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Spire: Volume 1, Number 2

Finding Sustainable Solutions to Homelessness with Better Way Detroit

    It’s no secret that Detroit is struggling. Once a thriving metropolis, the Motor City suffered a dramatic fall from grace that began with an overreliance on the domestic automotive manufacturing industry. Detroit was hit incredibly hard by the Great Recession and the bankruptcies of both Chrysler and GM; then, the municipal government itself filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013. Today, the city is beginning to recover, but it still struggles with comparatively high levels of poverty and homelessness.

    At first glance, Better Way Detroit might look like just another nonprofit organization working with the homeless population in the city. However, its methods and mission go well beyond offering a hot meal or a shelter to sleep in.

    Rebecca Fifelski began working with Better Way Detroit in the summer of 2022 as a volunteer, but it didn’t take her long to become the Board Director. “I just wanted to learn about the organization and see what was going on and . . . help out in any way I could.”

    And there’s plenty to learn. Better Way Detroit doesn’t operate quite like other organizations that work with the homeless. Spearheaded by Father Marko Djonovic, who has long been passionate about ministering to the homeless population, Better Way Detroit serves as a means for individuals to help themselves escape the trap of homelessness.

    Instead of handouts, Better Way Detroit, with the assistance of shelter staff, identifies those who are ready to take on the responsibility of working. One of the biggest struggles of those who are genuinely ready to leave the streets and shelters is gaining the skills and confidence to secure employment and gain the work experience needed to pave the road toward a better life. Through a combination of connections with local businesses, schools, and churches, as well as the mentorship of Better Way’s volunteers, qualified candidates are placed in a four-week work program.

    “We provide the transportation, and that worksite is usually at another nonprofit that needs help,” Rebecca explains. “So, we'll work at Saint Vincent de Paul in their store—they're providing people in the neighborhood access to low-cost household goods—and then we work with Good Fellows, which is an organization that provides Christmas gifts to children in need. We’ll work outside for the City of Detroit to clean up blighted houses.”

    The program participants are grateful for being trained for and entrusted with opportunities for honest, paid work. Over and above traditional compensation, Better Way Detroit provides a support system and mentorship long after the completion of the four-week work program. Rebecca adds: “We try to get everybody placed either in a training program or employment with a temporary agency or even permanent employment. We've gotten people positions at warehouses, manufacturing, restaurants.”

    The simple fact is that the old adage of it being far easier to get a job when you already have a job is even more true for those struggling with homelessness. Numerous organizations generously provide temporary shelter and food to help meet the immediate needs of those facing such obstacles. Better Way Detroit—operating on the principle that when “you teach a man how to fish, he can feed himself for life”—seeks to break the cycle of homelessness itself through the dignity and purpose of work.

    The Acton Institute has, since 2020, been instrumental in providing guidance and mentorship to the staff at Better Way Detroit. Long-time Acton supporter Rosemary Kirt brought the organization to the attention of Acton leadership, after realizing how aligned the approaches and values of the two organizations are. 

    The Acton Institute is honored to draw attention to this fine organization as an example of how building relationships, focusing on the dignity of the individual, and finding a noble purpose can help support a freer and more virtuous society. Through the ministry of caring individuals working with clear purpose, we are capable of solving even the most difficult problems our world faces.

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