DETROIT (AP) — Can this be? A homeless lawyer, sleeping in a shack in Detroit.
And taking calls, working cases and talking to clients, all from inside a hut fashioned out of shipping pallets and other scrap wood, just a few feet away from busy East Jefferson Avenue on the city’s gritty lower-east side.
Lisa Walinske is dressed in heavy wool. A wood fire, illegal but commonplace in the city, burns in a little stove.
The police don’t know what to do with Walinske, who by the way has a scrap-lumber shelf outside her shack stacked with legal-aid flyers, some saying, “Your Rights and the Police.”
The 41-year-old attorney and advocate for the less fortunate knows about rights.
“The police stopped here twice, saying they’d seen smoke, trying to get me to pack up,” she told the Detroit Free Press , as embers glowed this week inside her little pot-bellied iron stove. The second time they came, there were two squad cars.
“A sergeant came up and said, ‘Tell me why you should stay.’ So I gave him my spiel. I gave a whole ad hoc speech to four or five officers. I told them about our cause. And they finally let me stay,” she said, smiling like a cat digesting a canary.
Walinske isn’t truly homeless. But what she calls “the cause” is scrawled in red paint outside the shack: “Camp Out for Justice.”
She’s determined to sleep outside until she raises “at least” $18,500 for her nonprofit law firm, “so we can help more people,” she said. Her long-term goal though is to raise $30,000 in six months, as stated on her GoFundMe: Campout for Justice Detroit page.
“We need money to pay a staff person to coordinate things, so we can help more people. We want to increase our outreach efforts, and we also need to pay the heating bills for several of our community properties where we’re housing people with no place to stay,” Walinske continued.
So far, only $1,075 had come in by Dec. 4.
Walinske said she owns “a very small house” in Grosse Pointe Park. And she usually lives there with her son Jake, 12, although since her camp-out began on Nov. 21, in a parking lot on East Jefferson at Chalmers, Jake has stayed with his grandma in Clinton Township, she said.
“He’s not a fan of this,” Jake’s mom added, her smile turning to a smirk.
“He came by and said, ‘This is embarrassing, Mom. You look homeless.’”
“I do want to get home to him. But I feel I have to do this,” said Walinske, a slender woman who, on a recent day, wore heavy hiking boots, a wool sweater and a plaid-knit cap with a brim. Her background seems the perfect mix for this urban camp-out with a cause: Wayne State University Law School, mountaineering and survival training in Wyoming, and a bottomless well of empathy for down-and-out Detroiters.
“He’s homeless,” Walinske said, pointing to a bearded man, perhaps in his 50s, who pedaled off on a bike as a reporter approached her shack.
“I’m trying to help him,” she said.
His problem? It’s complicated. So, it seems, are just about all of the lives of those who come to Walinske for more than just legal aid. Some need housing. Some need mattresses and blankets after they were burned out or evicted. Some need more than she can give. Which is why she’s outdoors, at a time when most Americans are firing up furnaces, and why she’ll stay out she said until she gets the donations she needs.
Several years ago, after holding a series of jobs in law and community service, Walinske threw over a conventional career in suburban Detroit and found low-cost office space a stone’s throw from this urban campsite, in Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood that adjoins Grosse Pointe Park. There, she founded ReDetroit East Community Law Center and now has two partners helping her take the side of poor people in court.
Virtually all of their cases are done “on a sliding scale,” she said. That means fees are based on the client’s income. In this neighborhood, that’s usually not much.
The firm’s biggest case is a class-action lawsuit against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, contesting steep new drainage fees charged to Detroiters. Starting this year, city residents pay for the rain that computer programs estimate is running off their yards and even the side lots they own. The fees are especially unfair when charged for the adjoining side lots, Walinske said.
“Our contention is that the imposition of a drainage charge (on side lots) is in actuality a rain tax, in violation of the Headlee Amendment,” she said. The lead plaintiff in the case, Nicola Binns, said her only hope to stay in her home is if Walinske prevails in court.
“Oh, Lisa’s wonderful — she hasn’t charged me anything,” said Binns, 60, adding: “She’s done many other things for me, many other things.”
