number of people visiting the center has jumped by more than 50 percent since 2011 as more people are laid off from jobs. At times, Jenkins has to scramble to find donations of cash and food.

For Robinson and her older children, finding work is difficult because there are too many people pounding the pavement and not enough jobs. Most of the positions she has heard about pay being not much more than the $7.40 hourly minimum wage in Michigan, a couple of dollars less than her hotel job.

As challenging as life is, Robinson said that Detroit’s bankruptcy is bound to make things worse for people. She worries that work will be even harder to find as employers cut back on staff or stop hiring.

In the meantime, Robinson’s top priority is finding a home before school starts to stabilize her family’s situation. She does not want her boys missing school. Once settled, she plans to spend more time on finding work.

Eventually, Robinson wants to save enough money to buy an inexpensive house in the neighborhood she calls home. For now, the car will have to do.

“I’ve never been like this. I’m only 35. I never thought it would be like this for real. I never understood the homeless part. Once you are (homeless), it’s hard to get out of.”

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