A Snapshot: The Stories and Faces of Detroit's Homeless

October 19, 2014, 9:29 PM

Mark Jacobs, an attorney and longtime community activist, is involved in nonprofit work and is chairman of Heart 2 Hart Detroit, a nonprofit organization that feeds and clothes Detroit's homeless population. It relies on donations and volunteers. This is the first in a series featuring homeless peeople in Detroit. 

By Mark Jacobs

Willie Foster is gazing at the traffic on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit.

The streets of Detroit have been his home for four months now, and he spends his days staring at his surroundings, struggling to survive and trying to piece together how he got to this point.

Willie Foster

Just yesterday, it sometimes seems to him, he had a loving family and home in North Carolina. But that was a very long time ago, before Vietnam changed him forever.

When Willie returned home to North Carolina from two tours of duty in Vietnam, 22 months altogether, he no longer resembled the young man who had left.

Grief-stricken, confused and angry, he eventually made the biggest mistake of his life.

One night he and his buddies committed an armed robbery and before he knew it, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and he served every minute of it.

He's free now, released just four months ago, but must somehow figure out how to get by in an unrecognizable world. It's not clear exactly how he landed in Detroit. 

The anger is gone as is the tough guy, but, at age 64, he's broken, sad, alone, frightened and homeless, one of about 20,000 in the Motor City.

Willie loves trucks. He once drove a big rig, as did his father and grandfather. It was what the Fosters did in North Carolina, and Willie carried that mantle, if ever so briefly.

When a big truck rolls past him on Jefferson Avenue, for a quick moment his heart warms and a slight smile passes his lips. It's the closest he'll come to a smile all day.

Willie went thirty years without seeing a truck. His meals and clothes were supplied to him, but his spirit died within those walls.

Thirty years, another lifetime ago.

When he was released, he had no clue where to go or whom to seek. His only focus these days is on the basics: food, clothing and shelter.

The furthest he can think ahead is the knowledge that a Michigan winter is right around the corner, and he fears he'll freeze to death one night in Hart Plaza, where he currently calls home.

He left Vietnam over 40 years ago but, like so many other veterans, he still can't shake it.

His mind is consumed with horrific flashbacks, and he still sheds spontaneous tears that he doesn't understand.

He never got the help he needed to deal with those flashbacks, and these days, a time when he must especially rely on his survival skills, the ghosts of Vietnam haunt his soul and paralyze his body.

He didn't die in those jungles, his name is not listed among the dead on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., but Willie's a living victim, nonetheless.

We walk past Willie and, if we notice him at all, we see an elderly homeless man, clearly weathered by a hard life. To most, Willie's just another homeless guy, barely visible to our busy eyes. 

We await Detroit's rebirth, and guys like Willie are an inconvenient eyesore to our vision of what that rebirth should look like.

But Willie's story is inextricably part of America's story. Boyhood aspirations, family traditions, a faraway war that changed it all, personal struggles, poverty and, finally, consequences.

We don't see Willie, but he sees us. What must we look like to him as he sits alone, hungry and frightened, watching us scurry about to our lunch dates, meetings and ball games?

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