Poverty Tells ‘Heartbreaking’ Stories About Families

The face of poverty is not what you would always expect.

Delphia Simmons meets a lot of people in financial distress.

In her job at the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS).

Sandra Svoboda

in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, she’s witness to the myriad plot twists that land people in the homeless shelter from throughout the metro area. From job loss and chronic unemployment, to mortgage and tax foreclosure, to unexpected and expenses medical crises and domestic violence, she’s seen it all.

“We have a lot of heartbreaking stories,” said Simmons, the director of COTS’s Passport to Self-Sufficiency program.

Residents there are without the safety net of steady income that’s high enough to pay for life’s basic needs: housing, food, transportation and health care. Simmons says she sees people’s direct paths from being simply financially challenged to facing the more serious societal issues of homelessness, hunger and long-term unemployment. 

She spoke with WDET’s Sandra Svoboda. You can listen to the interview or here’s the transcript of their conversation:

What’s the link between poverty and homelessness?

The link between poverty and homelessness, it’s difficult to say that it’s a link. They are one and the same because you need income in order to remain housed, and the lack of income is one of the major causes of poverty. 

So to back up that question, what is the cause of low income and poverty?

The cause of low income and poverty I believe in this country is that we don’t have a living wage that is required. A person can work a 40-hour week and still not make enough to survive. That’s not a sustainable model.

Talk to me a little bit about some of your clients. 

We have a lot of heartbreaking stories. That’s one of the rewarding parts of this work is when we can move people forward out of helplessness and that crisis. We do serve quite a few individuals who have experienced domestic violence and who felt like they’d had no place else to go. We are very diligent about protecting privacy and relocating people in a safe place and in a place where they can afford to live. We follow them for a two-year period of time and provide the support they need to kind of get on their feet and get them going. We do that through a lot of partnerships as well.

What cycles do you see your clients falling into that leads them to actually being homeless?

You would think that it would be based on the behaviors of the clients themselves, but it’s not only the client’s behavior, it’s the societal behaviors. It is the job market, it is the inequities that are existent within our society so the behaviors of society overall actually contribute to the poverty of individuals.

And what are the circumstances in Detroit, southeast Michigan, Michigan overall that are maybe unique as compared to the rest of the country that are contributing to that cycle?

I think that one of the things that happened of course when we had this recession is that we had a lot of people who were dependent upon a certain industry, and I don’t think we’ve looked ahead to actually offer more than what we were offering at the time. So now we have people who maybe were making a great wage in the auto industry and when that job went away, it did not really provide a career field that they could move around and go elsewhere and be paid that same wage. They may be now working for half of what they were working for in the auto industry.

You clients don’t just come from Detroit, is that correct? You see southeast Michigan wide, or tri-county area

Yes we even have people who come from out of state. We of course accept anybody who comes to our door that we have that capacity to accept but yes, we have clients from all over and we also provide housing solutions all over Wayne County.

Talk to me about big picture solutions for problems of poverty and low-incomes that lead to homelessness.

Big picture solutions. That’s one of the things we’re working on in the passport to self sufficiency. We believe that there are five domains that an individual or a family has to be strengthened in in order to become self sufficient and when we say self sufficient we mean without government support and so they do have to have a living wage and so in order to do that they need a career field and not just a job. That includes training and education and those kinds of things that go into, creating and developing a career field. They also need health and well being, healthy mind, healthy body as well as education for both themselves and their children and financial literacy.

At COTS what misconceptions do you battle about homelessness in Detroit?

The battle, it seems like we would have won it by now, but the face of homelessness is always the face of that person with the sign at the freeway exit but we currently today have over 100 children in our emergency shelter and over 40 families The face of homelessness is not the face of the man holding the sign at the freeway exit anymore. It is families.

What different challenges then do families present?

When we decided at COTS to transition our emergency shelter to serving families only, when we say families, we don’t mean married couples, we mean individuals with minor children. We discovered that we had to do some things differently because when you have a facility that has over 100 children in it and we had all these snow days, that was a wake up all for us. The great thing is that we are learning this as we go along but we are willing to step out into that challenge. We know we need an events coordinator to come in on those snow days and have things for our children to do because we’re about educating them as well so that they won’t repeat the cycle of homelessness because that’s what we’ve seen over the last 20 years.

How do we break it?

You know what, I don’t think any one organization can break it and I think that’s one of the large misconceptions that we operated under is that it is for the nonprofit or for-impact sector to break this. We need business sector, we need corporations. We need individuals. We need communities. It’s really something that has to be done together.

What kinds of things can governments do to prevent homelessness?

I think one of the challenges even with our welfare system is that if a person starts to make income, say they get a minimum wage job, their benefits are cut and so we really, the system is set up to make it more feasible not to work in some cases because you can make a dollar too much and lose your child care benefits. So that system needs some work.

We don’t have enough affordable housing in the city. And that’s the thing. Now we’re in this kind of a place where we have an opportunity to kind of create something really cool with mixed-use housing because we don’t believe housing projects are the answer but we do believe there is an answer as far as mixed-use housing and those kinds of things an creating more affordable housing around people who have families and who cannot afford market rent.

So as city officials focus their efforts in neighborhoods and keep that as a partial priority as the city’s moving forward, you’re advocating for the mixed-use housing.


And when you say mixed-use housing, what exactly does that mean?

What we want, we think about may 50 percent market rate, 30 percent low income, 20 percent maybe no income. Concentrating poverty in one section of the city or a neighborhood has just been shown not to work because they’re automatically comes with that some divestment in that community and so you need a tax base in all of the neighborhoods so you have to kind of set it up with mixed use, I believe.

How has the issue of homelessness changed over the decades in Detroit?

Well, I think about, and I’m not sure how many years ago it was, but we created a 10-year plan for ending homelessness. If you look at some of the media around it, we’ve kind of switched to veteran homelessness, and then we went to chronic homelessness. I think probably within the next few years we’ll look at family homelessness because we realize there are more families that are becoming homeless. Not just as a result of the overall picture of our economy but also our very high tax rates that also cause people to lose their homes. So really that part of our city is feeding into the homelessness. If we could get out ahead of it, which it looks like they are trying to do in the city. We could actually prevent homelessness from ever happening, which is what you really, really want to do. Catch it before it happens. Homelessness is really all over Michigan. I think the solution can come from kind of coming together and working from all of those perspectives because in each of the area where homeless exists, it may look a little different. Coming together to come up with a comprehensive solution would be great. It’s going to take political will and I always pull in the corporations and the businesses because I think they can play a big part in this.


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  • Sandra Svoboda
    Recovering Bankruptcy Reporter/Blogger looking forward to chronicling regional revitalization on-air, digitally and through community engagement.