Pope Francis Center has temporarily relocated its day shelter to the TCF Center in downtown Detroit to better accommodate the homeless population it serves during the coronavirus pandemic. Visitors apply hand sanitizer on Tuesday before walking up to receive one of the two daily meals the center serves. (Kimberly P. Mitchell / Detroit Free Press)

Homeless service providers across metro Detroit are facing a trio of challenges, as the temperature drops and COVID-19 cases surge.

They normally see increased demand during winter and this year is no different. At the same time, pandemic safety restrictions have forced shelters to cut back on the number of people they can accommodate. On top of this, state and federal safeguards against evictions are expected to end in December. Without further intervention, housing experts expect an eviction crisis that could send people into homelessness, taxing an already overwhelmed system of providers. 

The Coordinated Assessment Model in Detroit, a central system for those who need access to housing, is starting to see an increase in people needing shelter. In October, CAM referred 272 households to shelters — 75 more households than in September, said CAM manager Catherine Distelrath. CAM referred about the same number of households last month. 

Coalition On Temporary Shelter in Detroit sees the same increase in need. 

“There’s always an increase in the winter,” said Delphia Simmons, chief impact and learning officer at COTS. “… Some families are OK with sleeping in their car when the weather allows it or even being in a place that doesn’t necessarily have heat, but you can’t bear that in the winter.” 

COTS reduced the number of families it can accommodate in its emergency shelter by about half to curb the spread of the virus. Normally, the shelter can house up to 60 families with as many as three in a room. Now, it’s safe for only one family per room. 

Shelters and providers adapt

The Detroit Rescue Mission Missionaries added two more shelters to accommodate the spike, and 24 extra beds to its quarantine site. That’s on top of three sites the nonprofit added at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“We can’t put people over capacity in any building,” said Chad Audi, president and CEO. 

That demand has not waned throughout the pandemic either, he said. At one site for overflow with a cap of 125 beds, the lowest number of occupied beds was 120. Normally, during the summer, the people in the shelter drops by half. That’s not the case now. 

“This year, we kept the number steady full all year long,” he said. “We anticipate that the number will increase.” 

The Pope Francis Center, a day shelter, temporarily relocated to the TCF Center for the winter. Guests have access to meals, a laundry center and medical services. 

“Prior to the pandemic our busiest day ever in our 30 years, we saw 200 people,” executive director, the Rev. Tim McCabe, said. “We have not seen under that number since the pandemic began. We have served as many as 530 meals in a day.” 

Before the pandemic, MCREST in Macomb County, partnered with churches that would host guests on a weekly rotation. But COVID-19 has shuttered that model. Guests now stay at a local motel. In November, the shelter tripled its capacity from 60 to 180 people and that cap has already been met, Fidler said. 

Even in an overly taxed system, families like the Johnsons found some relief through that program. 

When they entered the program in the summer, the Johnsons didn’t expect to stay in a motel for such a long stretch of time, but difficulty finding a rental in a pandemic has forced them to stay put with their infant daughter

In July, the roof of their Highland Park home of two years collapsed and their landlord couldn’t afford to fix it. Mildew and leaking water made it impossible to live there. They stayed with family and then eventually MCREST opened its doors, said Angela Johnson, 40. 

“That was our first home together, as a family, with our daughter,” she said. 

Angela works in customer service remotely but her hours have been cut due to the pandemic, reducing the family income. Tony Johnson, her husband, has been working odd jobs and is looking for a more permanent gig that works with both of their schedules, he said. 

“You’ve got your back against a wall. We’re almost there but in a way, what’s there? We don’t make a lot of money, even getting a place and finding a place — people look at how much we’re making,” said Tony, 44. 

The Johnsons plan to stay at the motel until about January. In the meantime, they’re still searching for a new home to make their own. 

“It’s good, it’s clean, we’re grateful,” Angela said about the motel, but “this is not how we should live as people, as a family. We should be in our house, with our own keys.” 

Evictions could push people over the edge 

Housing experts estimate that millions of Americans are at risk of eviction because of the pandemic recession. One August report from the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based educational and policy studies organization, estimated that 30 million to 40 million renters could lose their homes this year. 

“We are talking about people who literally live paycheck to paycheck, who are on thin ice, at a breaking point where they’re going to lose it all,” said Liz McLachlan, director of fund development at the Community Housing Network. “…The policymakers just have to get out of each other’s way, and recognize that real Americans are really going through a tough time right now and it is not going to end.”

A November research paper from the Journal of Urban Health says that if protections are lifted, evictions are likely to increase COVID-19 infection rates because of overcrowded living environments and limited access to healthcare, especially among people of color and people with a low-income.

The deadlines to obtain help through housing safety nets are less than a month away. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction ban, issued Sept. 1, temporarily halts residential evictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and requires tenants to meet certain criteria and submit a declaration. It is set to expire Dec. 31.

The state’s $50 million Eviction Diversion Program, which began in July after a state moratorium on residential evictions lifted, and was created to help landlords and tenants with back rent, has a Dec. 30 deadline to allocate money.

As of October, about $17 million in financial assistance has been dispersed and the remainder is expected to be distributed by the end of the year, said Kelly Rose, chief housing solutions officer at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which is administering the program. 

Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, an organization helping people apply for the state program, received about 280 calls for housing help in November, and most were for the EDP. Last year around that time, the agency averaged 80 calls for housing. So far, about 830 households have gotten EDP help through Wayne Metro, but there are nearly 800 people “still in process of receiving assistance,” said Michele Robinson, interim executive director of basic needs at Wayne Metro. 

“The primary concern is that the need is going to outlast the money and its expected end date,” she said. 

So what’s next? Robinson said Wayne Metro has some money to help people after the state and federal safeguards expire. Wayne Metro has applied for additional funding from MSHDA, the Detroit Continuum of Care and the City of Detroit, she said.

The region’s system to assist people who lose their homes is not prepared to handle a massive influx of people facing eviction and becoming homeless, several providers said.

“For us in the homeless system, we’re eyeing this eviction moratorium and eviction diversion program, because we know that some of these people can certainly fall into the homeless system and we’re not really poised at this point to handle a mass entrance of folks,” said Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. 

How to get help:

  • If you live in Detroit, Highland Park or Hamtramck and need emergency shelter, call CAM at 313-305-0311. For those who need help in other parts of Wayne County, call Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at 734-284-6999. 
  • For help finding shelter in Oakland County, call the Community Housing Network at 248-269-1335.
  • For help finding shelter in Macomb County, call the Macomb Homeless Coalition at 586-213-5757. 

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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