Two sets of bunk beds and a crib take up the majority of the small room Brenda Brown and her four kids share so intimately. Scattered around the tile floor are the few belongings they keep. Hazy plastic sheets cover the windows to prevent the cold air from seeping in, something Brenda worried about when breastfeeding newborn son Elijah.
Aside from the times the kids are at school, day-to-day life for the family of five is contained to this one-room apartment at the at the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, a homeless shelter for families located in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. It isn’t home, really – but it’s a big step up from the garage they were staying in before coming here last September.
During the week, they manage to get ready for school in the cramped space. They dig through a bag where they keep their clothes, which recently resulted in 7-year-old De’Quan wearing his sister’s shirt to school. Kamyria, 14, says it got even harder when baby Elijah’s diapers and gear took over the mirrored closet, a space the girls use to style their hair. In the evening, when they’re off the bus, the kids do homework here – or use it for entertainment.
“We get to play sometimes,” Gloria, 9, says in a soft, sweet voice. She especially enjoys coloring and drawing in their temporary dwelling. Her brother De’Quan doesn’t mind it at COTS too much. Mom says when Thanksgiving rolled around, he was thankful for something vital the shelter provides: a bed.
“It’s difficult, but we make it work. We find our happy times,” mom Brenda says. Her eldest daughter, Kamyria is the “comedian” of the family, keeping spirits light. “I swear, I think if you don’t make us laugh we probably will lose our minds,” she tells the teen.
“I’m not gonna lie, I have moments where – when I’m to myself, the kids (are) not around – I will cry. Like, ‘Oh my God, please God, get us through this,’ because it’s difficult. We never had to stay in one room like that.”
Her family used to live in a home; a place with space for the younger siblings to play and a bedroom for Kamyria set up just how she liked it. At one time, Brenda, 32, held a job as a medical assistant. But all it took were a few setbacks and roadblocks thrown in their path to land the family at COTS.
Brenda and her kids are among many southeast Michigan families who have fallen on hard times for myriad reasons and are now dealing with homelessness. It’s not only families in the city of Detroit; it also permeates the suburbs.
“It’s a statewide phenomenon,” says Barb Ritter, who crunches the numbers as project director of the Michigan Statewide Homeless Management Information System at the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. According to the most recent data, there are about 5,131 kids living with their homeless families just in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Many of these kids attend our children’s schools and struggle near our own homes. The difference is, these thousands of kids don’t always know where they’ll sleep tonight or when their next meal will come. And the reality is, a series of unfortunate events could land just about anybody in this tough spot.
Each year, “one out of 45 kids will experience homelessness in this country,” says Susan Benson, who oversees the Homeless Student Education Program at Oakland Schools Intermediate School District. Despite the commonality and prevalence even in our own backyard, “People don’t want to think about it,” she says. “It’s tough to swallow.”
A closer look
Brenda and her kids have been on-and-off homeless for the last two years.
In January 2014, the family was evicted from the Detroit house they’d called home for six years after discovering they had a fraudulent landlord. Brenda’s income couldn’t cover the cost the new landlord set, so she resorted to living in hotels and her car while her kids temporarily stayed with other relatives. They were reunited when Brenda found new housing about eight months later.
But while getting their bearings, the family dealt with a house fire. To top it off, Brenda was laid off from her job. After running into problems obtaining unemployment, the situation landed the family in a friend’s garage. It took nearly two months to get into COTS.
“We brought what we had with us, which was all summer gear,” she says. “I had two suitcases and a bag.”
Now at the shelter, operated in an old hotel building with just 140 beds, her family lives among other struggling families working to get back on their feet. All have been down different paths to lead them here. Aisha Morrell, director of marketing and media relations at COTS, says the shelter is comprised of primarily single moms with kids. That’s a common makeup for homeless family households throughout Michigan. Of the 15,861 homeless family households counted in Michigan in 2014, 64 percent were households with single female parents, according to a 2015 State of Homelessness in Michigan report. The majority of the parents in these households are under 35 years old, and the kids under 11. Most of Michigan’s homeless population are minorities.
