Covid-19 Must Not Keep Us From Looking After Homeless & Vulnerable Youth

By Courtney Smith, Chief Executive Officer – Detroit Phoenix Center


For those we serve as a resource to – youth who are homeless and underserved, aged 13-18 and young adults 18-24 – the living situations can vary greatly. Some shuffle each day among relatives or share a substandard room with a loose association of friends; and others live many nights in abandoned buildings or public spaces without a stable roof over their heads. They rarely get a good night’s sleep, regular meals and showers. Anxiety is always on. Hazards lurk everywhere.

The coronavirus pandemic could be the crushing blow to the most vulnerable in our society, including youth who are homeless and at-risk.

We are determined to not let that happen.

The challenge in providing critical resources, support and a safe, nurturing and inclusive environment to youth experiencing homelessness and those at high risk in Detroit often seemed insurmountable even prior to COVID-19. Public school data reported to the U.S. Department of Education during the 2017-2018 school year shows that nearly 36,000 Michigan public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the year. Not surprisingly, students experiencing homelessness may do poorly in school. Understandably, it’s tough to concentrate in class when you spent the entire night riding the bus because you didn’t have a place to go, and you’re wondering how you’ll get your clothes clean so your classmates don’t know about your housing situation. It’s no secret street-connected students have the highest dropout rate and lowest four-year graduation rate of any student group in Michigan.


Other threats for young people without permanent addresses include physical and sexual exploitation, lack of medical treatment or adequate nutrition, and increased exposure to drugs and crime. Youth experiencing homelessness are also more likely to be chronically homeless as adults, thus further perpetuating the cycle of poverty.


Unable to wash their hands regularly, not being able to “shelter in place” and without the luxury of hand sanitizer and face masks, this underserved population is extremely susceptible to contracting COVID-19.


Barriers to services must be brought down. 

How do we improve outcomes for this vulnerable population of young people who do want to get an education, who want to live “normal” lives? How do we act as a community of shared vision and purpose rooted in equity and flexibility while still remaining efficient?

In these even more confused and complicated times, one of our core goals is to improve coordination of services among groups like ours, as we work to eliminate barriers to needed services, including schooling and housing.


Common issues that we must confront and solve include helping applicants meet residency and documentation requirements for support programs or to enroll in school, finding transportation to these activities, being available at “non-working” hours to provide service for youth and finding ways to communicate with those in need.


Even what might seem simple can become difficult. How do youth experiencing homelessness with no fixed address or identifiable legal guardian sign up for services?

How do we communicate with young people who may not have a working cell phone or cell service when a mobile device is almost an essential of modern life? Is there a way to make sure that those with cell phones don’t face service cutoffs; or a way to distribute prepaid cellular phones, possibly donated by the major carriers in our area, to those with which we need to communicate? At a time when technology is the vehicle by which we communicate potentially lifesaving information about COVID-19, how do we ensure closure of this digital divide?

Can we partner with hotel providers to ensure that young adults experiencing homelessness have access to emergency overnight respite when shelters are full?

We also need to make cash payments readily available to young people and not force them to jump through loopholes to purchase essential items needed to survive during this uncertain time. App. payment transfers empower youth autonomy over their own care during a time where many of them already feel powerless.

Similarly, we need a common sense approach in other areas. Do we understand the full needs of the youth we are serving? Are we doing a good job of listening to their inner concerns? Are we doing everything we can to make ourselves available at odd hours of the day and night; while cutting the “red tape” and other impediments to signing up youth to available programs?

Last, we call on the many outstanding service groups in our Detroit community to work together in finding ways to improve access to services and reduce redundant efforts wherever possible.

The young people we serve are resilient. They have a long history of making a way. However, we have to ask ourselves at what expense? Statistics show that 1 in 5 youth experiencing homelessness are victims of human trafficking. Predators don’t pause during a pandemic, and neither should we.

This is a time of great need. Working together, we can stretch existing resources to greater effect, as we substantially improve outcomes for our at-risk youth and those experiencing homelessness. But we must remain equitable and flexible. There are many great stories to be told if we act as a community of shared vision and purpose. Please join us in these efforts.

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