Citywide SOUP Winner – December 2011

Each year, tens of thousands of people make a pilgrimage to northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and build a city from scratch. Then they have a party, which culminates in the burning of a towering effigy. After a week, they dismantle the city and head home, leaving no trace that they were ever there.

For those who haven’t been to the Burning Man Festival, the event is hard to comprehend, but for “Burners,” it can be a life-altering experience.

Detroiter Danielle Kaltz is a Burner whose life changed with her first trip to Burning Man 10 years ago. Returning home to Detroit, Kaltz embraced the 10 principals of Burning Man: radical inclusion, gifting, de-commodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

Another concept she embraced was that of “Burners Without Borders,” an initiative that was born in 2005 when a group of Burners left the festival for the Gulf Coast to pitch in on Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts.

With these things in mind, Danielle Kaltz began a new job as the digital assets manager of the Detroit News, which involved a commute along freeways from her East side home to her office downtown. On her drives, she began to notice people living under viaducts. As the weather harshened, she contemplated how she could help give comfort to a homeless person – even if only for one night. She began to collect various supplies – things like blankets, canned food, snack bars, and socks – and loaded them into her trunk.

“I’ll never forget the first time I stopped,” says Kaltz, “We were both scared as hell.” The man she had brought supplies for eventually came over to her and accepted her package.

Next Kaltz had the idea of loading a backpack with a variety of supplies and using that as her unit of distribution. She founded a Detroit chapter of Burners Without Borders and launched the Homeless Backpack Project.

“We’re Burners. We do extreme camping. It just makes sense for us to do something like this,” she says.

Kaltz began accepting donations of various supplies, and with whatever money she could raise, she purchased backpacks. But new backpacks are expensive (donated used backpacks tend to have significant amounts of wear and tear), and it was challenging to raise the funds she needed.

It was 2011 and Kaltz had heard about Detroit SOUP and thought it might be worth pitching her idea at an event.

“SOUP was weird,” says Kaltz. “I was nervous. It was the first time with the project where I stood up and said, ‘Hey!’ I just walked up with my backpack and spilled out the contents for the audience to see. The whole experience really helped me get over talking to people about the project.”

The audience picked and funded Kaltz’s idea that night, which was a surprise to her. “I didn’t vote because I didn’t know who to vote for. Everyone was so great,” she remembers.

And the money was a big help.

“A lot of people think $700 isn’t a lot of money, but when you’re out there hustling for your project, it really means a lot.”

Today, Kaltz continues to develop her project, and a growing number of people – many non-Burners – are lending support. She continues to drive around the city and deliver backpacks to homeless people. And she listens to the people she serves. “What’s in those bags is based on my relationship with the homeless people I meet,” she says. “They tell me what they need.”

For Kaltz, though, her efforts really have little to do with backpacks. “It’s more about the empathetic connection we’re making with people on the streets,” she says. “We don’t just drop off backpacks, we have an interaction.”

Find more information about Burners Without Borders (Detroit) on their website: www.bwbdetroit.wordpress.com

– Matthew Lewis