Reasons a family may end up homeless vary. Poverty, family violence or conflict, and sometimes disabilities, are contributors here in our state, the report notes. According to America’s Youngest Outcasts, which in 2014 released its assessment of homelessness among youth in each state across the country, major contributors to homelessness among kids in 2013 were the country’s high poverty rate, lack of affordable housing, the recession, racial disparities and even challenges of single parenting.
The list is vast. “We’ve had some white-collar families down on their luck,” Morrell says of COTS. “We’ve had young mothers who are just out on their own because families aren’t able to be as supportive as they hope.” Add all that to the list of parents who are underemployed, unemployed or have struggled with substance abuse issues, she says.
While the word “homeless” may elicit the image of a person sleeping in a cardboard box under the viaducts, in actuality, situations for the homeless differ as much as the reasons they’ve hit hard times. Brenda and her family found a shelter, but some aren’t as fortunate.
“There aren’t enough shelters,” says Benson. “We’ll get people who will very often say, ‘Well, why doesn’t their family just go to a shelter?’ Because there are so few shelter beds that they can’t go to a shelter.”
She explains that instead families will live in motels, sleep in their car, stay in a garage, or “double up,” meaning they’re staying with friends or relatives temporarily.
At least in Oakland County, she says many of the parents in families requiring their services are the working poor. “When you’re making minimum wage, you can’t afford housing.” She points out the sheer amount of hours a parent would need to work to afford housing – and that’s to meet that one necessity. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Michigan resident in 2015 would have to work about 58 hours a week at minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent without paying more than 30 percent of their income. Now imagine being a single parent.
“How are you parenting by yourself? It’s impossible,” Benson points out.
Impact on kids
Experts agree that lack of stability associated with homelessness impacts kids’ education and health negatively, and sometimes, the distress can be long lasting.
“People need to know that being homeless is traumatic to children,” Benson says. “We’re talking about true, honest to goodness trauma. Not, ‘I didn’t make the basketball team’ trauma, but true, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight’ trauma.”
Mental health and school work suffer. Donna Major, a licensed master social worker with a practice based in Troy, worked in Utica Community Schools for 15 years and encountered students experiencing homelessness. Major, who also worked at a church that helped homeless families, says it causes chronic stress, which usually leads to physical and emotional difficulties and eventually depression.
“The older they were, the more stressed,” she says. “I saw some teenagers – some girls especially – they were pulling their hair out, that were biting their fingernails.”
It all carries into school. Often, teens will be embarrassed to talk about their family’s homelessness and try to hide it, she says. Plus, when kids have to move schools due to the location they’re currently staying in, they fall behind.
In fact, each time a child moves schools unexpectedly, they can lose up to a year of academic progress, Benson says. So, think of a child who has to move locations frequently due to ever-changing residences. “That’s enormous when we’re talking about at-risk youth,” Benson says, adding these kids “almost always have other things going on” in their lives. Poverty, sometimes hunger – and it’s not uncommon for them to be witnessing domestic violence or substance abuse, Major notes.
“How do you teach a child who goes to school and they have all this weighing on them?” she says. They’re behind in school, trying to play catch up. They go “home” and have no personal space to do their homework, no computer like the other kids. Because they may have moved, they no longer have the stability of friends and familiar teachers. And sadly, Major says, other kids can be cruel, and homeless kids could get picked on for poor hygiene or their unfashionable, wrinkled clothes.
It’s easy to see where this path can lead. Students might start to act out, get into trouble, become depressed or drop out, she adds. All could have reverberations into adulthood.
Health-wise, homeless kids also suffer. One of Brenda’s big fears with her own kids is that they will get sick. She knows it will spread since they live in a communal space. The concern is valid. One statistic reported by The National Center on Family Homelessness states kids experiencing homelessness are sick four times more often than others. These kids also go hungry more often and have higher rates of obesity due to nutritional deficiencies.
The America’s Youngest Outcasts report notes homeless children often develop more slowly, and the report cites research finding about 40 percent of these school-aged kids have mental health issues that would require clinical evaluation.
A way out
Unfortunately, for many families, as was the case for Brenda, it’s hard to find support from family. Brenda says her mom is ill and cannot take them in, and her dad is currently going through his own struggles.
