DETROIT — On most days, Brother Al Mascia pedals his bicycle cart through downtown Detroit handing out much-needed food to homeless people.
Mascia, 56, is lean and lithe, and handles the cart with ease.
The idea of the cart came from the Franciscan friar's memories of growing up surrounded by street vendors in New York. The food cart fits over the bicycle's front end.
The cart, purchased from California with the aid of a benefactor, was outfitted with foldable countertops, insulation and a battery for lighting. It holds Thermos bottles of coffee and hot chocolate. Some days, Mascia dispenses muffins and cookies. On really good days, he has hot homemade breakfast sandwiches donated by church groups.
He said he thinks the cart adds a bit of joy to the act of giving. "It's not just for the food and clothing we can provide," he said, "but the whimsy, if you will, of the way we can provide it."
While making rounds this winter, Mascia would always check for Linda Del Signore, a 60-year-old homeless woman who struggled with mental illness. Del Signore spent nights sleeping against a building in Capitol Park. She was among the estimated 300 people who sleep on sidewalks, park benches or under bridges in downtown Detroit and environs, according to the most recent count by the Homeless Action Network of Detroit.
Mascia lives on the eighth floor of the Archdiocese of Detroit's chancery building, next to St. Aloysius Church on Washington Boulevard. One day in late January, the temperature was about 10 degrees, and Mascia could not see Del Signore from his apartment window.
After morning prayers, he went looking for her. He found her, nearly frozen in a door well at 37 State St., an empty storefront at the base of the David Stott building, just a few yards off Woodward.
He called EMS on his cell phone. He then called the parish nurse, who told him to try rubbing down the sternum of her chest with his knuckles. Mascia could hear her labored breathing, and she groaned a bit with his touch.
The paramedics worked on her for an hour before they told Mascia it was too late.
Mascia considers Del Signore a lost friend, and he is determined not to lose another friend.
"We're going to really push people, like Linda — the most needy and the most dependent — to trust us, and to tell their stories, as much as we're able to," Mascia said.
The Franciscan friar is prayerful that he will get what he needs to keep up with the demand — winter gear now and items like socks and moist towelettes for when the chill fades with the warmth of spring and summer.
On another day on Washington Boulevard, in front of the boarded-up windows of the Book Building, Mascia handed out coffee and sandwiches to several men, scruffy and weather-beaten from living on the streets. One man, in particular, seemed under-dressed for the weather.
"I'm going to give you the variety pack," Mascia told Rufus Taylor, a regular at shelters in the Cass Corridor. Mascia gave him hand warmers, toe warmers and a body warmer, demonstrating how the synthetic heating material can sit between his shirt and coat to generate warmth.
Taylor, 60, grasped the coffee cup offered him with deformed hands. He lost parts of his fingers to frostbite two years ago.
"It's what we're here on Earth to do — help one another," Mascia said. "And especially if we can be there for the most dependent, so much the better."