This article has been updated to include further details from the City of Detroit.

Temperatures are quickly falling in Detroit, and the city’s homeless population has been steadily increasing. After two years of offering shelter and other services through the nonprofit Pope Francis Center, the city’s primary convention center, Huntington Place, won’t open its doors this winter to the city’s most vulnerable residents. 

The number of people in Detroit shelters went up by 13% since 2021, according to the “point-in-time count,” which counts the city’s homeless population every January. The numbers also point to an alarming uptick in the number of children and seniors without housing. The spike is putting some strain on the city’s shelter system. 

“I wouldn’t call it a crisis just yet,” said Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. “But it could come to that very quickly.” 

Several other indicators point to an increase of people without housing in the past year. Gray said shelters and other partners reported a greater need for beds and other services. 

For the past two winters, the Pope Francis Center relocated its services to Huntington Place so essential services like free daily meals, showers, housing assistance and occasional overnight shelter could reach some of Detroit’s most vulnerable residents in the midst of a global pandemic.

Through a spokesperson, Pope Francis Center stated that the move was done largely out of a concern of COVID-19 transmission. 

“We have been fortunate to temporarily shift our operations to Huntington Place when COVID levels were high in our city and we needed more space,” the statement read. “As we approach colder weather this year, we are not seeing COVID infections at dangerous levels. As a result, we opted to continue serving people experiencing homelessness this winter from our usual facility on St. Antoine.”

Moving services to Huntington Place meant serving around 300 more people each day than the Pope Francis Center facility can accommodate.

Huntington Place management declined to comment. 

Too few places to go

The homeless population is notoriously difficult to track, but experts say the city’s reported increase is likely due to a loss of pandemic aid and higher cost of living leading to more evictions. Rents have increased in Detroit since the start of the pandemic, as have other expenses due to inflation. Families also didn’t get the enhanced Child Tax Credit this year, which provided up to $3,600 per child to families. 

The situation is only expected to get worse. Eviction diversion and assistance programs helped keep the homeless population in check during the pandemic. The $1.1 billion COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program stopped taking new applications this summer, and will run out of funding by the end of the year while evictions have been steadily increasing.

“CERA was really what was keeping residents in their homes, as it paid for back rent and future rent,” said David Bowser, associate director of the city’s Housing Revitalization Department.

Pope Francis Center serves people’s day-to-day needs, but the question of where they will sleep also needs to be addressed. More people without housing means fewer beds in shelters, and that may affect families without housing the most. 

The city’s count points to another alarming trend: The number of children without housing increased by nearly 50% year-over-year. Gray said that families with children account for at least one-quarter of all people in Detroit’s homelessness system, found in shelters or through street outreach. She added that because many shelters are geared toward single men, the people turned away most frequently due to lack of space are families and single women. 

There has also been a rise in chronic absenteeism at Detroit public schools, which is strongly correlated with unstable housing.

Children are particularly affected by the instability that comes from being unhoused, says Jennifer Erb-Downward, who has studied the effects of homelessness on children.

“Children who are experiencing homelessness show negative impacts on health and education,” she said. “They’re struggling more with anxiety, depression and other indicators.”

Help on the way, eventually

While the city is not increasing homeless services when compared to this time last year, it is once again increasing services from the summer months. City spokesperson Dan Austin said the city will be using federal funds to bring three warming centers online and continuing its Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries Oasis program that opened during the pandemic. The spending will add an additional 275 beds — 100 of which are dedicated for children with families — during the winter months.

But Detroit has developed a long-term strategy it hopes will help blunt a potential homelessness crisis on the horizon. 

The city’s new Housing Services Division is looking to shore up gaps in housing services in order to decrease evictions and relieve pressure on shelters. Funded with $20 million as part of the city’s new affordable housing plan, the office will provide direct case management to residents at risk of homelessness by working to prevent evictions and find people new housing. 

“We want to be able to address your need at the point of an eviction or before an eviction, so we can stabilize and then begin looking for housing options with you,” said Bowser, who’s leading the office. “We have a firm belief that eviction should not lead to homelessness.”

Bowser says his office plans to take a three-pronged approach to diverting renters from evictions. A prevention division will provide legal and financial assistance, job placement and mediation with landlords. An emergency division will be tasked to help find temporary housing and in some instances pay for a hotel stay when people have nowhere else to go. And a housing navigation division will put together a database of available units to place those recently evicted. It will also pay for applications fees, and would even help with security deposits and furnishing homes. 

The whole office will work through a centralized hotline people can call if they’re experiencing housing insecurity. 

“We’re trying to alleviate some pressure on different parts of the system to drive down the homelessness numbers,” Bowser said. 

Bowser said the office will pilot some parts of its services over the next weeks and months, with the hotline launching in the first quarter of 2023. 

In the meantime, families and individuals without homes will have to scour for a place to stay during the coldest nights of the year. 

“People are being forced to leave their residence and to live in housing that is so substandard that would meet the definition of uninhabitable,” Erb-Downward said. “These situations are incredibly stressful and sometimes even traumatic or dangerous.”

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.