Keeping Detroiters Experiencing Homelessness Safe During COVID

Our city came together to keep Detroiters experiencing homelessness safe — and now, we can do more.

Sometimes the biggest stories are the ones that don’t make headlines.  This is the nature of prevention done well, when harmful and destructive outcomes that could occur, don’t.  In 2020, a year of extreme challenges, loss, and reckoning, a big story quietly and quickly unfolded in Detroit.  

In the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and statewide stay-home orders went into effect, people experiencing homelessness – who tend to have high rates of preexisting conditions – were immediately at high risk.  Whether living in congregate shelters, in cars, on couches, on the street or in abandoned structures, they were hard pressed to social distance or practice the frequent handwashing and other behaviors required to stay safe. 

Within the first days of the pandemic, Detroiters sprung into action.  Led by city officials, working groups of city agencies, nonprofit service providers, and private institutions came together to collaborate around the clock in Zoom calls and town hall webinars.  “Important collaborative infrastructure was built that hadn’t existed before,” explains Vanessa Samuelson, Learning Director at the McGregor Fund and a member of Detroit’s Continuum of Care (CoC) executive committee. “Working together, a critical set of supports for shelter and outreach providers was created that prioritized federal guidance for health and safety, industry best practice, and transparency.”

The results were extraordinary: Widespread testing and treatment for COVID and other health care needs. Three new, low-barrier temporary shelters, including an isolation shelter for people exhibiting symptoms and dedicated shelters for individuals and families with positive cases.  Services which integrated case management and healthcare.  

“We took our high risk folks and opened a shelter at Marygrove, with the goal of bringing in unsheltered folks who have never wanted to come into shelter,” explained Stacy Conwell-Leigh, Alternative Shelter Director of the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department.  “We had a Welcome to the Shelter one-pager, and there was never once a reference to rules.  I had a guy who had a dog.  I’d never heard of someone having a dog in the shelter. But we said, let’s break all the rules — let’s live in the real world and understand this is a group that we are working really hard to keep safe and healthy. It made a huge difference. There were 14 people on our list, we housed every one of them.”

“One of the key things we did early on was find private funding for testing,” says Terra Linzner, Homelessness Solutions Director for the City of Detroit. With emergency support from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, a new partnership was formed with Wayne State University School of Medicine that brought large-scale testing to the homeless community. “Wayne State would go to the isolation shelters and test individuals who were symptomatic, so that the health department didn’t have to use their resources for that,” says Linzner.  As a result of this fast, targeted testing, people who tested positive were able to quickly get appropriate care, while others exhibiting symptoms could leave isolation shelters more quickly. 

Getting personal protective equipment (PPE) to service sites was also a challenge, given supply shortages and prioritization of health care and other essential workers.  Through a procurement partnership with United Way for Southeast Michigan, area agencies soon had what they needed, free of charge, for staff and clients to protect themselves and each other.

Meanwhile, nonprofit service providers like the NOAH Project went into triage mode. “We had to quickly modify operations to continue providing lunch, access to our bathrooms, a mailing address, basic hygiene items, and other services in a manner that was safe for our clients and our staff,” explains Amy Brown, NOAH’s Executive Director and CoC board chairperson.  All across Detroit agencies followed suit, reconfiguring their facilities, residential and supportive services to not leave people experiencing homelessness in the lurch.  Brown adds that many agencies quickly began to partner with the Health Department, which also contributed to minimal COVID cases among clients and staff from the pandemic’s earliest weeks. 

As the pandemic stretched out from weeks to months, this success story continued to unfold.  Once the necessary shifts, adaptations, and new supports were swiftly in place, stakeholders became more uniformly focused on two long-term goals: getting more people into permanent housing, and including folks with lived experience in homelessness and housing insecurity in policy and resource decision making. 

“One of the biggest things that you’re going to see coming out of this is people looking at systems change through a racial equity lens,” says Conwell-Leigh. “It’s already happening in our system — we are bringing people to the table with lived expertise, people who can tell us where we’re going wrong.” 

Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit and CoC board member, agreed: “This moment is an opportunity for people who have for a long time felt that their voices weren’t being heard to be vocal. The Continuum of Care board is beginning to hear some of this, and we brought in a consultant, the National Innovation Services, funded by the McGregor Fund, to do some racial equity work to help in that respect.  I’m cautiously optimistic, because I know it’s really tough work, requiring people to come to the table and maybe to hear some unpleasant and uncomfortable themes.”

“The pandemic has brought into focus how Detroit’s homeless response is working and for whom,” says Samuelson.  “The crisis response required from providers and the city is unrelenting; but to their credit, people are working together, moving towards policies and practices that are more equitable for the individuals, young people and families experiencing homelessness. Working in this way – across organizations, departments and constituencies towards a common vision – has already made a difference and holds the promise of transforming how this work affirms human dignity and flourishing.”