Shelters adjust to meet needs of Metro Detroit homeless during COVID-19

This story was first published in Model D's sister publication Metromode.

As Metro Detroiters raced to stock up on food, toilet paper, and supplies in the days surrounding Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March 24 stay-at-home order, organizations that support individuals and families experiencing homelessness were scrambling to adjust, expand, and rethink their daily operations.


Detroit’s Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG) is not a homeless shelter, but it’s doing what it can to maintain stability in the families it serves. Forced to temporarily curtail its after-school academic and athletic programs, the nonprofit has put its fleet of passenger vans to work to deliver food and other necessary items to the families of the 150 students in its program.


“We feed our kids dinner during the school year, and breakfast, lunch and dinner during the summer, so we realized instantly for many of our families, these meals are the only ones the kids are having during the day,” says Jessica Hauser, executive director of DBG. “We’re trying to keep a sense of normalcy to the best of our ability with all of our kids.”


DBG staff emptied their kitchen cabinets and purchased food from local stores and restaurants that were closing their doors to sit-down business. They connected with Forgotten Harvest and several Detroit eateries, including Supino Pizzeria and Avalon Cafe to obtain supplies, then packed food boxes for delivery beginning March 16, the first day Michigan schools closed. While the majority of DBG families live in Detroit, some live in outlying suburbs like Redford, Dearborn, and Warren, says Hauser.


By taking care of their essential needs, DBG says it is helping keep people safe in their homes, with the hope that these families can focus their energies on housing stability, says Hauser.


“We think of ourselves as a family,” she says, adding that pivoting the effort from daily student academic and athletic support to food delivery is a way of extending essential support to kids and their families. “The spirit of what we are doing is delivering on our promise of what we committed to our families.”

Across Metro Detroit, the coronavirus outbreak has tested the flexibility of organizations that support people experiencing homelessness. Under circumstances that change by the hour, shelters have responded in creative ways to continue serving their clients while keeping staff and volunteers safe. Some have changed their service model completely, while others are educating their guests on how to best protect themselves from contracting COVID-19.


In Macomb County, as many as 60 people can find meals and a bed through MCREST, a Roseville-based shelter organization that temporarily houses people in 75 churches that rotate weekly responsibility for shelter and food. In response to early recommendations against gatherings of 50 or more to slow the spread of COVID-19, MCREST leveraged a partnership with a local hotel that previously housed individuals when a hosting church dropped out.


“We had that arrangement in place, so we have put our guests into the hotel through the end of March,” says April Fidler, executive director of MCREST. With three to a room, the weekly cost is $3,250 not including meals, according to Fidler. Thirty guests are single men and the other 30 are women and 17 children from infancy to high school age.


“For several days, we were all living hour by hour because things were changing so rapidly,” says Marc Craig, CEO of Troy-based Community Housing Network (CHN), a resource organization that provides housing to up to 500 people in Oakland and Macomb counties daily. “Our first goal is to continue to provide services to the people we serve.”


Describing a shelter system that “runs at capacity under good times,” Craig reflects the effort that is being spent on identifying space that is appropriate for individuals without homes who may need to be quarantined due to illness or exposure to coronavirus.


“Oakland County Executive [David Coulter] is working to identify space to be used by shelters for expansion and quarantine, and it’s an urgent need,” he says. “It will happen, but we needed it yesterday. My colleagues running shelters don’t have enough personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and staff. It’s hard work on a good day.”


CHN does not operate a shelter but has been able temporarily to transition its live call center to a remote setup to protect employees. For other services, including permanent supportive housing programs that link clients to mental health resources and connect them to housing, the nonprofit is conducting all home visits that were previously completed in person by telephone or video conference.


“This is not how we would prefer to do things, but the health and safety for those we serve and for our staff is our No. 1 priority,” says Craig. In 2018, there were 16,973 individuals living on the streets or in emergency shelters in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, according to state data. By executive order on March 20, Whitmer banned new evictions through April 17.


