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Local shelters rally to help homeless amid COVID-19 this holiday season

Ashley Zlatopolsky
Special to The Detroit News

As Michigan heads into the holiday season and colder months, local shelters are taking strides to help metro Detroit’s homeless and at-risk communities through fundraising and awareness events.

This year, that help is more important than ever as the state also battles COVID-19, which has created a greater need for food, housing and assistance, says Lighthouse CEO Ryan Hertz.

The Pontiac-based nonprofit organization provides emergency shelter, food pantries and housing assistance programs to those in need, among other social services. Lighthouse’s annual event “Dancing with the Stars,” sponsored by Flagstar Bank, aims to raise funds for those programs through an elaborate, high-production event generally held at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.

Santine Harlock, left, is spun by her partner Beau Prenevost, during Michigan Dancing with the Stars, Thursday, Mar. 8, 2018, at Eagle Crest Resort in Ypsilanti.

Because of the pandemic, the event will have a different look.

The 12th annual “Dancing with the Stars” will take place virtually on Saturday  as Lighthouse brings the event directly to its donors, sponsors and participants. This helps ensure COVID-19 safety measures are observed while still making the organization’s annual tradition a reality, which raised a record of $235,000 in previous years.

“Like most charities, we had to take all of our fundraising activities virtual,” Hertz explains, “but we have been really moved by the degree our organization continues to support, despite the fact that we’re not able to have an in-person ‘Dancing with the Stars’ event.”

The 2020 showcase was filmed at a dance studio, and viewers will be able to tune in from home. “Dancing with the Stars” will raise funds for Lighthouse’s COVID-19 relief efforts and include a $25,000 matching gift.

“With the pandemic going on, our biggest priority has been making sure that nobody is stuck without shelter,” Hertz says, “and that we’re able to provide for as many people as we can in non-congregating shelter.”

To help those in need retain dignity, especially during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when Stay Home orders were in place, Lighthouse worked to find private spaces for people and their families.

A new hotel-based initiative now has 120 people who receive emergency shelter in hotel rooms, three meals a day and supportive services, with a “strong effort to try and move them into permanent housing,” Hertz says. “We just don’t want people to be experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Tickets for “Dancing with the Stars” are no longer available, but prices ranged from $100 to $10,000. Each ticket comes with a party box that includes dinner, dessert and/or drinks that guests can pick up and take home before the event. 

One of this year’s star dancers include Motown superstar Martha Reeves, lead singer of the group Martha and the Vandellas. Celebrity judges, meanwhile, include retired NBA basketball player Derrick Coleman.

The goal this year is to raise $200,000, says Lighthouse chief development officer Russ Russell. So far, $169,505 has been raised, according to Lighthouse's website.

“We're going to hopefully get to where we meet and surpass what we did last year, which would be an incredible feat to be able to do that,” Russell says of the event’s changing nature due to the pandemic.

The community will have another chance to contribute to Lighthouse’s efforts, which also include a Thanksgiving food drive that runs through Friday. Interested parties can drop off food to the Lighthouse Warehouse in Pontiac to be distributed to those in need.

“Especially during the holidays, the number of people needing food for Thanksgiving has escalated by almost 50%,” Russell says, explaining that the organization delivers and provides food to nearly 5,000 people a day. Families can be adopted for the holiday as well.

Covenant House Michigan, which provides shelter and emergency services to Detroit’s homeless and at-risk youth communities, will also be putting on a virtual and at-home fundraiser this month.

The organization’s annual Sleep Out, which raises awareness for youth who sleep outside in the cold and those lost to homelessness, will ask participants to sleep outside on their own properties on Thursday.

This can be done in cars, backyards, basements and other areas. By sleeping outside, participants help take a stand for the estimated 17,000 youth in Michigan who are out on the streets every night in need of shelter or food, according to Covenant House.

“One night (outside) helps identify and be in solidarity with young people who have to do it every night,” Covenant House’s executive director Gerry Piro explains. The organization is asking participants to pledge to raise $5,000 for their funding, with an overall goal of $375,000 total.

Funds raised go toward providing shelter, employment services, food and more for youth in need throughout Detroit. The mission, Piro says, is to help get youth back on their feet and give them the tools they need to create their own long-term success.

Hosting a fundraising event this month as well is Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, which provides substance abuse and addiction treatment services to those in need, including shelter. “Holiday Hope for the Hungry” will be securing meals to provide to families and individuals facing a hunger crisis throughout Thanksgiving and the holiday season.

For every $1.95 donated, a meal will be provided on Thanksgiving. The organization estimates that between now and the holiday, more than 243,000 meals will be served to the hungry.

To learn more about the various efforts taking place across metro Detroit to help local homeless and at-risk communities in the cold weather months, visit drmm.org, lighthousemi.org and covenanthousemi.org.

Flagstar's 'Dancing with the Stars'

A charity benefit for Lighthouse

Tickets for this Saturday's event are no longer available, but donations are still be accepted to help Lighthouse. Visit lighthousemi.org.

Covenant House Michigan Sleepout

To donate, visit covenanthousemi.org.

Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries 'Holiday Hope for the Hungry'

To donate, visit drmm.org