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Detroiters' Barter System Isn't Just About Kindness — It's A Necessity


And one final story from Detroit. It's about the city's informal economy. Detroit recently exited municipal bankruptcy. The city's central business quarters have improved, yes, but as we just heard, many neighborhoods are still struggling. So some Detroiters have come together to make the best of their situation. Eli Newman with member station WDET has the story.

ELI NEWMAN, BYLINE: On the porch of her family home in southwest Detroit, which in recent weeks has become a sort of makeshift storefront Jessica Ramirez collects a range of items.

JESSICA RAMIREZ: Today, we had a little bag of little boy's clothes, some little girl's clothes, a cat carrier, a purse.

NEWMAN: Jessica's running low on inventory but only because she gave away so many items earlier in the week. Her group, which is called Detroiters Helping Each Other, stays busy. Whether it's through social media or word of mouth, people find out when and where Jessica is giving out donations. Sometimes they'll turn around and give back.

RAMIREZ: They might have stuff that they no longer need and are looking for size fives but they have size fours, so they'll donate those size fours and take the size fives they need.

NEWMAN: And it's not just clothes, sometimes it's the essentials. A few blocks away, we meet Amber Depowski. She doesn't have much in the apartment she shares with her two sons. The dining room table, the dressers, their microwave.

AMBER DEPOWSKI: Everything you see was donated.

NEWMAN: Amber says a fire destroyed most of her belongings. And after her family moved into a new apartment, they were exposed to black mold. Her youngest son almost died from it. It got so bad, they decided to move out without another place to live.

DEPOWSKI: So we ended up homeless, sleeping in the car. And then when I ran out of options and friends, she seen a post I made on Facebook, called and asked what happened. And the next thing I know, we're in a room. And a week later, we're here.

NEWMAN: Jessica's husband is the breadwinner, so she can spend her days surrounded by friends, family and those she's helped. In many ways, she acts as a dispatcher, setting up those in need with people who can help advocating on their behalf. She calls over Daniel Craig, who lives down the street. He and his family just moved onto her block. Daniel says after issues with their previous landlord, they moved in with his grandparents for a while, but they could have been left homeless if Jessica hadn't stepped in.

DANIEL CRAIG: They just told me to go. They didn't care where I - headed. And I happened to - walking down the street looking for a place, and I asked her. And within five minutes, she had - like I said, she had me a place to stay.

NEWMAN: Daniel, in turn, gives Jessica a hand from time to time.

CRAIG: Well, help her with a lot of stuff. I help her unload everything and help her move everything but yeah.

NEWMAN: Jessica and Detroiters Helping Each Other aren't the only ones in the city who rely on semi-autonomous self-made networks of goods and services. Jenny Lendrum is a doctoral candidate at Wayne State University who studies Detroit's informal economies. She says what's happening in the city isn't just a display of good community.

JENNY LENDRUM: It's more out of survival. And it's hard to put a value on these exchanges. It happens to be exchanges that take place, and whatever particular need needs to be filled at that moment gets filled by whoever has whatever resources the other person might need.

NEWMAN: For the last four years, Detroiters Helping Each Other has focused on those who need the most assistance, but the group isn't registered as a nonprofit in any formal manner. Jessica says that's partially by design.

RAMIREZ: As long as I don't become a 501, it will keep people continuing to want to just help each other out of the kindness of their heart and just not expect nothing in return.

NEWMAN: For some Detroiters, it's more than just kindness, it's a necessity. For NPR News in Detroit, I'm Eli Newman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eli Newman