Last March, the pandemic forced grassroots group Detroit Action to halt a 10-year program helping people who face homelessness or have low incomes get their vital records. That program ran out of soup kitchens, where it reached people in need, and closed at that time.
More than a year later, the initiative relaunched reviving a service that Detroit Action — which focuses on economic injustices affecting Black and brown Detroiters — says can help more than a dozen people a week navigate the often complicated process of getting IDs and birth certificates.
These vital records are required to access housing and employment.
“Having an ID and a birth record — that is an essential need regardless,” said Remeta Hicks-Montgomery, service and mutual aid director at Detroit Action. “When you come against a pandemic, it just exacerbates the problems that are already there and it magnifies the issues that we have with access to those important documents within our community.”
The ID program is one of three initiatives Detroit Action is rolling out this spring. The aim? Tap into the acute needs people have — such as access to IDs and birth certificates, direct cash assistance and help finding employment — and address the economic hardships the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.
Detroit Actions’ efforts are among several initiatives across the city that grassroots groups have created or expanded in the COVID-19 pandemic to meet the basic needs of neighbors, whether that’s providing food or cash help for basics such as rent. These groups are often referred to as mutual aid networks — a term that has come up in the past year as people struggled with employment, housing and food insecurity — and describes community members helping one another meet those needs, instead of leaving neighbors to fend for themselves.
More than a year into a pandemic, some of these Detroit groups say they’re here to stay and plan to grow their work.
Community efforts expected to continue beyond pandemic
When the Detroit Community Fridge popped up along West Vernor in Southwest Detroit last summer, the co-founders implemented a “take what you need, leave what you don’t” approach. The blue and red painted fridge told people passing by just as much.
Now, Wayne State University students Alyssa Rogers and Emily Eicher plan on standing up three more fridges across the city. The original fridge has moved to the Eastside of Detroit and businesses including Rose’s Fine Foods and Planted Detroit help fill it up with cakes and salads, alongside milk, eggs, canned goods and hygiene products.
Last summer, after seeing community fridges crop up across the country, in places like New York and Los Angeles, in response to the pandemic, the co-founders decided to refurbish a fridge that was sitting in Eicher’s garage into a communal spot for food drop offs and pickups.
“It’s open 24/7 — accessible to anybody who needs it, no questions asked,” said Eicher, a graduate student studying art therapy. She said it’s difficult to quantify how many people have used the fridge, but that the “need is great.” The fridge serves a large homeless population, Rogers said, a pre-med junior studying biology.
Rogers and Eicher don’t foresee an end date to this work. The two plan to partner with local nonprofits, as their operations expand, and have ramped up their volunteer base to about 60 people who maintain the fridge — cleaning it and making sure it’s stocked up.
A job to take care of each other
Volunteers helped Michigan Mutual Aid Coalition — another initiative that grew out of the pandemic — expand and deliver more food to families in Detroit and metro Detroit. About 40 people go on weekly routes to drop off food and other necessities like chicken, pasta, rice, beans, canned fruit, pre-made salads, diapers and formula.
It started back in March when Emily Reardon began delivering food to seven homebound senior households. Now, that number has grown to 30 households and includes families with children, too. The operation has moved from Reardon’s apartment to a warehouse, where volunteers distribute food. Boxes from Gleaners and products from Food Rescue U.S. among other donated items.
“I believe that it’s our job as communities and human beings to take care of each other. It’s incredibly important regardless of the pandemic,” Reardon said.
Food insecurity, or not having access to enough affordable and nutritious food, is an ongoing problem that has only heightened during the pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Food Security Council found in a report. Before March of 2020, about 1.3 million Michigan residents faced food insecurity. Now it’s about 1.9 million, according to Feeding America.
Back at Detroit Action, the nonprofit is working to help a waitlist of 200 people who have requested cash assistance. Last year, that program ran for about 11 weeks until funds ran out.
“If you say, I have a $600 DTE bill, we were not asking for you to send in a copy of that $600 DTE bill, in order to prove that,” she said. “It was more like, if this is what you say you need, then in this moment we’re going to provide this service to you.”
A third effort Detroit Action wants to launch in May is what it calls its “virtual mutual aid” series, featuring sessions on finding jobs during and after the pandemic and mental health, Hicks-Montgomery said.
Stretched resources for a big need
As these mutual aid groups try to address the needs of their neighbors, finding enough resources has been a challenge.
The Michigan Mutual Aid Coalition has reduced the number of households they deliver to, down from 50 households to 30, Reardon said. They don’t have enough refrigerator space to accommodate perishables as the temperature starts to rise. And online crowdfunding doesn’t cover rent for the warehouse they work out of, or the cost to stock up on items like diapers and formula.
“There is a huge need,” she said. “We have so many people that want food to be delivered, but as far as being able to provide for it, I think we’ve definitely had to get creative.” Reardon plans to register the coalition as a nonprofit so it’s easier to apply for and get grants.
As for the Detroit Community Fridge, beyond monetary donations to help with extra groceries and building a shelter for the fridge, the co-founders say they need community support as they grow their network of free fridges across the city.
“Emily and I don’t live in every neighborhood of Detroit,” she said. “So, we need people within the neighborhood of the fridges to be dedicated to checking on it and making sure it’s going okay, and collaboration with local organizations and businesses to keep it stocked.”