New model for meeting needs


Oakland County-based Lighthouse is another that relies on a rotating-church model. One week prior to the stay-at-home order, Lighthouse, which provides emergency shelter, food, and transitional and affordable housing, completed a rotation at Greenfield Presbyterian Church in Berkley before moving its entire emergency shelter operation to its main campus in Pontiac. Through a July 2019 merger with South Oakland Shelter, the nonprofit now operates all services under the name Lighthouse.


“We had to arrange for a non-ideal, temporary-permanent solution and are no longer rotating,” says Ryan Hertz, CEO of Lighthouse. Thirty individuals, including single adults and women with children, are being accommodated separately in Pontiac, with those who work in essential roles and risk being exposed to the coronavirus staying in hotels close to their jobs, says Hertz.


“Right from the get-go, our commitment was to do everything we can to ensure we do not back off of any supports while concurrently prioritizing the safety of our staff, our volunteers and our clients,” Hertz says. “That has posed an amazing logistical challenge and our staff members have really rallied around each other to support each other to make it happen.”


Twenty-two staff members remained in quarantine on March 25 due to potential exposure to two early confirmed COVID-19 cases among workers in the organization’s transitional housing department, according to Hertz. In all areas of its operation, including food distribution, Lighthouse has restricted the number of individuals working in any given place and is practicing social distancing, said Hertz.


Working with local partners, Lighthouse is distributing food and assistance to families in local communities to fill gaps caused by school closures that effectively cut off meals to students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. United Way of Southeastern Michigan has pledged $50,000 in a matching contribution for this response.


Caring for guests in new ways


HOPE, an emergency shelter in Pontiac, has a recuperative facility that supports 15 guests with no permanent homes who are “discharged to home” following a hospital stay for surgery, an accident, or complications from chronic disease. These guests receive monitoring and education from nurses. The facility is not equipped to deal with communicable diseases, says Elizabeth Kelly, CEO of HOPE.


“This is a whole new apple,” she says, adding that the shelter is working with community partners to create a solution for those who require isolation due to COVID-19. She recognizes that a long-term solution that could accommodate multiple waves of quarantines may be necessary. “We just haven’t identified a site yet.”


HOPE’s main shelter accommodates 62 each night and, under normal circumstances, guests spend their days away from the shelter. Currently, all guests are remaining on-site and are following social distance guidelines. This is one practice that has had to change to keep guests safe. “It’s difficult when you have 62 people in a small space,” says Kelly.


Staff in masks and gloves are signing guests in over the phone and gaining a verbal release of information to connect to services. “We have a small supply of masks, and we are mandating that staff wear them because they come and go and we don’t want them to contaminate the guests,” Kelly says.


Several weeks ago, HOPE invited volunteering medical students from Oakland University to teach what Kelly calls extreme handwashing. “One-on-one, they taught everyone how to scrub like a surgeon, and our clients have taken that to heart,” she says Several times a day, guests and staff scrub to the elbows, and remind each other if they witness anyone touching their face. “It’s a great way for them to feel in control.”


While they have not yet had to consult health care workers, Kelly says if they detect an elevated temperature in staff or guests, they will get telehealth support through Honor Community Health, provided through Easterseals Michigan.

Managing today, with an eye on the future


As the economy is negatively affected, Craig from CHN worries about future waves of homelessness. “I worry about those who are precariously housed, people who have been barely able to make ends meet,” he says. “While there is a moratorium on evictions, if they get behind, they may not be able to catch up.”


While he supports the federal economic stimulus, Craig said he would like to see a fund to prevent people from becoming homeless. “I applaud the effort, no question. But it seems to me that it will still leave those who are homeless or precariously housed vulnerable.”


At a time when Metro Detroiters want to help and volunteering isn’t an option, donations are encouraged.


“People like to do tangible things. Right now, don’t volunteer. Volunteer from your couch by donating money. Make a donation and let us buy in bulk and manage this need,” says Hertz.


“Homelessness is not a choice,” says Craig. “People don’t become homeless because they are lazy or bad or want to drop out of society. It’s because they are vulnerable.”

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