When Father Djonovic rolls up with his friend Marcus Cobb, it’s probably because they’ve got a job to offer, in exchange for lunch and some pay.
“Word is getting out on the street about us,” Father Djonovic said of his new ministry, which he dubbed Better Way Detroit.
“So when they see the white Ford Excursion, they come up to us, asking, ‘Are you going to pick us up for work?’” he told CNA.
Father Djonovic and Cobb are the two-man crew behind Better Way Detroit, and since May, they have been teaming up with the city of Detroit and willing homeless workers to clean up the city’s parks, overgrown alleys and vacant lots.
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 Father 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 before starting this ministry, Father 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” in order to help all in need.
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 do this project,” he said.
Father 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, Father Djonovic said.
“We serve following his spirit,” he 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 Dept. to clean up parks through the “Adopt a Park” program. The Better Way Detroit now also help the city clear out overgrown alleys and vacant lots that can pose safety problems to neighborhoods.
Cobb provides much needed insight to the ministry for how to work with the homeless because he was once a homeless veteran himself, Father Djonovic said.
“I learn a lot from Marcus; he understands the homeless culture; he’s very wise,” Father 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.
Cobb said it helps instill a sense of respect and responsibility in 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 Father Djonovic said, because their team is often able to get to jobs that the city doesn’t have the staff to do.
For example, the city gets a lot of calls from senior citizens who have lived in their neighborhoods for decades and have safety concerns about overgrown lots that may serve as hideouts or hubs for drug deals, Father Djonovic said.
“One woman was just singing our praises” after they cleared up a vandalized, overgrown lot in her neighborhood, he said. “Once (lots) are exposed, they feel safer, especially for the sake of children.”
Father Djonovic said he feels privileged to get to work alongside the homeless, and as they work, “sometimes I get to know their story, and they get to know my story,” he said.
“It’s happened a few times where guys ask me, ‘Why did you become a priest?’” he said.
Every project concludes with lunch and a reflection on a Bible reading. They have also handed out prayer cards to the homeless and do their best to connect them to housing, health care services or other resources they might need.
“We at least just make them aware of the services available and encourage them to go; some guys aren’t aware of (everything available),” Djonovic said.
Father Djonovic currently funds the ministry entirely out of his own pocket and through any donations he receives for the project. All of the money goes strictly to needed materials, such as gloves or shovels, and to pay the homeless for their work.
Father Djonovic and Cobb added that they are always looking for ways to expand and strengthen their ministry, and they are hoping sometime in the future to employ someone in a full-time position who can oversee the operation to make it more sustainable.
“Things are looking good; we’re really enjoying it,” said Father Djonovic, who added that he’s been touched by some of the responses he’s seen from the homeless.
“One guy said: ‘I feel blessed to be a part of something positive.’ He didn’t say, ‘Oh, now I’ve got some money in my pocket,’” the priest recalled.
“Another young man, 25 years old, said it was a grace” to participate in the project, he said.
Cobb said he would encourage Catholics to encounter and get to know the poor in their cities.
“Go out and start from the bottom and communicate with the people. ... Go into the areas where the people don’t have the income, and approach them and talk to them halfway nice, and they’ll respond.”