Agencies helping the poor struggle to meet needs amid pandemic

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Najah Bazzy has dedicated her life to lifting up the impoverished. Now, she's holding on to hope that her Inkster-based nonprofit can persevere amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The founder and CEO of Zaman International said the Inkster agency has already lost about $175,000 from canceled events and fundraisers, and the closure of its thrift store resulted in layoffs for 10 employees. 

Jeff Davis, 39, receives a few dollars from a motorist while panhandling on the I-375 service drive near Larned in Detroit on April 1, 2020. He's been homeless, on and off, for about three years after getting laid off and divorced. Then his apartment caught on fire and he had no apartment insurance.

"We're depending on the public right now," Bazzy said. "Small amounts of money are very helpful."

Agencies across Metro Detroit that provide food, shelter and counseling services for Michigan's most vulnerable are being forced to adapt, closing their doors to visitors, postponing major events and making workforce reductions amid Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's "stay home, stay safe" directive to combat the spread of COVID-19.

For Zaman, an organization dedicated to helping women with children in extreme poverty, it's meant closing to the public and transitioning to virtual workforce development and vocational training for clients.

At the same time, the nonprofit is distributing more emergency food than ever, Bazzy said. In just a couple of weeks, it served nearly 2,000 families through school drop-off sites, home deliveries and a partnership with Gleaners Community Food Bank.

"Zaman is a lighthouse," she said. "This is a dark time."

In Detroit, more than 50 agencies in the Homeless Action Network of Detroit are providing shelter, transitional housing or permanent support housing and street outreach on the front line of the pandemic. 

There are about 2,100 people in Detroit who experience chronic homelessness. About 1,300 were in the city's 31 shelters as of March 23, said Tasha Gray, the action network's executive director. 

Services remain available, she said, but "we're just shifting the way we're doing things."

Darleen McCoy, of Detroit, puts a bag of food in the rear of a vehicle at Zaman's Hope for Humanity Center, Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Gray said Detroit officials have taken the lead on meetings with social service agencies and Detroit's health office is helping with health and temperature checks at shelters to ensure those with symptoms are moved to alternative sites for isolation.

The city this month reopened two closed facilities and adapted a recreation center to free up more space for homeless people affected by COVID-19. Two more facilities will be reopened by April 19, officials said Monday.

"A lot of things are definitely changing at agencies and the way that they are providing services," said Gray, noting intake hours are expanding and so is coordination with area hospitals as homeless individuals are discharged to ensure they don't end up back on the streets.

"We've been making personal calls to each agency to get a sense of how they are coping with the governor's executive order and what support they need," she said.

The Neighborhood Service Organization center on Third Street in Detroit.

The Salvation Army Detroit Harbor Lights Ellen Thompson Center on the city's west side is among the sites being used as an emergency quarantine center for the homeless. As of Monday, two of the 29 people there tested positive, while others awaited results. When the center reaches capacity, another facility of the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries is available, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said. 

The city's Housing and Revitalization and Health departments, in partnership with Wayne State University, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and DMC Foundation, have launched COVID-19 testing for symptomatic homeless individuals in the shelter system. 

“We need homeless people suffering with COVID-19 to have the space and medical attention needed to improve their health," said Donald Rencher, director of the city's Housing and Revitalization Department.

For Detroit-based Cass Community Social Services, it's asking for donor support as it grapples with funding and staffing losses.

The Detroit Fire Department Fire Engine Operator of Squad 2 gives homeless man Jeff Davis a pair of protective gloves after giving him a protective mask.

The agency scrapped an annual fundraising dinner that typically brings in $150,000, and it closed its activity center. It also laid off 20 workers who oversee a program for about 120 developmentally disabled adults from area group homes amid the state restrictions on public gatherings. Without the fee-for-service program running, there was no funding to continue paying them, said the Rev. Faith Fowler, the organization's executive director.

"Almost every day there's an announcement that's impacted our ability to help people," she said. "It's all understandable. We're certainly not mad, but it had a big impact on us."

Cass houses about 300 homeless men, women and children between its shelters and residential facilities. It cares for chronically homeless individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues as well as homeless men with HIV and AIDS. 

Fowler said they have limited building access to Cass residents and essential staff and are conducting temperature checks for all who enter. No volunteers, tours or visitors are being permitted, she said. 

James Edward Bailey III, 64, of Detroit,who has been homeless for a year, smokes a cigarette at his current home base,  Elevate Detroit Community Park on Fourth Street in Detroit.

"Any staff who is ill, we have encouraged to stay home. We don't want to risk them or anybody else," she said. "We've been filling in with relief people and going without a person here or there to make sure the disease isn't brought in."

Fowler said Cass is reaching out to its major supporters for funding. They have already raised more than $60,000, but more is needed. Donors can visit the organization's website or mail a check to 11745 Rosa Parks, Detroit, MI 48206.

Fowler said she's confident that her organization will continue to rise to the challenges. 

"There's a no-fail option. This organization operated every day of the polar vortex when the post office shut down. This organization operated every day of the 10-day blackout when we couldn't get electricity or gasoline. We will make it work," she said. "The folks who work here, like so many other good front-line people, are willing to make sacrifices to make sure that the community is cared for."

Mariners Inn, a 24-hour residential, substance abuse treatment facility in Detroit, closed its doors to visitors weeks ago, shuttered public access to its Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and is working on ways to offer one-on-one counseling services over the phone for the men battling addiction, rather than in-person.

Carina Jackson, chief operations officer for Mariners, said the group is still doing intakes and still has monitors, kitchen staff and other essential workers around the clock.

"Our clients need us. We can't do our work from home," she said. "What we do, we have to be available on site."

Mariners has 150 men who live on-site at its facilities under various programs and has identified rooms for quarantine if and when they may be needed, she said. 

They are staggering meal times so they don't exceed 50 people in the cafeteria at one time, allowing residents to make calls to family members more frequently and reducing the size of group meetings. 

Paul Bend of Highland Park and Amani Strong of Detroit hand out whole lactose free UHT milk as Zaman's Hope for Humanity Center distributes food for 300 families in need, Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Although they have discontinued public access to the buildings, they are still allowing new clients to come in after each undergoes a temperature check and screening for symptoms.

"We still have to stay open because we are a human services organization and people live here, but we also want to protect the safety of our clients and our staff," she said. 

Wayne Willis, a participant of a residential treatment program at Mariners, said since the outbreak, he's been unable to make trips back to his home on the city's east side to visit with his wife, children and ailing 93-year-old mother.

But "things are in place here" and treatment and support are continuing, he said. 

"It's a strain a little bit, but overall, they are ahead of the game and preparing," said Willis, 56, who has spent just over two months at Mariners for substance abuse treatment and expects to return home in May. "For right now, we've been weathering the storm."

Others haven't been as fortunate.

On Friday, the offices of Crossroads of Michigan closed and its Detroit soup kitchen shut down Sunday.

Nicole Watters-Harris, Crossroads' executive director, in a notice to supporters, said the 50-year-old organization has been a beacon for the community, "shining through even the darkest of nights," but it's "not immune to this new scourge."

Elisa LeBron, of Livonia, bags up canned veggies, fruit and cereal at Zaman's Hope for Humanity Center, Thursday, March 26, 2020.

"Our volunteer counselors, a necessary part of our ministry, have been forced to choose between their calling to serve and safeguarding their own health as well as the health of their families," she wrote.

"Our services are as essential and life-sustaining as they come, but the reality is that we don’t have the capacity to provide those services during this most crucial time." 

Crossroads hopes to reopen its offices April 14 and soup kitchen April 19.