Samuel Lewis, 53, of Detroit sits with a younger photo of his child's mother Alanna Wilkins who died due to an addiction in September of 2022 while homeless following the annual Pope Francis Center Homeless Persons' Memorial on Wednesday, December 21, 2022, at Ss. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in Downtown Detroit. The ceremony was held in honor of the lives of Detroiters who died while homeless this year. The service included a reading of the names of people experiencing homelessness who passed in 2022. (Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

Samuel Deiu Lewis wants people to know that his daughter’s mother was generous. She was intelligent. She was compassionate. When they had nothing and were on the streets, she would give her last $5 dollars to someone who truly needed it.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

“She gave her heart,” Lewis, 53, said.

Alanna Wilkins was among 31 people honored at a memorial service commemorating those known to have died this year while experiencing homelessness in Detroit. Many were regular guests of the Pope Francis Center, which organized the service Wednesday evening. They were known and loved. They were someone’s child.

“I was hoping and praying that she would have been doing this for me and not me doing this for her,” Lewis said. Wilkins, 25, died in September, he said. They a five-year-old daughter.

A black and white picture of Wilkins, smiling wide, sat on a table alongside the names and faces of the others being remembered. There was Danny Ruffin. Ace. Dana Moore. Richard Nelson. Mark “Danger” LeGree.

“Each one of these 31 people who have died in the streets this year had mothers and fathers, who were somebody’s baby, somebody’s child,” said Father Tim McCabe, executive director of the Pope Francis Center, at the funeral liturgy. He prayed for them and called on the more than 40 attendees to do the same.

The service was a part of the national Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, which typically takes place on Dec. 21 — the longest night of the year. Down the aisle at Ss. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church, pallbearers wheeled in an empty casket, shrouded in a funeral pall. As names were read, a bell tolled and staff and volunteers carried a lit candle, representing each person, and placed it on the tables. Organizers of the service said it was likely one of the longest list of names of homeless people who had died since the center started holding the ceremony in 2015.

A ceremonial casket is prepared to be brought to the front of the church during the annual Pope Francis Center Homeless Persons’ Memorial on Wednesday, December 21, 2022, at Ss. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in Downtown Detroit in honor of the lives of Detroiters who died while homeless this year. The service included a reading of the names of people experiencing homelessness who passed in 2022. (Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

Throughout the program, choirs from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, St. Charles Borromeo and Ss. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church sang hymns and gospel music. McCabe performed a symbolic incensing rite, rounding the coffin and going to each table.

“We must work towards a day where we don’t have to gather in this church,” McCabe said.

This year, there were more than 1,600 people facing homelessness in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park — an 18% increase from prior years, according to the Homeless Action Network of Detroit’s “point-in-time” count, which offers a snapshot of one night in late January. Among those counted, there were roughly 200 people who were unsheltered on the streets.

“They had lives and stories and struggles. They had trauma,” McCabe said.

Since 2015, the Pope Francis Center has been honoring people who died while homeless, he said.

“Everybody does it a little bit differently,” McCabe said. “I like to do it as a prayerful way of remembering them and honoring them and not to lose sight of the fact that we have to ask, ‘why are people dying homeless on our streets.'”

There is a lack of community support for people who are struggling with mental illnesses and addiction, he said. There is also a shortage of affordable housing.

The Pope Francis Center runs a day shelter and serves nearly 200 people daily, offering meals, showers, laundry, medical care and legal clinics. McCabe previously told the Free Press that’s 50% higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic, but below the need the center saw when the health crisis first started. 

“This is probably the largest number of names we’ve had for a memorial but it’s also the largest number of folks we’re seeing every day and we don’t necessarily see signs of that slowing down,” said Chris Harthen, director of housing advocacy at the Pope Francis Center.

A winter storm is expected to hit Southeast Michigan Thursday. The City of Detroit is operating two city-run recreation centers and three warming centers for people who need to stay warm.

City of Detroit Recreation Centers (Overnight Shelters):

  • Farwell Recreation Center: 2711 E. Outer Drive; Friday, Dec. 23 8 a.m. through Monday, Dec. 26, at 8 a.m.
  • Patton Recreation Center: 2301 Woodmere; Friday, Dec. 23 8 a.m. through Monday, Dec. 26, at 8 a.m.

People seeking shelter services or warming center placement should call the Coordinated Assessment Model (CAM) — the main entry point for people facing homelessness in the city to get shelter. They can call CAM at 313-305-0311. The hours of operation are: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Outside of CAM hours and the holidays, people can come in person to the following warming centers through the end of March:

  • Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries (for families and single women): Mack Warming Center, 11037 Mack Ave., Detroit, MI 48214; 313-331-8990
  • Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries (single men): Third Street Warming Center, 3535 Third Ave., Detroit, MI 48201; 313-993-6703
  • Cass Community Social Services (families and single women): 11850 Woodrow Wilson St., Detroit, MI 48206; 313-883-2277

The Pope Francis Center is located at 438 St. Antoine in Detroit, and is open from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday.

Veterans who need shelter can go to the second floor of the John D. Dingell Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s red tower, 4646 John R St., Detroit, MI 48201. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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1 Comment

  1. This is so heartbreaking.Homlessness is not just in Detroit.Its in the suburbs as well.But a city that puts a 6 million dollar animal shelter before a human homeless shelter there is a problem.And yes I’m a animal lover and owner but I feel that the needs of a human being should be a priority.Shamsful.

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