In 2016, Courtney Smith was riding a train across the country as part of a service project. She and the 25 other young people stopped in cities around the country to examine themes of inclusivity and develop as the next generation of service leaders.
She interviewed a woman in Milwaukee about her lived experience as a young person facing homelessness. Seven years later, she doesn’t remember the woman’s name, but her advice gave her a “visceral” pull to start a local shelter and fully dedicate her career to ending youth homelessness. All the woman said was, “The best way to thank me is to go back to your community and do something.”
Now, Smith is the founding CEO of the Detroit Phoenix Center, a youth resource center that provides wraparound support for Detroit’s young people facing homelessness, struggling with other basic needs or just looking for a place to belong.
“There was this narrative being shared that the city was coming back, and that there were all these great things happening,” Smith said. “I felt young people in the city of Detroit were kind of being left out of that narrative.”
The year after the train trip, Smith started the Detroit Phoenix Center in her church basement alongside Chantel Hicks, who is now the operations manager. At the beginning, the center was just a volunteer-run drop-in space. It offered laundry services, hygiene products, shower space and a safe place for young people to relax. It was also an overnight emergency shelter during the winter.
Smith faced homelessness herself. She spent her senior year of high school living in a Detroit youth shelter after family issues forced her from home. It took her longer than usual to finish college in part because she was supporting herself. She graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 2014 when she was 24. (Smith and her family members have resolved those past issues in recent years, and she said work with the Detroit Phoenix Center contributed to their healing and restoration.)
Now, she is a successful nonprofit executive who has been named to Crain’s Detroit Business 2018 “Twenty in their 20s” and Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness’ 2018 Community Champion of the Year, given to young leaders who make a difference in their communities and in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
Smith says her guiding principle has always been to listen to young people.
National issue turned crisis in Detroit
Researchers at Wayne State University found that as many as 16% of Detroit’s young people dealt with housing instability in the 2021-22 academic year and almost 11% of them were homeless. The U.S. Census Bureau says that 43.1% of children under 18 years old lived below the poverty level as of 2021. In 2017, when DPC was founded, that figure was 48.2%.
DPC is partnering with Methodist Children’s Home Society (MCHS) to provide 12 transitional housing beds and 24 rapid rehousing units for young people. Young people can get rental assistance for up to two years while staying there. The center also connects them with employment, mental health and academic resources. These services are being paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
DPC also has a senior case manager who assesses young people under 18. If deemed appropriate, the case manager can provide the young person with child protective services, law enforcement, mental health services or restorative family practices.
The center can’t provide enough services for everyone who needs them. In those cases, it refers young people to local organizations such as CAM Detroit, United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network.
Smith says she and the DPC staff go the extra mile, offering long-term solutions such as emergency services, housing support, education and employment assistance, mental health services and youth leadership opportunities that cater to that person’s unique situation.
“We’re looking for reasons to keep you,” Hicks said. “We’re not trying to get rid of you. We’re not trying to just throw you a bone … we literally walk with you through your journey.”
Just as she was empowered in 2016, Smith is also empowering young people to give back once they no longer require the center’s services. Senior Youth Advocate DeAndra Matthews dropped in at the center and instantly wanted to volunteer.
Now, Matthews is part of the Youth Action Board, whose members range from ages 18-24. The board helps DPC in its decision-making, something Smith was very adamant about in the creation of the center.
The Youth Action Board has a variety of responsibilities, including monthly meetings, partnerships with organizations, peer support to newer members and service projects.
When COVID-19 hit, Smith said DPC stepped up. To better serve Detroit’s youth in the wake of pandemic closures, the staff sought out young people in the streets, checking places like abandoned buildings, hotels, group homes and other places where young people shared living space.
“We were mobile,” Smith said. “We just went full force because we were in a crisis and we felt like we had to show up for our community.”
The Homeless Action Network of Detroit found that the city had about 10,000 people facing homelessness pre-pandemic, 21% of whom were under the age of 18.
Smith led DPC in distributing hygiene kits and masks, paying rent and bills, and offering COVID-safe housing. The center distributed more than 7,000 COVID-19 care packages, and the staff dedicated over 900 hours to virtual mental health support, tutoring, financial literacy and more.
“Poverty didn’t pause during the pandemic,” Smith said. “Disproportionately in our community, Black folks were impacted by the pandemic, so we felt as leaders that we had to be on the front lines.”
Next steps for DPC?
“I really haven’t thought about what else I’d be doing if I wasn’t leading DPC,” Smith said. “I just feel so full.”
Smith said she did have to heal from her early trauma to be able to do the work of uplifting Detroit’s youth well. She said she surpassed those challenges by having mentors and receiving positive feedback about how the work she was doing was necessary.
Smith’s passion for Detroit’s youth is contagious, Hicks said.
“Ms. Courtney is probably one of the most driven individuals I’ve ever met in life,” Hicks said. “She is driven by her heart, by faith and by some of her lived experiences to really go the extra mile with young people.”
“(Courtney) is such an inspiration for me,” Matthews said. “Anytime I’m speaking about her, I speak very highly because I have just love for her. She’s been a big part of my life.”
Hicks said the center measures its success through the young people’s improved confidence, assertiveness and ability to be self-sufficient. She says young people served by the center have graduated high school and college, started families, bought homes and kept good jobs.
“We’re working to end youth homelessness for real,” Matthews said.
Smith is currently on sabbatical through the Miller Fellowship, which provides Detroit nonprofit CEOs and directors with support to recharge and step away from day-to-day operations. She is one of nine fellows awarded after the fellowship’s two-year hiatus.
“I’m just now learning to take care of myself, and what that means is creating space for reflection, creating space for movement in my body, making sure that I’m connecting with family and friends and staying connected to my faith community,” Smith said.
But Smith says she is still dedicated to DPC making a difference in Detroit.
“Young people? They’re so motivated and resilient,” Smith said. “They committed to not only changing their lives but within their own community — they too want to be the example.”
Smith says other young people wanting to follow in her footsteps should take the same advice she did in 2016: Just do it. Smith encourages young people to find an organization with a mission they’re passionate about, get informed about legislation that affects their community and get to know local leaders.
“The youth of Detroit matter,” Smith said.
Detroit Phoenix Center is located at 7375 Woodward Ave. in Detroit, inside the YouthVille Detroit/Franklin Wright Settlements Inc. building. Staff can be reached at 313-482-0916 and email@example.com.
This story has been updated to clarify Smith’s current relationship with her family and correct details of DPC’s partnership with Methodist Children’s Home Society, based on updated information from DPC.