Detroiters Fight Back Against Housing Insecurity
By Dominic Sweeney
Detroit Action member Donna Price has been organizing throughout this year to conduct a listening campaign around shelter conditions and affordable housing. After losing a generational family home to tax foreclosure in 2014, Ms. Price became one of the thousands of homeless Detroiters that couch-hop with family and friends. When she could no longer stay with family, Ms. Price was forced to seek emergency shelter. She was placed into Cass Community Shelter and quickly fell through the large cracks in our city’s safety net.
Those seeking emergency shelter in Detroit are often directed to the Coordinated Access Management (CAM) System. CAM acts as a referral service placing individuals into open beds in one of the handful of homeless shelters across Detroit. Once in a shelter, individuals in housing crisis (“clients” in the sanitized language of service organizations) are seen by a CAM worker who evaluates their level of need and places them on different waiting lists for Rapid Rehousing, Housing Choice Vouchers, or Permanent Supportive Housing—all of which are in extremely short supply in relation to demand.
Although Ms. Price should have been seen by a CAM worker within her first week at Cass—a requirement during the first week in a shelter—during her two-month long stay, she was never approached for an intake interview and was never given resources to find long-term affordable housing. As a diabetic and someone living with a disability, she also faced neglect by staff members when it came to accommodating her health concerns and accessibility.
After hearing about Detroit Action from another resident at the shelter, Ms. Price began attending Detroit Action’s weekly soup kitchen chapter meetings and found a community of support in others who had been through housing insecurity and were taking action to fight back. By telling her story to others on the shelter team, Ms. Price overcame the stigma associated with homelessness that had prevented her from sharing her story in the past.
Ms. Price attended her very first protest in late July, when Detroit Action marched with partner organizations from across the country on Quicken Loans’ and Rock Ventures’ headquarters in Campus Martius to call out billionaire Dan Gilbert. Gilbert has received hundreds of millions from public coffers for his private businesses while thousands of Detroiters face housing insecurity. Over the summer, Ms. Price attended meetings with City Council Pro-Tem Mary Sheffield, Mayor Mike Duggan, and the Continuum of Care Board—a HUD-mandated coalition that oversees Detroit’s shelter providers—to tell her story and demand those in power take action to address the housing crisis.
By September, Ms. Price was leading a protest action in Washington D.C., demanding affordable housing legislation as part of the Center for Popular Democracy Action Funds’ #HomeToThrive campaign. Ms. Price led hundreds of housing activists from across the country to serve eviction notices to members of Congress who have taken thousands of dollars from real estate lobbyists.
Ms. Price summed up why she fights with Detroit Action saying, “They’re letting these billionaires come into our town, buy up the property, and build new property, and it changes the standard of living and the rent because they’re high-end apartments, and that just pushes the lower class out and the homeless out…We have a human right to live comfortably like anybody else, so that’s why I fight the way I do.”
Donna Price’s transformative journey is one way that Detroit Action is encouraging people to fight back. Detroit Action is a membership-based community organization building people-power across Detroit through grassroots community organizing. It advocates that people directly affected shape the policies on housing, education, and economic development. Detroit Action’s Housing Committee and Shelter Team carries on the work of its predecessor, Detroit Action Commonwealth, which spent 11 years organizing with low and no-income Detroiters to fight the root causes of poverty.
Detroit Action Commonwealth’s Shelter Campaign began more than two years ago with a listening campaign which culminated in the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights Resolution by City Council in 2019. The Homeless Bill of Rights reiterates the rights of those facing homelessness, including the right to access emergency shelter, the right to personal property, and the right to move freely in public spaces without harassment.
For those Detroiters facing housing insecurity, the problem is three-fold. First, those seeking emergency shelter are often turned away due to an expanding need for shelter and a general lack of resources and/or improper use of current funds. Secondly, those who are able to access emergency shelter often find themselves trapped in a system that rotates bodies through shelters for months or years without giving people proper tools to access affordable housing. Thirdly, the City of Detroit, the State of Michigan, and Housing and Urban Development have drastically underfunded current affordable housing programs and left the majority of people seeking long-term affordable housing in a state of homelessness for years at a time while they wait on limited Section 8 and MSHDA housing lists. Public money is available for new housing developments that include a designated number of units for “low-income” tenants. However, these developments are frequently designed as luxury apartments with just a few units set aside for low income people. Additionally, “low-income” is disingenuously calculated using the Area Median Income (AMI) based on a tri-county average income of $45,000. The actual average income for Detroiters is $27,000.
Since Detroit Action’s Housing and Shelter Campaign ramped up over the summer, we have seen a number of encouraging wins. First, the system which evaluates grievances against shelters has been made more transparent, with an accessible form on CAM’s website. We received a commitment from the Mayor’s administration to inspect all shelters across the city with a pledge to provide resources rather than shutdown underperforming shelters.
Secondly, the Mayor’s team has committed to coordinating transportation from CAM to shelters and vice versa to ensure those rotating through the shelter system are not left out in the cold. Third, Detroit Action has nominated Ms. Donna Price to sit on the city’s Continuum of Care Board as a voting member, in order to give feedback on policy and provide oversight within the shelter system. All of these wins have come from members organizing, telling their stories, and showing up in front of those at the levers of power to demand their rights to fair and adequate housing.
Homelessness is visible on street corners and highway exit ramps across Detroit. Not as readily visible are the vast majority of people facing homelessness who are hidden behind the walls of abandoned homes, inside living rooms converted into temporary bedrooms for loved ones, and in empty lots where vehicles double as homes. The contributing factors to the city’s current housing crisis—systematic theft of black wealth through tax foreclosures, land speculation, and gentrification—have been widely discussed by academics and policy makers. Often overlooked in these analyses is the real impact chronic housing insecurity has had in the lives of low-income and working-class Detroiters and their communities. Decades of policy written by and for wealthy developers and corporate interests has led to a housing crisis which now threatens even middle-income Detroiters with displacement.
While the problem of affordable housing is an epidemic across the city, the solutions are readily available. Detroit Action supports the efforts of organizations like the Housing Trust Fund Coalition, which has fought for a modest but tangible fund for true affordable housing in our city. In order to expand the Affordable Housing Development Fund we must continue to fight collectively across the city to expose this crisis, to encourage each other to break the silence and stigma of housing insecurity, and to demand housing as a human right across our city.
If you are interested in joining Detroit Action in our fight for affordable housing for ALL Detroiters you can find us at detroitaction.org, or speak to one of our organizers at (313) 451 4419.
Dominic began volunteering and organizing with Detroit Action Commonwealth (DAC), now Detroit Action, in 2015. Dominic was drawn to DAC because of its commitment to community organizing led by and for the most marginalized communities in Detroit. Born and raised in Ferndale, Dominic hopes to return to his hometown to do anti-racism and anti-patriarchy work in suburban Detroit.