Community//

“Keeping the hope.” With Fotis Georgiadis & Larry Johnson

We have diverted our attention to keeping people whole and hope alive. This crisis has provided us an opportunity to help in yet another very tangible way. Residents have long seen us as a beacon of light and hope and this is yet another opportunity to demonstrate that by our response to this crisis. Due […]

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We have diverted our attention to keeping people whole and hope alive. This crisis has provided us an opportunity to help in yet another very tangible way. Residents have long seen us as a beacon of light and hope and this is yet another opportunity to demonstrate that by our response to this crisis. Due to the distancing restrictions we are all faced with this crisis had added another layer of difficulty in meeting needs but we have found a way. At the same time it’s given us a chance to deepen our relationships with our residents, getting to know them on a more personal level.


As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Johnson, co-founder and executive director of LifeBUILDERS.

In 2005, after years of helping the underserved in under resourced communities, Johnson and his wife, Marilyn, decided to give themselves and their wealth to helping a Detroit neighborhood in distress by starting the nonprofit LifeBUILDERS. They ultimately moved into the community they chose to serve, building the “mom and pop” shop into one that serves hundreds of residents annually. The Johnsons play a pivotal role in establishing, expanding and enhancing relationships with community members, as well as seeking out and collaborating with public and private partners to provide solutions and assist with LifeBUILDERS’ vision to transform a one square mile section of Detroit as a means of being a catalyst to help spur transformation throughout the city.


Thank you so much for joining us Larry! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

Igrew up in a steel mill town across the river from St. Louis, Missouri. Dad was in construction and Mom worked at a grocery store. I have one sister, who is nine years younger. I worked from the time I was very young. I cut grass, worked at grocery stores, gas stations and on farms. I went to the University of Missouri at Rolla, earned a bachelor’s degree of engineering management. I started working in computer sales in 1970 and, after several years of success, I launched a computer leasing and sales company known as North American Computer Equipment. It was sold to a Fortune 500 Company in 1990 and my wife, Marilyn, and I began what has become a journey of faith and serving and philanthropy all over the world. After several years of serving on boards and traveling internationally our heart was broken for Detroit, specifically the plight of Detroit neighborhoods in the midst of job loss, abandonment and more. LifeBUILDERS was formed in 2005 and, in 2010, we moved from an affluent city nearby to the Detroit neighborhood we would focus our efforts — Regent Park. LifeBUILDERS’ work is widely recognized and applauded in the faith and secular community for its holistic approach to community development.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

In general, it all began when Marilyn and I volunteered at a faith-based, nonprofit organization in Detroit that provides food, shelter and services to those experiencing homelessness and substance addiction. We became generally concerned about what happens with people when they leave the shelter. I remember coming home from serving a Thanksgiving meal and talking with many of the ladies who were in drug rehab and Marilyn saying, ‘What happens to these women when they leave here?’ That was the beginning of us thinking where do they go? Do they have somewhere to live? Do they have a support system? That led to the purchase of our first house in Regent Park and the rest is history.

The effects of blight and abandonment, vacant and dangerous homes is overwhelming. Seeing this every day, knowing drug dealers are operating in abandoned houses, houses with overgrown grass, fires being started and more leaves people living in fear, staying home and without a place to recreate or to take a walk. These were the conditions of the neighborhood when we started and decided to take on the problem. It was far more than we ever anticipated. And we had no experience, just the heart and the funds to try and do something to change the environment. We now have set a new standard of rental housing, and tenant landlord relationships.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

Working in shelters we saw people dealing with addiction and homelessness. We began to understand the different ways people respond to great loss, such as feelings of hopelessness and turning to drugs and ending up on the streets. We had firsthand conversations with people in these situations and observances over the years.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

Many times, it stems from a trauma in life that they have no means to recover from, poor decisions, feelings of hopelessness and despair, negative influences, not being accountable, expected to achieve. These things lead in some cases to such overwhelming pressures, despair and a downward spiral.

We saw firsthand what living in poverty looked like — no disposable income, no ability to deal with adversity, mistreated and maligned by employers, landlords, making tough decisions about how to spend limited income.

