‘It happened so quickly’: Detroit area advocates scramble to help vulnerable students. But first they have to find them.

After schools closed to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, advocates for Detroit’s vulnerable youth said the most frustrating part of trying to help them is finding them. 

Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order for Michigan effective Tuesday until April 13, with all non-essential businesses and organizations required to send employees home to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. Social service agencies that serve individuals in need are exempt from the order. 

The pandemic has accelerated exponentially, leading the governor to announce the drastic measure. There are now more than 1,300 confirmed COVID-19 in Michigan, and 15 confirmed deaths so far. As of Tuesday, Detroit has confirmed 411 cases. 

Social service agencies, schools, libraries, and community centers that provide necessities like meals, bus tickets, internet access, places to shower, and even shelter are closed or limiting their services, cutting off the resources these students depend on. 

“There are a huge number of children in the city of Detroit who are facing housing instability and homelessness, and the vast majority of these children have not been identified,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions.

The fate of the school year is still unresolved. Whitmer extended the school closures an additional week, with at least one school district leader calling for schools to suspend the academic year entirely

During the pandemic, these youth are more vulnerable to health risks. Not having a stable place to live makes it difficult to self-quarantine or practice social distancing. And without running water, soap, or hand sanitizer, they cannot follow the federal guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

For the most part, Michigan students who are unaccompanied minors or don’t have a parent or legal guardian cannot consent to their own routine medical care except in an emergency. In addition, students are often afraid to go to hospitals because they fear being split up from their siblings. This creates barriers to getting the healthcare they need.

Margaret Lee knows how much tougher the shutdown has made the lives of these students. For four years, she was the homeless liaison for Covenant House Academy’s central campus. 

Covenant House Academy is one of three alternative charter schools in Detroit opened by Covenant House Michigan, a faith-based organization that serves the state’s vulnerable youth. They also operate two shelters, one in Grand Rapids and the other in Detroit, that serve 80 youth. More than 500 students enroll in these Detroit schools and their school in Grand Rapids. 

Usually, the staff has time to prepare care packages for students when there are long breaks, such as those that occur in the summer and winter. The sudden order to close made that impossible.

“It happened so quickly,” said Lee, now the school’s secretary. “There wasn’t any way to plan for it. Because we’re talking about kids that have a phone today and a different phone number tomorrow. Or today they slept in a vacant house and tomorrow they slept on somebody’s couch.”  

Ida Benson, Covenant House Michigan’s director of development and communications, said they are instructing some of the students who live at the Detroit shelter to stay there and not leave for the time being. Only some of the charter students stay at the shelter. 

“Most of them come from traumatic situations. So this is kind of stirring up a lot of emotion about, ‘Where am I going to be? What am I going to do? And we are really trying to make sure that our residents feel safe and loved and secure on campus,” Benson said. 

At the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park, LGBTQ metro-area youth can find a comfortable space to connect. Many don’t have stable housing, because LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience homelessnes than their peers. The staff is still working hard to provide basic services, but the pandemic is forcing them to adapt and find new ways to work with youth who are homeless.

All counseling services are now conducted virtually, which is critically important to those youth. Luke Hassevoort, the housing manager at Ruth Ellis, said they’ve had to limit face-to-face interactions at their health clinic and cut down hours at their drop-in center. A lot of their work with youth is now being done online as Ruth Ellis continues to serve as many as 200 LGBTQ youth a year. 

Hassevoort said LGBTQ youth already face great social challenges. Many are discriminated against and harassed because of their identity. The practice of social distancing could adversely affect the mental health of these youth, who come to the center to see friends and staff they trust. 

“Forced isolation could be triggering,” he said.

Courtney Smith, the executive director of the Detroit Phoenix Center, a youth services provider, also works with the city’s unaccompanied youth, those who don’t have a parent or legal guardian. She said the team is scrambling to find them.

“I don’t know right now, because I haven’t been able to contact them,” she said. “We don’t know where they are. So we’re like, literally, we’re trying to figure that out right now.” 

Detroit Phoenix Center has approximately 1,200 drop-in visits annually, with some students attending district and charter schools. The resource center was a place where youth could do their homework and use the site’s computers. Many youth without a place to live don’t have access to Wi-Fi or the technology needed for online learning.

The resource center is closed, but they were able to deliver packages of food and essential items for youth and families in need last week before the governor’s stay-at-home order. They’re also providing virtual wellness check-ins, homework help and coaching to their youth members while the staff works remotely. Smith has said they’ve used social media blasts to connect with unaccompanied youth. Some have responded, but they’re still waiting to hear back from many. 

Smith said the work is challenging, and they’re trying to figure it out every day.

“So I can only imagine even now with the lack of resources…what our students are going through right now,” Smith said.

The Detroit Phoenix Center is seeking donations of food and hygiene products. Call (313) 482-0916 or email info@detroitphoenixcenter.org for more information. The Ruth Ellis Center is accepting donations online. Covenant House Michigan is also calling for donations after some fundraising events were cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the number of drop-ins in a year at the Detroit Phoenix Center reflects that some students make multiple visits.