As cold, bitter temperatures creep up on us here in Detroit, people experiencing homelessness are bracing for already dire conditions to likely get worse.

A recent report commissioned by the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department found people are having a harder time obtaining beds at shelters. Those who do manage to secure beds report overcrowding and violence in the shelters and say that there aren’t sufficient services for women, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people. The length of time people stay in shelters has doubled in the last eight years. The report recommends resources go to helping people obtain permanent housing

What we have instead are warming centers as a temporary solution for unsheltered people to find reprieve from harsh weather conditions. These warming centers are not new in Detroit, and neither are calls to provide permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness. The debate among advocates, city officials and non-profit organizations have gone in circles, with little change in the last few decades. 

In the 1980s, the city opened its first warming center after a 1985 New Year’s Eve ice storm left more than 400,000 homes and businesses without power and was blamed for multiple deaths. Detroiters then experienced record-breaking arctic storms, with temperatures 15 degrees below zero and 20 mph winds. Weeks later, The Detroit News reported at least four people died because of the near-constant below-freezing temperatures.

By February, Mayor Coleman Young planned to have discussions with social service workers about opening warming centers in the city. This came at a time when homeless shelters were already “busting at the seams,” Jarrie Tent from the Coalition on Temporary Shelters, also known as COTS, said at the time. 

Newsworthy developments for warming centers were scarce until 1989, when City Council voted on an emergency ordinance to open vacant public housing units for people experiencing homelessness. Detroit had one of the highest vacancy rates in the country, with 45.2% of the city’s nearly 10,100 units vacant. 

Then-Council President Erma Henderson suggested using the basement of Cobo Hall (now called Huntington Place) as a temporary warming shelter. But others argued that the city needed to focus on finding permanent housing, rather than a temporary solution. A Detroit Free Press reader survey found that 70% of 351 respondents said the city should open the Cobo Hall basement for homeless people.

Some housing activists spoke out against the ordinance, arguing it was a limited solution that would leave people abandoned to the elements when temporary shelters closed.

“I’m sick of hearing about warming shelters,” said Wilson O’Neal, economic director for the Detroit Wayne County Union of the Homeless, said at a City Council meeting a few months later. “The public and private sectors are going to have to get together. We’ve got to quit dragging our feet every year. Because next year, we’re going to be doing the same damn thing. Still talking about the homeless, if we don’t talk about permanent housing.”

City Council approved an emergency ordinance to use Cobo Hall, but Young vetoed it. He feared using Cobo Hall would hinder Detroit’s convention business and said opening public buildings as temporary shelters would cost the city over $2 million. 

City Council failed to override Young’s veto, and instead passed a largely symbolic resolution urging him to allocate $3 million to pay rent for 100 public housing apartments, making them available for the homeless until they qualify for housing assistance. 

“I believe that the needs of the homeless require and deserve more than the current hysteria-centered short-term proposal introduced by the Detroit City Council,” Councilmember Nicholas Hood said in a Detroit Free Press editorial.

Warming centers continue to open each winter, and activists’ calls for substantial change echo. Non-profit organizations and government programs have attempted to create solutions but are not always successful. Residents living in affordable housing owned by the Detroit Housing Commission complain about substandard living conditions, and properties have continually failed inspection.

The city’s three main warming centers – Cass Community Social Services on Woodrow Wilson Street and the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries locations on Mack Avenue and Third Street – are open now for the season. If you or someone you know is experiencing housing insecurity, you can call Wayne Metro Community Action Agency at 866-313-2520 during the hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday to discuss shelter options.

Editors note: This story has been changed since publication to clarify that the report on how people experiencing homelessness in Detroit are fairing was commissioned by the city, not produced directly by it.

Alex (she/her) is an urban studies and public history student at Wayne State University and a Detroit Documenter. She has a special interest in researching Metro-Detroit history and seeks to connect current issues with historical context to find solutions. She believes we must understand our past to...