A Detroit Snapshot: From College-Educated to Homeless

December 08, 2014, 9:30 AM

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 second in a series. 

By Mark Jacobs 

“I am Detroit”, says J.R. Mills, as he gazes at the Detroit River and looks for answers that do not come. If you had met J.R. 10 years ago, you would think - you would know - that this is exactly the kind of man that will be part of Detroit’s turnaround.

J.R. Mills

J.R. was a rising star: college educated, quick-minded, an infectious smile and a passion to serve his community. He was strong and ambitious, with a loving family and a good job, and a natural gift for gab,

J.R. could inspire others and it didn’t take long for people to take notice. J.R. was going places, on the fast track, or so it seemed.

But that was before it all crashed, and now he spends his days mostly alone, homeless, injured and frightened, staring at the River and trying to collect his thoughts.

There was a time when life came easy for J.R.

As J.R. tells it, he loved to study and learn new and challenging things.

He says he started college at Wayne State before transferring to the University of Michigan, his dream school, though he never got a degree. He loved engineering, especially electronic graphic engineering, and landed a job at Delphi and collected numerous advanced vocational certificates.

He had a quick turn of fortune --  he was shot and wounded  and became unemployed . The crash was sudden. 

But he didn’t give up on helping others.

Around 2010, he worked for the Detroit Action Commonwealth, a community group hat helps people in need.  He became president for a while, but he eventually headed back to the streets.

Another casualty in Detroit. Just like that.

“He was really dynamic,” says Molly Sweeney, a community organizer with the group. “He’s definitely  an outspoken personality. Very passionate.”

Today, J.R.’s life is no longer about the promise of tomorrow; it’s about the daily struggle for survival.

“The benches are too scary to sleep on,” he says, “and so I usually go from casino to casino until 6:00 am when I can go to St. Peters for a shower.”  He gets many of his meals and clothes from Heart 2 Hart, a local non-profit that aids the homeless.

He wants people to know that there are homeless people like him, people who once were educated, determined, going places.

We walk by many of these people and may dismiss them as untidy, unambitious, maybe a drug addict or an ex-con. But among the almost 20,000 homeless Detroiters are many people that don’t fit that mold, people who are literally left out in the cold.  

“I don’t just speak for myself,” he emphasizes, “I am Detroit.”

J.R. stares at the Detroit River every night and prays.

Gazing at the cold water, alone, a long way from the University of Michigan and the bright future he was certain was just around the corner, he asks the Lord for guidance and safety.

And he throws in the one wish that he believes can turn his luck around: “I just want a job.”

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