They drive around three days a week, stopping at shelters and other homeless hangouts, offering several hours of work for pay. The van can hold up to six people besides Djonovic and Cobb, and they typically take workers on a first come, first serve basis.
While he never worked with the homeless in any official capacity prior to starting this ministry, Djonovic said he was inspired by the individual interactions he had had with people on the streets.
After helping a mentally ill man get off the streets and into housing, he said he realized that while the homeless agencies are a “well-polished machine, there are gaps in that sometimes they can’t go out on the streets and find people and meet these people.”
He said he also discovered that many of the homeless had a strong work ethic and a desire to work for pay.
“When I see the homeless I don’t see hopeless objects of pity, but I see persons...with a sincere desire to work. They want to work. And there’s a great need in the city of Detroit, so putting those two things together moved me to to do this project,” he said.
Djonovic is also part of the newly-formed Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Detroit.
The spirit of service found in St. Philip Neri was an inspiration behind Better Way Detroit, Djonovic said.
“We serve following his spirit,” Djonovic said of the members of the Oratory. That service manifests itself in three ways: evangelization to youth, the cultivation of the spiritual life among the people through the sacraments, and service to the poor.
“I believe it’s what St. Philip would have done, he wasn’t afraid to out on the streets and preach the Gospel, to engage people, which included the homeless. St. Philip Neri was known as the apostle of Rome just because of that,” he said.
In the beginning, Better Way Detroit partnered with the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department to clean up parks through their Adopt a Park program. They now also help the city clear out overgrown alleys and vacant lots that can pose safety problems to neighborhoods.
Cobb provides much need insight to the ministry for how to work with the homeless because he was once a homeless veteran himself, Djonovic said.
“I learn a lot from Marcus, he understands the homeless culture; he’s very wise,” Djonovic said. He said Cobb has taught him the importance of being attentive to even the smaller needs of the homeless, such as if they want cigarettes or water, and to let them know they are respected.
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Cobb said it helps instill a sense of respect and responsibility to the homeless that they work with if they are given ownership of the projects in which they partake. Every job starts with an evaluation of the site and the work to be done, and the homeless workers decide how best to get the job done, he said.
“You give them ownership, ask them how it should be done. It gives them responsibility,” Cobb said. “We get their input, and before you know it everyone’s teaming up. It makes them feel important, it gets better results, and they put the word out because they know it’s well worth their time.”
Cobb said he believes the ministry has been well-received among the homeless because “it gives them something to look forward to, and a chance to give back, and to get back into society.”
“Just because they’re homeless...doesn’t mean they don’t want to give back or try to get back in to society,” Cobb said.
It also appeals to the homeless because it gives them a chance to provide for some of their own needs “without a handout,” he said.
The partnership with the city, which is significantly understaffed, has also worked well, Cobb and Djonovic said, because their team is often able to get to jobs that the city doesn’t have the staff to do.