School of Social Work alumnus and R&B singer are crusaders against homelessness
WSU alumnus Risarg "Reggie" Huff and R&B singer KEM have two things in common. One, they never set out to help the homeless. Two, they'll be honored by the School of Social Work this month for their unflagging efforts to do just that.
Huff and KEM, who respectively will be named Alumnus of the Year and Citizen of the Year by the school's Alumni Association at a March 29 luncheon in McGregor Conference Center, heeded a call to fight homelessness through circumstances, albeit very different ones.
Huff, a 30-year veteran of social work, became acquainted with the plight of the homeless while overseeing performance improvement for Neighborhood Service Organization's (NSO) various programs. His concern for this population grew, and by the time NSO created a dedicated position to lead outreach on homelessness, Huff knew he'd found his calling.
KEM's introduction to the homeless was less auspicious. In the late 1980s he was an addict flitting in and out of Detroit shelters and soup kitchens until he eventually became homeless. He hit rock bottom on July 23, 1990, a day that is etched in his memory.
"I was at a place of bankruptcy emotionally, mentally and physically," said KEM, whose drug use fueled episodes of public unconsciousness and run-ins with the law. "For the first time during my bout with homelessness and addiction, I was actually sleeping outside on the streets. I didn't have a place to go and I had burned all of my bridges. That was my bottom; that was the day I had my last drink and drug."
KEM got clean and achieved stardom as a recording artist, but he wanted to give back to the services that had helped "sustain me until I was ready to enter the journey of recovery." He launched the nonprofit organization Mack and Third to gather food and raise funds for the area's homeless shelters and food banks, and since 2009 has organized a free outdoor summer concert in Detroit's Cass Park. The event, sponsored by Detroit and Detroit-area corporations, collects tens of thousands of dollars of canned goods, offers free health screenings, and distributes thousands of toothbrush and toiletry kits.
There are an estimated 19,000 homeless individuals in Detroit, and while their suffering is not unique among the nation's homeless, Huff said, their plight is compounded by a dearth of city resources to meet their needs.
"When you hear the stories of homeless people, you realize that any one of them could be you," he said. "We have people with master's degrees that end up homeless because of substance abuse, mental illness, or other issues. Homeless people live in a world of danger - they are preyed upon constantly - and when they find people they can trust and build a relationship with, they can rise out of their situation."
KEM, whose mother graduated from Wayne State University, also recognizes the critical importance of treating people bereft of life's necessities with respect. For one thing, he refers to individuals in the city's shelters as "guests."
"That is the perfect word, as opposed to clients or transients," he said. "We have guests in our homes, and that's how we want the recipients of this work to be treated so they are not further demeaned. The situation that we find ourselves in when homeless and when dealing with the issues that made us homeless is demeaning enough. To be considered a guest is uplifting."
Does KEM want to be remembered for his music or for his philanthropy?
"I think they would be seen as the same thing," he said. "If I wasn't making music there would be no Mack and Third. My celebrity and my community work all go together."
The School of Social Work Alumni Association's Annual Awards Luncheon will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. RSVP by March 20 with online payment or by contacting Julie Alter-Kay, special assistant to the dean, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proceeds from this event go towards activities and scholarship of the alumni association.