‘Critical Difference:’ A Health Ministry Perspective on the Senior Housing Crisis in Detroit

“A Society that Doesn’t Care for Its Elderly Has No Future”

–          Pope Francis in a homily, Nov. 19, 2013

 Note: This year, 115 residents were evicted from The Griswold Building, in Downtown Detroit, forced to find housing elsewhere in the city and Southeast Michigan. The Griswold was being transformed into “The Alfred,” an upscale apartment marketed to young professionals. St. Aloysius Catholic Church, a Downtown church, became involved in this issue. Kathleen Ruth, works on behalf of the congregation as Faith Community Nurse. This is part 1 of an essay she wrote about her church’s involvement in this population health issue, which affects up to 2,000 seniors in other downtown apartments which may convert to market-rate housing over the next five years.

By Kathleen Ruth, MSN, RN, APHN-BC

The renewal of Detroit is evident and life giving to a city that has been struggling for decades. There are joggers and people walking their dogs at all times of the day. Young adults are finding their way to refurbished lofts and apartments as the employment picture in Downtown Detroit improves. Investors are purchasing buildings hoping to be part of this renaissance. The renewal train of Detroit is picking up momentum; but the long-time residents, our elderly neighbors, were never invited aboard.

About a year ago the elderly residents who lived in the Griswold Apartment Building in Downtown Detroit received the official news that they would have to move out. The Section 8 Housing Contract between Griswold and HUD had expired and a new owner had purchased the building.

The news traveled fast—anger and sadness penetrated the community. People struggled with questions of “why?” Many of the elderly have lived in their apartment for over 30 years, and quite frankly had said they hoped to die there. Stress and loss of self-worth was taking its toll. How could St. Aloysius serve?

In August of 2013, I contacted Garbette Garraway, PhD who is a retired U of D Mercy Psychology Professor; he also has a very active counseling practice. I shared with him the anguish of our elderly neighbors—he volunteered his time and expertise immediately. Dr. Garraway and I had opportunity to meet about 20 people in the Griswold community room. It was there that he began counseling the elderly residents. He met with them as a group and as individuals every Wednesday afternoon beginning in August; he did this faithfully (and pro bono) through December. Those who participated worked through their grief; the door to healing was open—Dr. Garraway made a critical difference.

January came and major problems were about to erupt for the Griswold residents. It was the last week in January when Johnny came to my office. He had some questions about his medications—a routine office visit. But this routine office visit became a critical event when Johnny said, “You know Kathy, it is getting hard to breathe in my apartment. They started doing major construction in our building and there is dust everywhere—I can’t take it, Kathy.”

I immediately called another resident and it was confirmed. Johnny wasn’t the only person suffering. Many of the elderly residents had chronic illnesses and now were facing exacerbation of their illnesses related to the filth. Moreover, two elevators in Griswold were not dependable, and now one of the elevators was dedicated to only construction workers. Imagine if you have an appointment for kidney dialysis or with your doctor and the only available elevator is not working! Imagine if you must use a motorized scooter and the elevator doesn’t work! Imagine being on supplemental oxygen and trying to breathe in your dust-filled apartment and hallways. Our elderly neighbors were not considered at all when this construction work began. How could this happen?

I made numerous complaint calls to the City of Detroit Building Department and spoke with division managers. Promises were made to send an inspector out. Simultaneously, the elderly residents of Griswold also made complaints. But a critical difference happened when Deacon Don remembered when a St. Aloysius parishioner said to him, “If you ever need my assistance, please contact me.” I was given this person’s contact information: I called Paul Novak, an attorney with Milberg LLP in Detroit.

The second part of this blog will appear tomorrow.