KALAMAZOO, MI – Dick Shilts has trouble getting back to sleep. Over the past four months, he has spent time with the Kalamazoo homeless community. He has met people sleeping in trucks, abandoned buildings and even inside tree trunks.
In the 46 years that Shilts spent as a varsity basketball coach at Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College, there is no doubt that he has had sleepless nights before.
But now, when he wakes up in the middle of the night as temperatures drop into his teens, he thinks of the 200 or so people in Kalamazoo sleeping outside.
“These people we know and have spoken to have faces,” Shilts said. “It’s not just homelessness now, it’s people who have names.
“I just got into a comfy bed and covered myself up and I think, wow, these people are over there.”
Shilts, 77, was recently honored by the Michigan Community College Athletic Association with awards for student athletes being presented on her behalf – the Dick Shilts Awards for Male and Female Student Athlete of the Year.
But, for Shilts, it was always about the impact off the field.
For 50 years, Shilts has been part of a book discussion group, Dawn Patrol, through the First United Methodist Church. The group of mostly older white men read “Dear White Christians,” and felt their views challenged and their opinions changed, Shilts said.
“It became a group that was trying to go from being able to say ‘we are not racist’ to a group that meant ‘we are anti-racist’,” he said.
They agreed that their conversation would be different if there were more people of color in their group. They invited people of color from different faiths, organizations and backgrounds and found that their conversations had become more in-depth, Shilts said.
Their conversations around books like “Dying of Whiteness” and “When They Call You A Terrorist” not only sparked a deeper understanding of racism, but also a deeper question for the group: “What are we doing about it?
In different church groups, Shilts met a member who had experienced homelessness after being incarcerated. Her story and personal connections to those currently homeless in Kalamazoo inspired an effort to work with the Detroit Empowerment Plan to help the local homeless population.
Empowerment Plan is a non-profit organization that employs homeless people in Detroit to help them find sustainable housing. On average, employees spend two years with the empowerment plan before moving on, according to the website.
Employees create durable winter jackets that can be folded into full-size sleeping bags. When the coat is unfolded, the back padding can be folded down and unzipped to place legs and feet inside while sleeping.
During the day, the sleeping bag can be folded into the back of the jacket or detached from the velcro and used as a bag. The back and sleeves of the coat also have loops that allow the coat to be rolled up tightly in a handbag with a shoulder strap.
Since the nonprofit was founded in 2012, no employee has relapsed into homelessness after working at Empowerment Plan, according to the organization’s website.
The 40-hour workweek for employees is divided into 60% production and 40% support programs and services that range from health and wellness education to financial literacy and management.
Inspired by the Empowerment Plan, Shilts and the Dawn Patrol used fundraising efforts to purchase 10 coats to distribute to those sleeping outside in Kalamazoo.
The positive feedback from the homeless community was immediate, Shilts said. Donations to buy more coats arrived quickly as demand for them also increased, he said.
The idea inspired others from the Early Presbyterian Church and St. Catherine’s Catholic Church to order coats to distribute themselves.
To date, 85 coats have been distributed to those sleeping outdoors in Kalamazoo. Shilts often carries a couple of them in his car, so he’s ready to hand them out anytime.
The initiative worked with the Kalamazoo Public Security Department to help improve relations between the police and the homeless community.
On December 23, police accompanied Shilts to the camp near the Kalamazoo River to distribute 18 coats.
“We’re finding that there are a lot of people out there who want to help,” Shilts said.
This holiday season, Shilts’ grandchildren pooled their Christmas money to donate a family sleeping bag coat. Shilts was stifled by this feeling, calling it the best Christmas present he had ever received.
Those who want to donate to the Kalamazoo effort can contact Shilts at [email protected] Coats cost $ 131 including shipping. Donations can be made in any amount and combined to purchase a coat, Shilts said.
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