Detroit church pays homeless people to clean up the city

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Winfield Jackson spent Detroit's first 50-degree day clearing out junk behind a house. A big grin was draped across his face. He wore a worn grey winter coat and a Detroit Lions hat. His jeans were ripped up and stained.

So what had him smiling so big?

“Work is good. Everybody likes money, so what's wrong with a little work,” said Jackson.

It's only his third day of work in sometime. Jackson is homeless. But on Thursday, he and about eight other guys spent the afternoon beautifying part of Desoto Street in what would be their first payday in sometime.

“Take negative situations and turn them into positive situations,” Jackson said. “This is a positive situation. We're earning money without panhandling. Instead of standing on the freeway begging people for change, we're earning something.”

The money the men are getting paid isn't coming from someone's bank account or a governmental program. It's coming from donations sent to the Better WAY Detroit initiative, which is hosted out of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. Designed to help put a little cash in the pockets of the homeless, it uses the honest-work-for-honest-pay code, and cleans up the city in the process.

The brainchild of Father Marko Djonovic of the Midtown parish of Our Lady of the Rosary, he's found himself inspired by the effect it's had on those who have tag along.

“The guys enjoy the camaraderie,” Djonovic said. “They're united in a common goal. They look out for each other. I've just experienced a lot of good here.”

A few times a week, Djonovic drives his large white suburban truck to shelters and sites where he knows homeless people sleep. Each time, different people are given the opportunity to help clean up a part of the city and get $10 an hour for their work. While the initiative started as a way to clean up Detroit's public parks, it has evolved into a system of beautifying some of the city's blighted neighborhoods.

On March 14, it was an empty house's backyard that's been the site of illegal dumping, overgrown with dead wood and weeds.

“It's showing some people that we ain't bad, even though we're homeless,” said Paul Heidger.

Heidger is a certified construction worker. He laid the carpet in the Fox Theater when it was refurbished in 1989. That was before he got caught up in a gang that landed him up in jail. Twenty-three years later, he's finds himself living under a bridge. With aspirations of getting back into the trade world, his objective is simple.

“My plan is to get my s*** together,” he said. “People see things, gradually when they see you doing something righteous, it helps.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports Michigan's homeless population declined by 8 percent in 2018, falling to 8,351 in the state. Detroit is seeing the same downward trend, with 2017 numbers totaling 1,769. Despite the decline, Djonovic still sees a need for programs like Better WAY Detroit.

The program isn't meant to be anything permanent however. Djonovic emphasizes that. It's only temporary, acting as a bridge for the homeless to get back on their feet.

“There's a lot of guys on the fringes that don't go to homeless agencies,” he said. “The agencies are fantastic, they are a well-polished machine. But some of the homeless don't trust them. They see homeless agencies as the system that burned them.”

That's where Djonovic sees his role. Acting as a mediator between the two parties, he hopes by getting to know the people better, he can build that trust back up.

The initiative started in May of 2018 after a man asking for money offered to help clean up the church. The experience convinced Djonovic that he might be able to replicate that internal motivation to work for money.

“That experience really made me think about humanity's intrinsic desire for work and dignity,” he said in a video on the organization's website. “From my experience, homeless persons prefer work over handouts.”

First, it started with paying homeless out of pocket to clean parks in the city as part of the Adopt-a-park program one day a week. But with increased publicity and a little marketing, donations grew and that meant more shifts a week - and not just in parks either. The church now works in conjunction with the city. A deputy manager in the mayor's office informs the church about a site that needs cleaning up somewhere in the city.

At the end of the shift, the group eats lunch and discuss where they're at in life. The church then looks at connecting them with housing and medical services.

The church and the city should not be rivals,” Djonovic said. “We should be working as a team and I think this is an excellent example of how we can work as a team and help the city.”

If you'd like to donate to Better WAY Detroit, go to their website and scroll down and click the 'donate' button.