We saw so much of this and thought this is just not right, this shouldn’t be. That’s what moved us. And then we went about advocating for justice and fairness.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

Fear of change, inability to move, puts more anxiety and pressure in one’s life. Issues of homelessness are complex.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

By its very nature and the fact that we’re a different kind of landlord. When our residents are faced with a personal crisis, a loss of job or unexpected expense, we work with them to get through these things. We might forgive a month’s rent or help them pay for something, to keep their life as whole as possible. Our mission is to support and encourage people where appropriate.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

We have diverted our attention to keeping people whole and hope alive. This crisis has provided us an opportunity to help in yet another very tangible way. Residents have long seen us as a beacon of light and hope and this is yet another opportunity to demonstrate that by our response to this crisis. Due to the distancing restrictions we are all faced with this crisis had added another layer of difficulty in meeting needs but we have found a way. At the same time it’s given us a chance to deepen our relationships with our residents, getting to know them on a more personal level.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Despite all the obstacles and discouragement, we’ve seen so many people encouraged and moving along positively with their life. And that’s sufficient for us. They see in all that we do, we deflect any honor and praise, and give all the honor to God in this.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

Two individuals come to mind. Both got involved with us early on, stayed with us, and have been working and growing in all aspects of their lives. Today their lives look very different.

One story is about a woman we met that came out of drug rehab and moved into our apartment. She has been with us for more than a decade and has worked with us and is involved with her church. Another is a young man that came to us years ago. His father was shot and killed. He ended up working for us for years. Both of these individuals have had their lives set on a new trajectory and in many ways they are paying it forward to others now.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

I believe community engagement, financial support and actually having a conversation with a person and see each other’s perspective, learn from each other would help. If people could seek to understand these things, we could get to the root of this as a society.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

It’s about faith. We’ve been called here. There’s great injustice we see. There’s been such an unfair distribution of resources that needs to be rectified. We believe in our heart through our advocacy and persistence in this work that we will continue to see a neighborhood community become whole.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

Of course I believe this great social challenge can be solved completely. All things are possible.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I don’t know about five things, but there are definitely two things that come to mind.

The first is that you can work at this for decades and you still may never fully understand all the issues. The challenges are so great and so many are systemic, that hoping to understand fully why someone reacts the way they do to something is all one can do.

Secondly, I wish I would have known how negatively landlords are viewed here in Detroit. Despite doing very high quality work and being a landlord unlike others, there is such stigma attached to being a landlord, negative perceptions and connotations associated with that title ‘landlord.’ It was very difficult to deal with in the early days of this work.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If there was appropriate policing of landlords in the way that they maintain their properties and treat their tenants, that would bring about real change. Seeing that whole ecosystem changing, guidelines and quality standards put in place and then enforced, I think that would help people feel dignified and respected, that would make people feel more valued and want to get engaged in revitalization efforts. Their housing situation is constantly diminished by the landlord, people not expecting to be treated fairly. When there’s a maintenance problem, having a landlord not get to it for weeks or if ever can have a terrible effect on people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“When the morning’s freshness has been replaced by the weariness of midday, when the leg muscles give under the strain, the climb seems endless, and suddenly nothing will go quite as you wish-it is then that you must not hesitate.” This is a quote by Dag Hammarskjold. I have always been a persistent person, believing that if I stuck with something and worked real hard that the end result would be favorable.

Also, Dwight L. Moody, the founder of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago said once to a friend, “Man has yet to see what God can do with a person who fully surrenders his life to God. I intend to give Him that chance.” I find that the more I give myself to others, the more I see God at work accomplishing His will in my life and in others.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’ve met some amazing people in my life. But if she were alive today I would say Mother Theresa, because of her love for the poor and her adaptability to all situations. I remember her telling someone, who asked her how she could one day be picking up a poor person off the street of Calcutta then the next day meeting with the President of the United States, “Every morning when I get up I say, Lord, whatever you have for me today is just fine.”

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.instagram.com/lifebuildersdetroit

http://www.lifebuildersdetroit.com/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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