Detroit poverty lawyer ends urban camp-out after judge's check puts her at funding goal

DETROIT, MICH. - She vowed to sleep outside until she had $18,500 in donations but Michigan was getting mighty cold.

Starting in mid-November, poverty lawyer Lisa Walinske holed up in a make-shift hut on a busy main street in Detroit, crawling each night into a sleeping bag on the city's gritty lower-east side, armed with nothing but a big dog -- and faith.

"I was starting to worry there because donations weren't coming in all that fast," Walinske said Friday.

"People in this neighborhood really need legal justice and they just can't afford to hire a lawyer," she explained, brandishing a milk bottle of coins donated by bus riders, folks who knew of her good works and trotted over from their bus stop to leave something, and others who "just seem excited that a lawyer is actually going to sit down with them."

Her offices, of ReDetroitEast Community Law Center, are directly across the thoroughfare from the parking lot where she built her hut from cast-off wooden pallets topped by two tent flies.

This week, as the temperature cratered, Walinske owned up to having doubts -- "many, many doubts" -- about whether she could hold out against oncoming winter with temps as low as 12 degrees, and against intensely missing her son Jake, 12.

Yet, she had nothing but smiles Friday after getting a visit from a man dressed in sharp contrast to the poor people who for a month have brought her snacks, words of encouragement, and little gifts like the small Nativity scene Walinske put next to a propane heater. The fellow in a dark-wool topcoat, who normally wouldn't stop at the corner of East Jefferson Avenue and Chalmers, handed her a check for $500. That put her fundraising over the top and a grin back on her face.

"I am so grateful, to him and everybody," Walinske said, after Wayne County Chief Circuit Judge Robert Columbo Jr. stopped by Thursday night. Colombo, reached at his office Friday, first asked to keep his donation confidential.

"I always think the best good deed I can do is just between God and me," he said. Relenting, Colombo admitted he'd read a Free Press story about Walinke's fund drive and her cold-baked "sleep-out" last week.

"Lisa Walinske's amazing. I knew she was doing that kind of work, which is so important because so many people come to court with no attorney, and she's filling that need," Colombo said.The recipient of the judge's generosity, covered in layers ofCarhartt wool, said she and her two law partners were looking forward to using the cash influx to seek what she'd painted on the side of her hut: "social justice."   Her GoFundMe account Friday night was at $18,720.

"We're going to start some community education classes. We'll have a know-your-rights series, and an environmental-law series. And there are so many people with their own cases we need to help."

So, lots to look forward to, yes. But one thing in the very near future, Walinske said, laughing.

"I just want a really hot shower."

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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