By Mark Jacobs
Detroit teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, but that hasn’t stopped self-proclaimed experts from laying out big bold visions for the city’s turnaround.
Mayoral candidates, business leaders and policy wonks on Mackinac Island are all quick to expound on how Detroit can once again be a great American city. But for all their sage advice on economic revitalization, once again there’s barely a peep on how to solve the city’s mounting homeless crisis, which has swelled to approximately 20,000 people.
While Detroit is hardly alone in facing a homeless crisis, many other cities have addressed it head on with both words and actions. Some cities have dedicated homeless departments and city-sponsored housing, transportation and counseling services.
Santa Monica holds fundraisers, conferences and publishes a monthly newsletter on homelessness. Denver has specially designated parking meters where the money goes to homeless aid. Chicago set up a Task Force on Homeless Youth. Philadelphia established a Supportive Housing department for the homeless. And Dallas operates a city homeless resource center called ‘The Bridge’.
Detroit tried in past years to address the issue, but between mayoral scandals, economic collapse and now a state takeover, the plight of the city’s homeless problem has once again settled into a mostly silent backseat.
“No one’s talking about it anymore within the city government”, says the director of a local housing shelter. “There’s just no conceptual vision on what to do about homelessness.”
Mind-Boggling Number of Homeless
The statistics on homelessness in Detroit are mind-boggling. Of the approximately 20,000 homeless people in Detroit, there are only enough shelter beds for about 1,900.
Twenty-five percent of the homeless are children, 13% are veterans, about 60% are families with children and almost half are mentally ill. State mental institutions closures, shelter shutdowns and early prison release programs have literally pushed ill-prepared people into the streets of Detroit, adding to an already dire situation.
The remaining shelters are full, often turning people away and furiously trying to provide basic survival services to people who are often hungry, cold, ill and traumatized.
“There’s no hope here for these people,” says David Allen, homeless services at Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO). “They don’t even know what it is anymore.”
The Tumaini Center on Third Avenue, run by NSO, gets a daily reality check of Detroit’s homeless crisis. The Center is one of the few shelters that remain open 24 hours every day.
High Number With Mental Illness
It provides a respite to 150 people a day on a first-come basis. But there is a catch: there are no beds, only chairs. Residents enter a bleak, bright room after passing through a metal detector. Well over 90% of the people there suffer from mental illness. Outside an assorted crowd of homeless people and drug dealers (food stamps for crack) congregate.
The hospitals and jails routinely drop people off, including recently a person who is a quadriplegic, as well as post-surgery patients, people who have frostbite or are disoriented or deathly ill.
“We’re a dumping ground, there’s a lot of broken spirits here,” says Reggie Huff, Tumaini’s Director of Homeless Services.
Last month a woman gave birth there and EMS took her to the hospital. She was returned two days later with the baby, but the shelter doesn’t accept children.
Recently a man sitting on a chair keeled over and died. It was a another anonymous person picked up by the morgue and untracked by the city.
One Homeless Man Was a Harlem Globetrotter
The Center’s regular residents include a former Harlem Globetrotter and a Houston Astro. Their glory days over, the Center is now their last resort. “This is the last rung,” says Joe Healy, NSO’s VP of Real Estate Development and Management.
All of the homeless shelters in the city face similar challenges, leaving many of the staff feeling overwhelmed and not particularly optimistic.
Lewis Hickson has been fighting for the homeless in Detroit for over 40 years, going back to the early days of Gleaners and C.O.T.S.
Currently the Operations Manager at Tunaimi, Hickson does not believe he’s ever seen real leadership from the city on homelessness, “and it’s even less of a priority now” in light of the appointment of the Emergency Manager.
‘The city is just unfocused on homelessness. I’m discouraged”, he says.
Burden Rests With Nonprofits
As Hickson sees it, the real leaders are the nonprofit organizations operating to eliminate homelessness, all linked to the diligent leadership of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit (H.A.N.D). H.A.N.D. serves as the strategic quarterback for solutions to homelessness in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park. Members include many of the brightest local visionaries, yet they encounter constant barriers to success, often from Lansing.
Many shelter workers see politically popular proposals as merely a prescription for more homelessness.
Proposed legislation to cut off welfare benefits for failed drug testers, for example, or laws seeking to eliminate social services for certain criminals may be ostensibly appealing, but for those battling the city’s homeless crisis these laws “will only put more people into homelessness” notes Allen.
Lawmakers, he says, “just don’t get it”.
Soon the mayoral race will heat up, and we will hear grandiose plans for the city’s rebirth. We’ll want to believe it’s all possible. But if the city fails to truly launch and lead an all-out war on homelessness, Detroiters will be talking about its even greater homeless crisis in a generation.