“As far as siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, I do have a few family members who are fortunate, but they’re not calling and breaking down doors trying to help me,” she says.
Ritter says families usually “flow between being doubled up and homeless.” That’s because many families are “systemically poor.” “The families do as much as they can for each other, but at some point they just can’t do it anymore.” Luckily, there are support services and organizations working hard to offer stability and resources for kids and families. For starters, school can play a vital role.
“Parents come to see the school as their touchstone for their kids, and it becomes really a touchstone for the whole family,” explains Benson. The program she oversees at Oakland Schools helps coordinate services for families in Oakland County’s 28 school districts, plus the public school academies. They have homeless students in every district, she notes.
Benson says schools can estimate kids in need of resources based on their free and reduced lunch counts in the schools. “About 10 percent of those numbers are going to be a pretty reliable base for how many homeless students you have.”
Schools often have higher counts of homeless youth when compared to counts relying on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition. That’s because the definition the U.S. Department of Education uses to define homelessness includes kids who are doubled up or living in motels, for example, where as HUD’s definition does not. Thanks to the schools’ expansive definition, they’re able to provide more students with resources under something called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Last year, the Homeless Student Education Program assisted nearly 2,500 kids across Oakland County. Their goal is to make school a stable, reliable place for these kids, which McKinney-Vento also ensures. That means keeping kids in the same school they’ve always attended, even if transportation needs to be provided.
“That becomes the constant for our kids,” she says. “That becomes the make-it-or-break-it factor.”
McKinney-Vento also requires these kids are given the same opportunities to achieve and are given support in doing so. With this, in addition to some dollars set aside from Title 1 and, as is the case in Oakland County, sometimes donations from community partnerships, schools can provide supplies, backpacks and many other necessities to break down barriers for these students.
If a family gets into a shelter like COTS, which has a Passport to Self-Sufficiency program, they can be connected with resources to support them in their journey to a home, including specialists and a coach to guide them.
Throughout communities in the state of Michigan, homeless families can find coordinated assistance centers otherwise known as Housing Assessment and Resource Agencies (HARA), which they can reach out to directly, according to Paula Kaiser VanDam, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Bureau of Community Services. HARA can get more information on a family’s needs to connect them to the correct services and find them a place to stay while in transition (a list of HARAs by county can be found at MetroParent.com/HARA. Leah McCall, the director for the Alliance for Housing Oakland County continuum of care, adds there are also “a lot of different access points” for resources in the community, including hospitals and mental health facilities.
There are many other organizations that are a part of local continuums of care, or CoCs, which work together locally to advocate and provide support. Through these groups, families can also connect to resources.
A long road home
But getting out of homelessness is no cakewalk. As the 2014 America’s Youngest Outcasts report emphasizes, education level can make it difficult to get a job that pays livable wages. Transportation and lack of child care can also make it hard to find and keep employment. As Major points out, not everybody has the same level of intelligence. Then making minimum wage, she says, “it’s a vicious cycle.”
For Major, lack of empathy and understanding is another hurdle to those faced with homelessness.
“Stop deriding the characters of these people who are struggling. I hear so often, ‘Just pull yourself up from your bootstraps, I did it,’ – (that’s) people at the top. Yeah, but who helped you along the way?”
Brenda feels there are a lot of misunderstandings about those who are homeless.
“A person can look at you and say, ‘Oh, you’re homeless? You look like you dress pretty well.’ I could have got these clothes from the clothing closet at the shelter. I did. Or someone could have donated something.”
And while some struggle with addictions and mental health, that’s not the case for all.
“I’m not a bum. I’m not on drugs. I don’t drink. But you will look at me like I’m one of these people who just took the needle and put it in my arm every day and chose this life,” she says. “No. A series of unfortunate events literally happened.”
When Brenda came to COTS that September day last year, all of the kids’ toys and the family’s furniture ended up in a storage unit. All of it is at risk of going to auction because they cannot afford to pay the rental fee. She hoped they’d be out of the shelter for the holidays, but that didn’t happen. There are aspects of their situation the children are still adjusting to, like designated meal times. Kamyria fights to keep up with her online homework without a computer, but the bright and involved student isn’t deterred. She’s aiming for a 3.5 GPA or higher this card marking. At school, De’Quan has had a few issues with talking back, something his mom says she recognizes is stress manifesting.
