On a frigid December afternoon, Stephanie Taylor and Charquiathia Rogers stop at the Rosa Parks Transit Center to hand out gloves and hats, snacks and information cards about their organization’s 24-hour crisis center.
They urge people to spread the word about emergency shelter services available for young people and ask if anyone needs a ride to a warming center nearby.
“You’re a lifesaver out here,” one man says.
The pair do street outreach for Covenant House Michigan, a Detroit and Grand Rapid-based nonprofit, providing services to youths ages 18 to 24. Taylor and Rogers end up transporting two people — including a man in his 50s — to a warming center in Detroit, but not before being turned away at another shelter because it was scheduled to open later that evening.
“They always make space, even if it’s a chair,” Taylor, an outreach manager, says about the center offered through Cass Community Social Services.
On that Friday, Covenant House Michigan’s 45-bed shelter in Detroit was nearly full, aside from one spot. Taylor says her phone is always on. Her team gets more than 10 calls a day from people who need help. But shelters are so full that she has to ask callers if family or friends can provide them with a safe place to stay until a spot opens up.
Organizations like Covenant House Michigan serve an undercounted and often invisible part of the city’s homeless population — young people. There are limited shelter beds and housing options for unhoused youth. A handful of groups in metro Detroit provide services specifically geared toward youth, but say more resources are needed.
“Every day, somebody’s becoming homeless and the atrocity of that is that there’s not enough (places) to put people when they become homeless, especially when shelters are full,” said Cynthia Adams, associate executive director of Covenant House Michigan.
Last year, unaccompanied youth under 25 made up 9% – or roughly 500 – of the more than 5,600 individuals in Detroit on the streets or in shelters. There were another 316 young parents and their children who experienced homelessness, according to the Homeless Action Network of Detroit (HAND), which includes Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park.
Providers caution that the numbers don’t necessarily reflect the reality of youth homelessness in Detroit and that the actual number is likely higher. Some may be “couch surfing,” bouncing from place to place, and unstably housed, but who don’t identify themselves as homeless or make contact with the system.
“When we talk about homelessness, many people have this visual of what homelessness looks like, and for a young person, they just want to blend right in, they want a degree of normalcy,” said Courtney Smith, CEO of the Detroit Phoenix Center, which provides support services to young people experiencing homelessness. “So, you can walk right past the young person that’s experiencing housing insecurity and not know it because they’re hidden in plain sight … it’s certainly an invisible crisis that we see that comes with so many different implications.”
A lack of resources
As a teenager, James Ashley was in and out of shelters for about four years after fleeing an abusive home. He slept outside of a library, he said, and struggled to wash up and eat. The library was his “safe spot.”
“Even though I was young and I was homeless, I still didn’t want that to be known,” Ashley, 24, said.
He met Smith of the Detroit Phoenix Center at a Starbucks a few years ago, where she was doing outreach. He felt hope, he said. The organization helped him secure housing, he said, including his first month’s rent and hotel stays when he needed to keep out of the cold. Ashley is now a leader of the nonprofit’s youth action board and helps with drop in services.
“The worst thing about being homeless is the continual … lack of resources,” he said, including transportation, food and clean clothes.
Youth homelessness has many faces including unhoused young parents, children in families and those who are unaccompanied.
“Homelessness can look different for different people,” said Meagan Dunn, executive director of Covenant House Michigan.
Young people may enter homelessness as they age out of the foster care system or leave the juvenile justice system, Adams said. Their entire family might be unhoused, she said, or a grandparent may no longer be able to care for them. Others may struggle with mental health issues. HAND reports that in 2020, one in three homeless youth who agencies served in Detroit had a diagnosed mental health condition. LGBTQ youth, who are more likely to experience homelessness, may deal with family rejection and further stigma and abuse as they search for their own safe space.
“Youth experience homelessness differently than older adults do,” said Kaitie Giza, HAND engagement manager. “They have different needs and the ways that our system is currently responding to the general population aren’t working for youth and so youth are falling through the cracks. They’re staying homeless.”
Some of the barriers to staving off homelessness, Giza said, include learning how to live independently — building credit and securing housing without a rental history. Young people who are unhoused lack a strong network to fall back on, providers said.
That’s the type of support the Ruth Ellis Center wants to provide.
The organization, which has been around since 1999, recently opened up its Clairmount Center in Detroit, offering 43 units of supportive housing, a health and wellness center — including gender affirming care — and community spaces to tackle the unique challenges LGBTQ youth face. The building was fully occupied as of early December.
“They’ve experienced rejection, they’re out on the street, they’re experiencing homelessness. They may be engaged in survival sex work and human trafficking to literally survive to put a roof over their head,” said Mark Erwin, executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center, which serves between 700 and 1,000 LGBTQ+ young people in a given year.
Erwin said a third of his organization’s operating budget — or about $2 million every year — relies on donations and as the center adds more programs, the need will increase.
