Courtney Smith knows what it’s like to be young and without a stable home.
Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, the 28-year-old was adopted at a very young age. Due to problems within that home, she ended up homeless at 16 – living in group homes, shelters and couch surfing.
But even with her struggles, still found a joy and a love for serving others.
Smith’s unique life experience and a passion for serving her community ultimately gave birth to the Detroit Phoenix Center in 2017, a nonprofit shelter specifically for youth ages 13-24 who are experiencing homelessness, giving them access to showers, meals, educational workshops, resume development and many other resources as they navigate through life.
“I was noticing just this influx of young people who were on the streets. That came because my youngest brother at the time was also experiencing some housing insecurity.” Smith told ESSENCE. “I was 25 years old. I was living in a room that I was renting, recent college graduate, with three other young women, and I was blowing up air mattresses for my youngest brother, and I was allowing his friends to come over, and I was just feeding people, and my roommates were complaining that all the food was going missing.”
“It was just not a good kind of situation. My landlord actually at the time had threatened me with eviction,” she added. “I was really, really frustrated because I’m like, there has to be something that I could do. I felt very powerless. I was looking for different ways to kind of bridge the gap.”
So when an opportunity came knocking in 2017 in the form of the Millennial Trains Project, which seeks to cultivate next-generation leadership development, community engagement, and social entrepreneurship, Smith hopped aboard with 25 other changemakers across the country. Her project of choice was youth homelessness.
On the journey, she interviewed youth who were experiencing homelessness and executive directors to figure out best practices on how to help the young people who were living through this issue. She found out that the best way to serve homeless youth was through what is typically called a drop-in center. A method, according to Smith, that was not used in Detroit.
At the end of that journey, Smith was one of five people awarded $10,000 from the project to pilot their program within their community. So, she literally built the center inside of a community building in Detroit, launching with a drop-in center. The rest is pretty much history.
“When a young person drops into the Detroit Phoenix Center, they can take a shower, they can wash their clothes, they can access our food pantry. There are lockers, there are daybeds so that they can rest. And we do life skills programming, we do educational programming, events, and outreach,” she said.
So, what makes Detroit Phoenix Center unique? According to Smith, it is all about the youth themselves having a say.
“A lot of the programs that are in Detroit and in other communities have been around for 30-plus years, and so just being able to create an organization that resonates with the young people today in terms of lived experience and being youth-driven…” she explained. “The youth voice was critical.”
She also takes pride in the fact that the drop-in program at the center is “low barriers.” No zero-tolerance policies, no strings attached.
“I don’t believe that a young person that is street-connected…we cannot expect them to behave in a certain way that aligns with values that we push upon them, because it’s not fair if they’ve been on the street their whole lives,” Smith told ESSENCE. “They just want and need to build relationships. I know that’s what makes our organization different, just the low-barrier approach. They can literally just drop in. There’re no strings attached to the services that you are receiving.”
“These young people have cycled through many other programs, so when they get to DPC, it’s literally like their last resort,” she added. “It’s very critical that our asset-based resource center program is low-barrier, and it allows us to build trust and relationships with the young people that we serve.”
Some may wonder how a low-barrier approach keeps order in the facility if a fight breaks out, for example. Again, as Smith put it earlier, the youth voice is critical. In one incident where a fight did break out, the first time within a year of running the shelter, Smith told ESSENCE, the DPC brought in mediation and convened with the youth, and they came up with their own restorative justice measures, and as a result, they were more than willing to hold one another accountable. Harsh, punitive actions, such as kicking people out, was not necessary.
Of course, DPC is not all about drop-ins, though that remains a critical part of the services they offer. After about the third time a young person drops in, they are invited to become a member, and the center helps them get anything they may need, from birth certificates to an ID, to help with securing a job or re-enrolling in school.
They also meet the teens and young adults where they are at, venturing out to pass out hygiene kits to see where they can connect with someone who may need help.
Just over the past quarter, starting from November, the DPC has provided over 90 hours in educational life skills and job training programs and passed out over 150 hygiene kits. Some 15 to 20 young people pass through its doors daily to use the drop-in center’s facilities.
After winning a pitch competition through the My Brother’s Keeper Innovation Challenge just last month, Smith was also able to expand on the center, using the $50,000 grant to officially launch the DPC’s transitional home, which houses a smaller amount of young people, but for a longer period of time.
Smith is fiercely passionate about focusing on youth, because for her, it’s all about breaking a cycle. Homeless teens, she noted, become homeless adults. And it is all too easy for the age range she serves to be overlooked.
Smith, unfortunately, knows better than anyone else perhaps, what happens when young people fall through the cracks. She has lost family members to the harsher realities of being street connected and limited wraparound services in the community
“I will say, generally having lost loved ones to the harsh realities of being street-connected, I think that’s important for me to mention. There’s a stigma associated with it, and with me doing the work, that’s a part of the reality. It just so happens that I’ve experienced it firsthand, which makes me more passionate about the work that I do,” Smith said, acknowledging that although the loss of her loved ones was a very personal matter, it was something that needed to be addressed.
“[These youth] need a shot at life, and if I could provide that, though I couldn’t be that for my loved ones … Detroit Phoenix Center didn’t exist, but if I could use that to launch something that really matters, that has always been at the core of the work that we do, or at least me leading the efforts,” she added.
Black kids are especially vulnerable. A study published by the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that Black youth had an 83 percent risk for homelessness.
That puts them at risk for further difficulties, as Smith explained.
“Youth that are experiencing homelessness are more … statistics show that they’re 346% less likely to graduate from high school. Due to their transient nature, it’s hard to focus when a young person does not have a stable place to say,” Smith said. “Youth who are experiencing housing insecurity are more likely to commit suicide. In Detroit, one in five are victims of human trafficking, which means that they are literally in such a vulnerable state that they’re preyed upon in exchange for their basic needs and exploited. Young people that are experiencing housing insecurity are also more likely to turn to drugs and very risky behaviors in order to escape the reality of what they’re going through.”
But still, Smith is ever hopeful, expressing admiration for the young people like those who pass through the doors of DPC every day.
“Though those realities are very harsh, they are also incredibly resilient and incredibly resourceful, and very, very, strong.
That’s why Smith believes it is time for the community to step up, educate themselves and offer what help they can.
“When we talk about the village supporting our young people, recognizing the signs, because there are signs that you can see from a young person. They’re not as physically visible, but there are some behavioral things that may imply that a young person is experiencing housing insecurity,” she said. “And not being afraid to do something, right? It doesn’t have to be, necessarily, as for me, go start a whole human services organization, but maybe it’s as simple as opening your home, or maybe getting a hotel, or connecting them to other services in the community.”
Success for Smith is measured by centers like DPC not having to exist at all, but as long as they do have to exist, she hopes that DPC can be a model and a thought leader.
“[These youth] have so much value to add, and they are resilient and they’re strong, and they can be successful if they have the proper tools and resources in place. Detroit Phoenix Center exists so that our young people can rise, and so that they can have a place to call home, and access to those tools and the resources and a level playing field so that they can live healthy and productive lives,” she said. “I think that sharing the work that we do in the way that we do it, we want to be a resource for others in the community or other organizations who are looking to implement youth voice or those who have lived experience and want to do something in their community.