Willie Brown has many compelling tales to tell. Of a glorious past. Then a fall from grace that left him homeless for two decades, including sleeping in a tent through bitter Detroit winters.
He tells of being a Marine veteran. Of singing background vocals for the legendary funk band Slave. Willie says he’s related to the great Sam Cooke and then croons his own soulful rendition of You Send Me. He tells of boxing professionally. Of making good money from fighting and singing, and then losing it all through bad financial decisions and alcoholism.
“I lost my home to foreclosure in the mid-80s, and then started living on the streets, in different shelters, in vacant houses and abandoned cars, wherever I could find temporarily,” said Willie, who is now 63. “I put myself through hell and hit rock bottom. I didn’t care, didn’t trust people, and didn’t have anything. I just wanted to be left alone.”
Two years ago, Willie met a homeless woman named Nikatha in a city park and they felt a bond.
“She was in a situation similar to me and was trying to overcome homelessness and alcohol addiction,” Willie said. “She, too, didn’t have anybody else.”
Willie obtained a tent, and he and Nikatha stayed together in it, first at Hart Plaza, then nearby. During the frigid months, they put mattresses against the sides of the tent to absorb the wind and cold.
“We made it through two winters, but I heard about people who froze to death on the streets, and that was a wake-up call that we needed to get a place of our own,” Willie said.
Willie applied for housing through the Coordinated Assessment Model (CAM Detroit), which is the systematic effort of service providers and stakeholders to address homelessness in the city. From the CAM, Willie was referred to Southwest Solutions’ Housing Resource Center (HRC) for housing placement. Willie worked with Housing Navigator Bukeka Thorpe and Housing Locator Specialist Karen Belle.
At the beginning of May, Willie and Nikatha moved into an apartment in the Dexter Linwood neighborhood that Bukeka and Karen located and made sure was decent. Dan Wood, a Clinical Housing Specialist at the HRC, designed a treatment plan to help Willie adapt to and maintain his housing. Dan counseled Willie at first through telehealth and now has begun in-person visits.
“I’m still striving to make things right in my life,” Willie said. “I’m in recovery from my drinking and I know it must be a lifelong commitment. I had money and fame and lost it all because I only thought of myself and didn’t put God first. I want to change and be a help to others.”
Willie is one of 16 formerly homeless people that the Housing Resource Center has placed into permanent supportive housing so far this year, despite the pandemic. Last year, the HRC placed 50 into housing.
Around the same time that Willie was housed, Carl Hughes moved into his apartment in the same building. Like Willie, Carl had been homeless, applied for housing through CAM Detroit, and then was referred to Southwest Solutions and assisted by Karen Belle, Housing Locator Specialist. Carl, too, is working with Dan Wood (Clinical Housing Specialist) to maintain stable housing. Dan also arranged for basic furniture and household goods for Carl’s apartment.
“This is my first apartment ever and I love it,” said Carl, 57. “It’s a new beginning. I’ve been cleaning it and making it into a nice home.”
Carl’s descent into homelessness began a decade ago after he lost all his personal identification. He had already lost his way, and his own identity didn’t seem to matter much to him anymore.
“I lived in shelters, but mostly it was street living,” Carl said. “My life went so far downhill that I felt I was like dirt.”
Before he was homeless, Carl worked a variety of jobs, including delivering produce and furniture, roofing, and landscaping. Now that he has stable housing, he is hoping that it is not too late to build a career.
“I want to get my GED and then enroll in a community college or job training program.” Carl said. “My goal is to learn a trade and earn a living.”