Fresh Start

A unique Detroit program rolls out the welcome mat for the homeless
Photograph by Dave Krieger

Joyce James rummages in her fanny pack looking for a picture of one of her granddaughters. “I know it’s in here somewhere,” she says, her gray-streaked dark hair offset by the Day-Glo chartreuse vest she wears on the job.

“Ah, here it is,” she says triumphantly. “This is Charlie.” James extracts what looks like a school photo of a young girl with long braids and a smile full of baby teeth. “Isn’t she adorable?” she says, beaming as any grandmother would.

The 60-year-old is all smiles lately, even when she isn’t bragging about her granddaughters.

That wasn’t always so. A year ago, James was homeless and unemployed. And a year before that, she was addicted to drugs. Now, thanks to some homegrown help, James is a full-time employee of Clean Downtown, a beautification initiative. Since the beginning of October, she’s been living in her own place just off Griswold. “Still need some furniture,” she says, with a Cheshire grin. “But I’m happy.”

Then the smile rolls from her face. “You know, I had been using for 18 years. But I had hit my bottom. I couldn’t do it anymore, and I knew I needed a fresh start.”

James’ new beginning started when she enrolled in a 90-day treatment center in Detroit. “I knew I was done with that life,” she says. “I went against the grain for so long, it was time to change.”

After treatment and a short stint in Baton Rouge, La., where she worked two jobs and lived in a Catholic homeless shelter, she returned to her hometown, Detroit. “I left Detroit; I needed a change of scenery, but it just wasn’t right down there,” she says.

It was here that she was connected with a program to which she says she owes much. It’s called 2-1-1 On the Go!, the only one of its kind in the country. Most communities offer the basic 2-1-1 human-services program: People seeking help dial the three numbers and ask for directions to a soup kitchen or shelter, or inquire about employment opportunities. In Detroit, appropriately, that program has been put on wheels — on the go.

A year ago, Cindy Pasky, the high-profile president of Strategic Staffing Solutions, presented 2-1-1 On the Go! as a concept to the Downtown Detroit Partnership board. Soon afterward, Roger Penske signed on, and United Way involved its 2-1-1 referral service. Now Detroit’s pilot program is regarded as a model for other cities.

In Detroit, United Way administers 2-1-1 On the Go!, which has put two Chevy Cobalts on city streets, where, with the help of some pretty high-tech equipment, they offer services to homeless people who are ready, willing, and able to take the next step.

“There are a lot of homeless people out there who just need a little help,” says John Azoni, one of two social workers who operate the 2-1-1 cars. “They’re ready to improve their lives, but have barriers that prohibit that. Things like no transportation, no phone number in case someone called for a job, or no mailing address. We help remove these barriers.”

Azoni says about 18,000 homeless people live on Detroit streets, making the program essential to improving the city. Though 2-1-1 On the Go! is relatively new, it has seen some great successes — James among them.

“Joyce [James] is exactly who we are trying to help,” Azoni says. “Through her own motivation and with our navigation, she improved her life.”

She personifies the 2-1-1 goals. “If it weren’t for them, I’d still be homeless,” she says. “They’re awesome. People tell me that I smile so much now and I say, ‘I even smile in my sleep.’”