Priest offers Detroit homeless pay for an honest day’s work

Fr. Marko Djonovic of the Oratory-in-Formation at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Detroit, left, and project manager Marcus Cobb work with homeless men to help clean up Henderson Park along the Detroit riverfront on Aug. 20. Fr. Djonovic’s ministry, Better Way Detroit, helps homeless men and women earn an honest day’s wage by hiring them to beautify parks in the city. Photos by Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Better Way Detroit offers opportunity for men and women to earn wage by cleaning parks

DETROIT — A white Ford Excursion rolls into Henderson Park on the Detroit River. It parks, and out step four men with brooms, shovels and trash bags.

A foreman gives some quick instructions, and the men get to work.

What might look like a crew from the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department isn’t what it appears, though. It’s actually a ministry started by a Catholic priest.

Since May, Fr. Marko Djonovic of the Oratory-in-Formation at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Detroit has been leading “Better Way Detroit,” a startup ministry offering homeless men a chance to earn a wage by cleaning up parks in the city.

“One of St. Philip Neri’s chief charisms is outreach to the community and helping those in need,” Fr. Djonovic told The Michigan Catholic. “This project offers homeless men and women the opportunity to work for pay.”

Fr. Djonovic and Our Lady of the Rosary parishioner Marcus Cobb drive around the city in the aforementioned Excursion, visiting locations where the homeless can often be found. Fr. Djonovic then engages them in conversation, explaining who he is and offering work in exchange for a day’s wage.

“People prefer to work for pay over handouts,” Fr. Djonovic said. “As we’ve done this, we engage with them and get to know their life situation. Many times, we can help them. Last week, I helped a guy going through the housing process, setting him up with the resources he needed to find a place.”

Better Way Detroit works with the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department to determine which parks need to be cleaned and what other things can be done to beautify the city.

There is no week-to-week commitment for the volunteers, and Fr. Djonovic said it is usually different people every week who volunteer to work four to five hours.

“A lot of guys are willing to work, but are skeptical and don’t want to deal with the people and nonsense that goes along with getting a steady job,” said Cobb, project manager for Better Way Detroit.

Cobb is a Vietnam veteran who dealt with his own situation battling alcoholism and homelessness and now uses his experience to connect with men who live on the streets and are looking for a way to make a positive contribution.

“This gives them responsibility and a sense of stability,” Cobb said. “We have one gentleman today who’s a Vietnam vet, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and is struggling to get the benefits he deserves. This gives him a sense of accomplishment.”

Nobody wants to be homeless, but many men and women face physical and mental obstacles that prevent them from holding a stable job or working through substance abuse issues, Cobb said. He said projects like Better Way Detroit reintroduce the dignity of work to men who haven’t had steady employment in years.

Rico Titsworth sweeps trash into a garbage bag at Henderson Park in Detroit on Aug. 20.

“I see a change in them when they’re given responsibility,” Cobb said. “When we come to the park and I explain to them what to do, they automatically spread out and get it done. We help maintain and clean up these parks, and it makes us feel good.”

Fr. Djonovic funds the project out of his own pocket, but would like to find sponsors and endowments to keep the ministry running. He’s created a video about the project and how it is bringing a sense of hope and purpose to the lives of those who are often overlooked or looked upon with pity.

“Pope Francis says that work is fundamental to the dignity of the person,” Fr. Djonovic said. “We’ve been going out every week since May, making personal connections with people, learning their stories, and giving them a chance to earn a wage. I think there is an intrinsic desire within each one of us to work; we just need that opportunity.”

Reginald Furlow of Detroit spent the morning cleaning up the Detroit River bank at Henderson Park, acknowledging it was his first experience with the group, but adding he enjoyed working in the sun.

“I was at the soup kitchen when Fr. Marko offered me and anyone who wanted work a chance to clean up the parks,” Furlow said. “It’s a nice day, there is a lot of beauty out here, and the work isn’t that hard. All along Jefferson you have these beautiful parks and people come out here and celebrate things, and they are leaving a lot of trash around.

“It’s nice to be part of something and help clean up; it’s like your own way of giving back. Being able to help a little bit and make some money, it improves my life. And it’s a great thing we’re doing.”

As the crew picked up trash blowing around the parking lot, Fr. Djonovic said the ministry has exceeded expectations. And he doesn’t want to see it end there.

“This project helps men find dignity through labor, but it requires funding,” Fr. Djonovic said. “Right now I’m funding it by myself and the donations I’ve received from others, but I’m praying, hoping for generous ways God can provide for us. The more money we can raise, the more homeless we can offer work, and the more lives we can touch by offering everyone we can the satisfaction of a day’s labor. We’re giving them a chance to give back to the city of Detroit.”

Support the project

To help support Fr. Marko Djonovic’s homeless employment project, Better Way Detroit, email [email protected].