Azaria Terrell was exiting foster care when she learned about the Detroit Phoenix Center.
“My dad thought it would be a good idea for me to [join] because he heard it was all girls and I don’t have a lot of women in my life,” Terrell shares. “What made me join is because he said [the Phoenix Center] had a really cool S.A.T. learning program, and I’ve always wanted to further my education and prepare myself.”
After getting to know Courtney Smith, founder and CEO of the Detroit Phoenix Center, and participating in the various activities at the center from learning to cook to doing yoga and attending events, Terrell said it made it easier for her to make friends and step outside of her comfort zone.
That was four years ago. Today, Azaria Terrell is a high school senior and a leading member on the organization’s Youth Action Board. “Now, I get to be a part of making programs and fundraisers, talk to people and participate in getting the word out,” she says. “It’s been wonderful.”
Established in 2017, the Detroit Phoenix Center (DPC) was created in response to the needs of underserved and transient youth in Detroit. The nonprofit organization works to raise awareness and put an end to youth homelessness.What started as a daily drop-in center for youth and young adults ages 13-24 has grown into after-school enrichment programs for teens, workforce development, emergency crisis support and the Blair Memorial Scholarship Fund, which awards students interested in pursuinghigher education.
Smith’s mission to help underserved and transient youth in Detroit and center the voices of young people in the narratives involving homelessness emerge from her own experiences in the foster care system as a youth. She wanted to ensure accessibility to support services and resources for people transitioning out of homelessness and poverty.
It is estimated that 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness on any given night. In Detroit, a databook project by the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions research team and stakeholders (Smith, on behalf of DPC, being one of them) that analyzed homelessness and housing instability in Detroit and educational institutions, reported that over 11,000 students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) may be experiencing homelessness and are unidentified by their schools.
“Youth homelessness looks very different from adult homelessness,” Smith says, acknowledging there are varying definitions.
Terrell expresses that it’s common for people to think that homelessness equates only to sleeping outside, “but it’s more to that,” she says. “There are a lot of misconceptions. I know people who couch surf or have gone months without water or heat. Most people don’t realize that those living conditions are signs of youth homelessness. Even in schools, principals or teachers don’t notice if one student is taking extra meals home or take little notice of things that [show] maybe a child is struggling.”
This further fuels Detroit Phoenix Center’s mission and dedication to change-making. January will mark the center’s five-year anniversary and stand as a testament to the impact Smith and her team have already made and the work ahead.
“We have evolved so much. I think our greatest evolution is young people — giving young people a seat at the table and really providing opportunities for them to lead in changing that narrative [involving homelessness and youth homelessness],” Smith reflects. “We are providing a service [where] the young people that benefit from the program are also involved in that process.”
Terrell adds, “I tell Ms. Courtney all the time that I really appreciate joining the DPC and I love that I’m a part of this because I know not a lot of people my age get the opportunity to really express their voice in big changes like this in the environment and in the world.”
Find out how you can participate in Detroit Phoenix Center’s annual One Night Without A Bed Campaign here.
Listen: Learn more about the Detroit Phoenix Center and their movement to combat youth homelessness.