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400 cyclists go on 17-mile biking pilgrimage through Detroit to help the homeless

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In another era, Geoffrey Chaucer would say people went on pilgrimages to make new friends and express their faith in humanity. Today we join up for bicycling rides, and it is ever so fun.

On a picture postcard perfect Sunday, I joined 400 other cyclists at the Bell Building in Detroit to embark on a 17-mile tour of the city and raise funds for the homeless population. A rather interesting contract.

The event raised an estimated $20,000 that goes a long way to providing food and shelter to Detroit’s neediest citizens.

Cyclists are the darlings of a city on the rebound. More than 5,000 people from around the region come together on Monday nights to cycle riding some of the swellest bikes you’ve ever seen.

That’s just one night’s activity.

To many homeless folks are the scourge of a comeback city, banished from view during high-profile conventions. Shunted from place to place – enduring the punishing sun and whipping winds – they wander into shelters for respite. And that’s every night.

The folks with cardboard placards are everywhere, at any corner. But who helps the neediest? How?

Say “hurray” to David Rudolph, public relations firm owner and founder of Handlebars for the Homeless, now in its fifth year of raising money for more than 16,000 folks without a permanent roof overhead in our city. It began with his new hobby – cycling.

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:-R: Detroit Police Officer Jenkins, David E. Rudolph, Detroit Police Officer Kimbrough. Officers Jenkins and Kimbrough are from the 10th Detroit Police Precinct Photo courtesy of Handlebars for Homeless

“When I’d ride my bike around town I’d see homeless people, sleeping on park benches, huddled under an awning of an abandoned storefront or rummaging dumpsters in an alley. I wondered how many others had failed to see this misery if they only traveled the streets in automobiles at 40 miles an hour,” says Rudolph.

Because he was already on the board of Neighborhood Services Organization, a $26-million group whose primary thrust is serving the homeless of Detroit, he took the notion of a cycling fundraiser to his compatriots and they gave a hearty approval. This became one of the few one-day, philanthropic bike events.

“Cyclists by nature are philanthropic,” Rudolph says. “They stop to help people, to talk to strangers. To give them a chance to contribute to charity and enjoy a ride was a natural connection.”

Thomas E. Page - in front of the step-and-repeat wall

L-R: David Rudolph and Thomas Page in front of the step-and-repeat wall Photo courtesy of Handlebars for Homeless

Rudolph tapped Thomas E. Page, a retired Los Angeles cop who leads rides nearly every weekend around Detroit. Together they developed a 17-mile ride that would start at the Bell Building at 882 Oakman Boulevard, a nearly 225,500-square-foot structure that houses 155 formerly homeless adults in pristine, permanent housing. This is long-held dream of NSO’s chief executive officer Sheilah Clay, who hopes to end homelessness by the end of the decade. Cyclists will help her do that.

With each year the biking crowds gets larger. This year groups from AAA, Biking Belle Isle, Bikram Yoga Grosse Pointe, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Muslim American Society, Daly Merritt Insurance, Meijer and a bunch of sponsoring organizations came in custom T-shirts and rode happily from start to finish.

One woman rode barefoot. One guy came from Highland, a far distant suburb, because he wanted to do one good thing for Detroit’s downtrodden. I came because my brother was a homeless person for several years and I experienced the heartache living on the streets causes individuals and their families. This was a day of contrasts, city-suburb, affluent-downtrodden, refurbished-condemned.

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Ride bike support team Photo Courtesy of Handlebars for Homeless

Riding through Detroit streets, we passed the former Berry Gordy mansion in Boston-Edison and the winding, regal streets of Sherwood Forest, the up-and-coming neighborhood where real estate agent Austin Black II says inventory is so tight the average house sells in less than 15 days with bidding wars ensuing.

The city is coming back in a big way and cyclists cheer as they pass by and see all the fine landscaping and majestic houses that radiate a hundred years with charm.

Home in Sherwood Forest

Home in Sherwood Forest

“This isn’t one of the cardboard subdivisions in the ‘burbs,’” one guy says out loud.

Then we travel through the Marygrove-Fitzgerald neighborhood where legions of Detroit Conservation Corps members paid by Greening of Detroit are cleaning and rehabbing more than 100 vacant lots and helping tired houses get a facelift.

Highland Park tells a sadder tale, along Hamilton, once a go-to place for fine antiques, is one burned out carcass after another, including the 565,000-square-foot building that housed Reclaim Detroit that burned for days this spring with all its recycled wood inside.

We also spotted one man riding by with at least 10 kitchen-size plastic bags filled with returnable bottles. In a strong wind he might have been airborne. Numerous people sat on folding chairs in vacant lots. Nowhere to go, but they waved and smiled to us as we glided by.

St. Moses the Black (formerly Church of the Madonna)

St. Moses the Black (formerly Church of the Madonna)

The sounds of choirs wafted out of open church doors, including St. Moses the Black on Oakman Boulevard in Detroit and the Wings of Truth Gospel Church on Hamilton at Tuxedo in Highland Park, raising hopes and spirits far beyond the environment.

We clustered for photos in front of the ivy-covered campuses of the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College and ran through the splash park in Palmer Park, grateful for a quick shower on a blazing hot, sunny day.

In the end we gathered round the food trucks, listened to a great DJ and congratulated ourselves for going the distance on behalf of the homeless.

For 61 years the Neighborhood Services Organization has provided life-changing and supportive programs to the neediest citizens of Detroit. There’s a chance to continue the mission and volunteer time, raise funds for these most worthy causes. Here’s what NSO does:

  • Housing: 155 homeless people in tidy, modern, permanent apartments in the revamped Bell Building, which also serves as the headquarters of Neighborhood Services Organization.
  • The Road Home: A dedicated mobile unit that makes direct contact with chronically homeless individuals afflicted with both mental health and substance abuse issues
  • Tumaini Center: Provides crisis and support services for homeless adults in the city of Detroit.
  • Supportive Housing: Employs the “Housing First” approach to move individuals who are homeless or living in shelters directly into permanent housing, along with support services.
  • Bridges and Shelter Plus Care: A scattered-site supportive housing program.
  • Projects For Assistance In Transition From Homelessness (PATH): Offers community mental health, case management and housing placement.

David Rudolph’s best advice, “Pay attention. People live under bridges, inside alleys, all along the street. Ask what you can do to help.”

To learn how you could be a part of the solution to homelessness, call 313-961-4890 or visit

– Lead photo courtesy of Handlebars for Homeless

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