A Holistic Approach to Providing Shelter and Support for Detroit’s Unhoused People
Homelessness continues to plague urban communities, with families and individuals grappling with the challenges of making ends meet in today’s economic climate. Whether it’s struggling to meet monthly mortgage payments or coping with soaring rental costs in a housing market marked by shockingly high prices, a variety of factors contribute to the growing issue of people becoming unhoused.
Historically, shelters have provided a temporary respite for those in need, often serving as the first or second option after exhausting alternatives like staying with friends or family. Shelters offer a place to rest one’s head and a warm meal, albeit sometimes for extended periods. For others, being unhoused means living in cars or makeshift outdoor settings.
The causes of homelessness are as diverse and complex as the individuals experiencing it. In response, the City of Detroit has adopted a holistic approach to combat this issue.
“Providing services and high-quality housing to persons at risk of or who are experiencing homelessness is a key priority of the City of Detroit, said Julie Schneider, Director of Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department.
“This means focusing on building the pipeline of supportive housing and coordinating with the Continuum of Care on the delivery of critical resources such as emergency shelter, rapid rehousing, and diversion and prevention programs. It also means preserving and expanding affordable housing options for Detroiters of all incomes and improving housing stability though comprehensive service offerings available through the Detroit Housing Resource HelpLine and Detroit Housing Services Division within HRD.”
In May 2023, the City of Detroit launched the Detroit Housing Resource Helpline in response to the challenges that residents face in navigating the complex system of housing services. The helpline provides a single point of contact for people seeking housing assistance and connects them with the resources they need.
Support for the helpline comes from the Gilbert Family Foundation, which has pledged $10 million over three years to fund the program. Wayne Metro Community Action Agency manages the helpline, making it accessible to all Detroit residents. This initiative simplifies access to the City’s various housing services, ensuring that residents in need can easily find assistance.
“The city and its partners offer a lot of great services to help Detroiters with their housing needs, but they don’t mean much if people don’t know how to access them,” said Mayor Mike Duggan. “Thanks to the efforts of our partners and the generous support of the Gilbert Family Foundation, we now have a simple process to guide residents to the right housing resource and a growing number of programs to help them.”
The Gilbert Family Foundation’s broader commitment involves pledging $500 million to support projects across Detroit over the next ten years, with housing initiatives being a significant part of their contribution.
Notably, Detroit has witnessed a consistent decrease in recent years, with the number of unhoused residents steadily declining. In 2019, approximately 7,847 people were unhoused and entered the City’s community response system. In 2021, about 5,687 people experienced homelessness.
According to the City of Detroit, since the start of the fiscal year 2019 to 2021, Detroit saw a 28% decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness.
From a local government perspective, the City of Detroit, the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, and Continuum of Care are in the early stages of developing a strategy that is inclusive of Detroiters who have experienced homelessness as well as front-line staff who work with this population on a daily basis, according to Schneider.
Funding can be a big issue for combating people who are unhoused, but the City is turning to various resources to achieve its efforts.
“Funding for homelessness initiatives is typically through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),” Schneider says.
“HUD has a number of funding sources that can be used to support homelessness programming. The City utilizes its Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) and a portion of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to support emergency shelter, street outreach, rapid rehousing, and prevention programming. Other HUD funding such as Continuum of Care (CoC) funding is managed externally from the City through the Homeless Action Network of Detroit (HAND). The City of Detroit has also provided funding for prevention and diversion through the American Rescue Plan Act funds.”
As much as local government is making efforts to new strategies in holistic approaches, there are local shelters and organizations on the front line as well, and their goal is to meet unhoused individuals where they are to provide them with more than just a roof over their heads.
“You really would be surprised at who you would think is experiencing homelessness,” said Meagan Dunn, Executive Director of Covenant House Michigan. “I think a lot of us have these images in our head of someone who may be standing on the side of the road, they may have a written sign. But that is not always the case of homelessness,” Dunn says.
“It could be anyone we work with, anyone we’re walking by, downtown, Midtown or anywhere else in the City. The face of homelessness isn’t what we once thought it was. The young people we see here at Covenant House, some of them are employed, but maybe they don’t make the wages that are needed to live independently.”
At Covenant House Michigan, the organization services 18–24-year-old young adults.
Their programs encompass emergency shelter stays of up to 90 days, transitional living programs lasting up to 21 months, and street outreach to engage with homeless youth in Detroit’s hotspots. The organization’s focus is on teaching life skills and helping individuals become self-sufficient.
“For all this time we’ve been focused on shelter, but I think many of us are beginning to pivot on other housing models so that we can better serve the community,” Dunn says.
Ultimately, finding long-term housing solutions is critical in addressing homelessness, and permanent supportive housing plays a pivotal role. Schneider explained that funding for these initiatives comes from a combination of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, HOME, CDBG, the Detroit Housing Development and Preservation Fund, and Section 8 housing vouchers. Since 2015, close to 300 units of permanent supportive housing have been completed or are under construction in Detroit, providing long-term housing options with comprehensive support services.
“From 2020 through March of this year, 1,314 households have been housed through rapid rehousing. Rapid rehousing programs provide case management services coupled with rental assistance for up to 24 months to households,” Schneider explains.
“1,003 households have been leased up in permanent supportive housing from 2020 through March 2023.”
Efforts to combat homelessness in Detroit won’t be accomplished by any one entity alone. That’s why Dunn insists a continued and more collaborative working relationship must exist between government and service providers.
“I think the city has come a long way in providing housing for those experiencing homelessness,” Dunn says. “I think over the last two years we’ve seen an increase in terms of the investment to organizations like ours.”
“While there has been really great partnership with the City, I think there’s still more to do and I don’t think it’s for us a service providers to say to the City ‘this is what we expect,’ but I think we are really looking at the City to say, ‘how can we be a better partner’ and collaborate in this work so that together so we can begin to strategize on how we move the needle in ending homelessness.”