“I love the fact that we’re at capacity at Clairmount Center, but that also means that the next young person who comes seeking housing resources, there’s not an apartment to be able to offer them,” Erwin said.
Tony has been at a studio in the Clairmount Center for three months.
Tony, who is a trans man, has faced housing insecurity since he was a teenager. A family member didn’t accept him because of his gender identity and kicked him out of the house, he said. Tony faced a number of barriers, like not having enough money and a stable home. He battled depression and often felt angry.
“Since I was 16, I’ve literally been house hopping from ex to aunties to cousins, to my mom’s friends,” said Tony, 24, who asked the Free Press to use only his first name to protect his family’s privacy.
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about youth homelessness, he said, is that young people are to blame. It’s often more complex than that.
“Humans go through things and sometimes they never had that love, so in adulthood, they don’t know what to do, because they were not guided correctly or loved properly,” he said.
Shelter beds, affordable housing are scarce
While not an emergency shelter, the Detroit Phoenix Center offers homeless youth crucial services.
People can drop in, take a shower, wash their clothes, access a food pantry and get mental health support. The nonprofit’s recent move to its New Center location was intentional, Smith said. It’s right next to a QLINE and bus stop.
“Our move here was to be more accessible, but then also to be able to serve more young people, then to be right in a community where we are needed,” Smith said.
Stable housing creates a better environment for families as a whole, said Denise Godfrey, a youth engagement coach at COTS, which offers emergency shelter and other supportive housing programs.
This year, the Detroit-based social services nonprofit worked with 280 families across its housing programs, and of those families, 60% were youth under 18 years old.
Taylor, of Covenant House Michigan, has seen more families who are homeless because of evictions. There’s a need, she said, for more space to accommodate them in one place. There might be an 18-year-old who Taylor’s organization can house but that teen may not want to leave their mom and sibling.
Under state licensing requirements, runaway and homeless youth agencies must contact a parent or legal guardian within 24 hours of their arrival, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Legislation introduced earlier this year sought to increase that window of time. Child Protective Services is contacted if a parent is not reachable within 24 hours or refuses to let the child stay in the program and return home.
There’s a shortage of affordable housing across metro Detroit, making it that much harder for young people, who may already struggle with low credit scores and unstable income, to exit homelessness and find long-term stability.
Mount Clemens-based Family Youth Interventions, the only youth-specific shelter in Macomb County, works with runaway homeless and at-risk youth. It has three programs for people ages 12 to 24, ranging from shorter term stays to rental assistance. The programs are free and include family counseling, case management, life skill training and goal setting.
The nonprofit’s rapid rehousing program, which offers rent help for up to year, is always at capacity and has a two-year waitlist of about 15 people, said Lindsey Keesling, the group’s housing and outreach coordinator. High rent prices and a lack of affordable options limit how many youths the organization can help, she said.
“Right now, housing costs are astronomical,” Keesling said.
Programs in the pipeline
In Oakland County, Pontiac-based nonprofit Lighthouse recently took over leadership of three runaway and homeless youth programs run by another organization. The programs, which include a shelter and transitional housing, are slated to start in February under Lighthouse. The goal: Reunify youth with their families and if that’s not possible, help them get longer term housing.
“Programs like this help ensure that people across the economic spectrum, and – especially in this case children across the economic spectrum – facing all kinds of challenges … are given a fair chance and that we don’t lose sight of their needs, and then, unfortunately, later end up having to address those needs through adult programming,” said Lighthouse CEO Ryan Hertz.
Hertz anticipates an annual funding gap of about $200,000 that his organization must fill through charitable giving, and the need for additional capacity.
Last year, Detroit received a $5.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reduce youth homelessness. It includes dollars to make the homeless response system more accessible, permanent housing assistance, 24-hour crisis beds and mental health support.
HAND, which is overseeing the project, held listening sessions with service providers and youth who have faced homelessness, and several themes emerged. Among them, the need for mentorship and making systems more accessible by not requiring youth to be in “active crisis” to get help. Shared living, host homes and direct cash transfers were some other resources, outside of limited government funding, that people said would be helpful.
HAND is selecting agencies to run the projects, and estimates programs will begin in April.
- CAM: People seeking shelter services or warming center placement should call the Coordinated Assessment Model (CAM) — the main entry point for people facing homelessness in the city to get shelter. They can call CAM at (313) 305-0311. The hours of operation are: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday. Outside of those hours, people can go to one of three warming center locations available through March 31. For more information, go to: https://bit.ly/3V43H7e.
- Covenant House Michigan: https://covenanthousemi.org/ ; call (313) 463-2500 for shelter or (313) 463-2022 for outreach services.
- Ruth Ellis Center: https://www.ruthelliscenter.org/
- Detroit Phoenix Center: https://www.detroitphoenixcenter.org/
- Alternatives for Girls: https://alternativesforgirls.org/
- COTS: https://cotsdetroit.org/
- Family Youth Interventions: https://www.familyyouth.com/wp/
- Common Ground: https://commongroundhelps.org/