“It affects them, and I learned that last year. When home falls apart, it bothers the heck out of the kids. They fall apart,” she says. “Big and small, all of us feel it.”
For Brenda, a big battle is just staying strong in front of her children. She tries to hide her emotions from everyone around her, wearing a smile through the shelter. “I take my moment to myself, but I tell you … the pillow had a bunch of tears on it,” she says, “but I can’t let my kids see me break down.”
She’s determined to get a job and a place to live in the next couple of months. Long-term she wants to be financially stable, go back to school and own a house. She is set on getting out and staying out.
Sure, on the homelessness front statewide, there have been successes along the way. There are organizations working to help these individuals and families, connecting them with resources. Hundreds of thousands of homeless people in Michigan received support in 2014. Many found homes. But the problem isn’t solved. Not for Brenda and her kids just yet and not for thousands of other children in southeast Michigan.
“There are services for families, but there definitely isn’t enough,” McCall says.
And it’s important to keep perspective. Benson cites a proverb, “There, but for the grace of God go I.”
“Really, you can pretty that up to, ‘That could be me,'” she says. It’s not farfetched. Fall behind on rent one month, encounter car trouble the next. It’s not difficult to imagine falling deeper and deeper into trouble.
“Many, many people are a paycheck away.”
5 Ways to Help
Donating goods and volunteering at a soup kitchen are common during the holiday, but Susan Benson, the director of community programs at Oakland Schools Intermediate School District who oversees the Homeless Student Education Program, stresses, “These are not holiday needs. These are year round needs.”
Here are ways your family can give.
Donate money. It’s used by local organizations in various ways. Aisha Morrell, marketing and media relations director at the Coalition on Temporary Shelter in Detroit, says it helps family shelters offer beds and meals, along with enrichment opportunities for parents and kids.
Donate items. Put together a bag of toiletries and common day-to-day items. Contact a shelter to see what is needed. Morrell notes diapers, formula, undergarments for kids and adult women, socks for kids and adults and feminine hygiene products like pads, liners and tampons.
Think outside the box. Benson says sometimes kids and families need clothes in sizes 4X or size 15 shoes. Or, with the Oakland Schools program, donate a gas card or a bus pass, which can help a child get to school.
Volunteer. Take time to volunteer at a shelter or soup kitchen. Find an agency or organization focused on a niche you feel passionate about, suggests Leah McCall, director for the Alliance for Housing, Oakland County’s Continuum of Care.
Educate and understand. Justgive.org encourages families to not only find understanding for the unique situations that lead to homelessness, but to also educate yourself and your kids. Visit justgive.org for a list of 35 Ways to Help the Homeless for even more ideas.
Finding Stability at COTS
The Coalition on Temporary Shelter has one big goal: Get people back out on their feet again – and, of course, not see them come back. “Unless you want to come visit,” jokes Gena Harris Lewis, a Passport to Self-Sufficiency mobility coach. She works with each client staying at COTS to find housing and employment and ensure they’re supported.
“Coming here may seem like it’s the worst thing in your life, but really it opens up so many doors,” she says. The program focuses on five areas: Housing, health, finances, education and training and employment. Everybody gets mentoring and meetings with a housing specialist. COTS provides a private room to stay in, child care, clothes, meals, laundry services and more. The goal is self-sufficiency and stability.
“We’re looking at it as a generational approach,” Lewis says. “If we can help mom make the changes, then we won’t see the children here anymore.”
At COTS, it doesn’t matter where the families are from, and they can stay as long as they need, says Aisha Morrell, marketing director. Plus, support continues after families leave. Mentoring coaches can check on where their client is living, meet with them and, if they’re struggling again, provide help.
“It gives stability,” Lewis says. “Yes, there are rules and curfews and it’s community living and those things are hard, but for a lot of them it’s better than where they come from.”
Photos by Lauren Jeziorski