COVID-19 challenges social service agencies serving Detroit homeless

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Gregory Mobley needed a place to live after he split from his wife three months ago, so he came to the Detroit Rescue Mission for shelter until he got on his feet.

Then the coronavirus began to spread in Michigan, making Mobley, 57, one of the thousands of sheltered and unsheltered homeless in Detroit trying to find stability during the global pandemic.

Jay, who is 38 and did not want to give his last name, reads a Tom Clancy book while holding a sign that reads "Homeless and Hungry, Anything Helps. Thank You and God Bless." Jay has been homeless on and off for 10 years.

“These people are looking out for us the best way they can,” said Mobley, now living in a Detroit Rescue Mission shelter in the Cass Corridor. “You’re going to have some people with their ups and downs in here and they’re getting frustrated and stuff like that, but these people take care of us.”

Despite higher costs associated with combating COVID-19, social service agencies are ramping up efforts to serve the homeless amid growing cases of the virus in the city and southeast Michigan — even as they balance the need for social distancing, extra cleaning and health checks.

At Mariners Inn, a shelter and treatment center for the homeless in Detroit, staff said they began preparing for the outbreak as soon as they were aware of it by ordering food and supplies to last for a few weeks. About 150 men live at the shelter.

The men are discouraged from leaving the building, an effort to practice the social distancing recommended by local, state and federal public health professionals. Instead, they keep busy inside with games, art projects, movies and exercise equipment.

“It’s affecting us a lot … certain people can’t come to work,” said Edward Norwood Jr., who has lived at Mariners Inn for about two months. “We have to do video monitoring and stuff. It puts a strain on it. It’s not the same as it was, but we’re still getting some help."

Norman Bolden III, 34, left, and Edward Norwood Jr., 54, have been staying at the Mariners Inn Campus since before the coronavirus pandemic began.

Because employees can’t enter the building if they’re sick, some of the older clients have organized recovery meetings, Norwood said: "It was volunteer, but you knew who was serious because those were the people can come."

Norman Boyden III appreciates the measures Mariners Inn has taken within the facility. A team sanitizes door handles, light switches, remote controls and other surfaces three times a day. All of this while providing counseling by video for the residents who are overcoming substance addictions.

“It’s new for everyone,” said Boyden, 34. “No one has gone through this to know how to necessarily handle this situation. They’re doing the best they can by giving us the necessary tools to stay in our journey of recovery.”

In response to the pandemic, the city of Detroit funded the reopening of a vacant Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries building to serve Detroit and Highland Park. The homeless staying at the Neighborhood Service Organization building in Detroit temporarily moved to an undisclosed idled recreation center to give the organization room to practice social distancing.

The Salvation Army Harbor Lights' Ellen Thompson Center on Detroit's west side is an emergency quarantine site for the homeless. An additional facility is expected to open by April 19, according to the city. As of Tuesday, 25 homeless tested positive for the virus, with eight pending results.

During a press briefing earlier this week, Mayor Mike Duggan said the cases of COVID-19 in homeless shelters were not as prevalent as the spread of the virus in nursing homes, facilities now considered hotspots in the city's continuing battle against the disease.

He credited the city's team. Three weeks ago, it began dispatching out nurses twice a week to check on the homeless, to find those with fevers and to get them separated and in care.​

Two people sleep in one sleeping bag under the arches at St. Aloysius Catholic Church Parish and Neighborhood Services on Washington Blvd., Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

"The active response to our homeless population," Duggan said, "is going to end up being studied as a national model."

As coronavirus cases rose in Michigan, Detroit Rescue Mission opened three additional sites to house the homeless. Its clientele is at about 2,300 individuals, including women and children.

It costs about an extra $300,000 monthly to run its programming during the crisis, said Chad Audi, president and CEO of the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, putting additional financial strain on the organization. An annual fundraising dinner will have to be rescheduled due to the crisis.

Audrey, who is 32 and did not want to give her last name, holds a sign that reads "Homeless Please Help. God Bless You!" while she reads a book of short stories near Bagley and Third Streets in Detroit on April 7, 2020.

Staff is still committed to transporting anyone who is ill and needs to be transferred to a quarantine site, Audi said. The Detroit Health Department checks on the clients regularly because there have been cases of both staff and clients testing positive for COVID-19.

As for Mobley, he has plans to find his own place using a Section 8 housing voucher whenever it’s safe to do so. For now, he focuses on his task at the shelter: cleaning the laundry for his housemates.

“If I can do anything to keep me busy while this crisis is going on that’s what I’m going to do instead of laying up in the bed all day," he said. "You can’t go anywhere because of what’s going on. I keep myself busy.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

Staff Writers Robin Buckson and Christine Ferretti contributed.