Binns, who lives several blocks from Walinske’s campout, walks with a cane and lives with two dogs and two cats beside a large community vegetable plot on a side lot she maintains for the neighborhood, with help from AmeriCorps and other volunteers.
Detroit’s water czars abruptly began levying drainage fees this year on thousands of parcels in the city. Those who don’t pay can have their water shut off. Water department officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit, although DWSD spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said a side lot should be charged a drainage fee only if it encompasses a driveway, garage or other “impervious surface.”
Many of the cases ReDetroit East Community Law Center accepts are appeals filed on behalf of prison inmates. The lawyers are paid by the inmates’ respective counties, although no one could prosper on such cases.
“We get paid at the end of the case, anywhere from $350 to $400. So we lose money on each case. We spend more than that on gas and postage,” Walinske said, to nods from her law partner Kathleen Garbacz, 29, of Hamtramck seated in the shack’s outdoor living room, a rectangle of waist-high scrap wood roughly 4-by-4 feet.
Garbacz said she grew up in Clinton Township, also graduated from WSU’s law school, and ever since has “been involved in social and economic justice” — although not with camping out. Garbacz perched close to Walinske’s glowing pot-belly stove while a reporter recently visited. With the temperature at 42 degrees, the reporter sat even closer.
One of the law firm’s unusual clients is Michael Seger, who owns Get Fresh Studio, a stylish recording studio tucked inside a nondescript office building across from Walinske’s campsite. Seger, who has offices that adjoin Walinske’s firm, is unusual because he can afford to pay.
Seger, 30, said he hired Walinske to help him close on a house he’s buying in Detroit on a riverfront street not far from his studio, where this month he’s recording a Christmas album by WDIV-TV morning host Evrod Cassimy.
“Lisa definitely helps as many people as she can. I’ve seen that,” he said. Included in the law firm’s space are two apartments, and “she’s taken two single mothers in, when they had nowhere to go — one mother has an infant child,” Seger said.
Walinske seems to come by her empathy naturally. She grew up in Fraser in a middle-class family, “but we were always doing something in Detroit, going to church and volunteering,” Walinske said.
“My parents’ philosophy has always been, if you have resources and are blessed with them, you share them,” she said.
Her makeshift shack, topped with two tent flies to catch rain, has wood sides chalked and painted inside and out with sayings, many of them biblical, along with “Cry out for justice”; and “Live simply — there’s no substitute for sanity.” Someone donated a small nativity scene.
Renee Slaughter, a former client, was on her way to do grocery shopping when she passed the shack, bathed in late-autumn sunshine. No harm would come to its occupant, Slaughter assured a reporter.
“I know everybody in the neighborhood. I pass out flyers. I used to do the food pantry at Faith Church” two blocks away.
“I told Lisa I know she’ll be safe here. I’ll be hearing she got the money, I’m sure,” she said, before strolling off.
So far, Walinske said she hasn’t been afraid.
“One guy comes by every day and just shouts things — ‘Go back to Grosse Pointe.’ What can you do?” she said, shrugging and laughing.
“My dog’s here at night. She’s an aggressive breed — a Doberman mixed with a Rottweiler. She’ll let me know if someone’s coming,” Walinske said.
She said she’s well aware that temperatures soon will dive, especially at night.
“I’ve been out here awhile and your blood kind of thickens up.”
Is there a dash of martyr wannabe in this stunt? Walinske insisted not. She grinned, though, to admit she relished “the adventure of it.” Nor did she discount having a motive aside from fundraising to get people thinking about what it means to be poor, and outside right now.”
In law school, Walinske was associate editor of the WSU Law Review. She was named by Michigan Lawyers Weekly in 2013 as one of the top 25 Women in the Law that year. In May, she graduated with honors with an extra law degree — a master’s in environmental law from Vermont Law School, ranked No. 1 in the nation for environmental law by U.S. News & World Report.
Walinske once had a comfortable office in Royal Oak, and a cozy income as the partner in a well-established law firm. Now, nails dirty, wood smoke in her clothes, she’s on the street and seeing her clients walk by. Living a slice of their lives. Yearning to do more.
“Someone came by last night and yelled, ‘Be safe, Lisa. Praying for you.’”
“I’m not sure who that was,” she said.