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Homeless in Detroit: Deep in the trenches of poverty

Ericka Murria was 17-years-old when she first went to Coalition on Temporary Shelter with her one-year-old daughter. Murria, a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, she lived on hard times after her mother passed away.  She’d been living with friends who were into drugs and alcohol. But after her friends stole her Bridge card and $1200 worth of cash assistance Murria had saved for a down payment on an apartment, she got on the bus with her daughter and headed to COTS.

The Coalition on Temporary Shelter helps about 800 people daily with shelter, food and services that will help individuals get back on their feet. COTS, which has been running for 31 years, has a mission is to reduce homelessness by providing services that will help people to reach self-sufficiency and obtain housing, according to COTS.

If it weren’t for COTS some of those men, women and children would be forced to stay in domestic violence situations or even live in abandoned buildings, jeopardizing their lives, according to CEO Cheryl P. Johnson, who says, “COTS saves lives.”

Murria says when she first went to COTS she was hungry and terrified.

“I asked what could I bring and they said little to nothing, your baby and possibly some underwear. I remember walking in the door and just crying,” says Murria reminiscing of the first night. “I went up on the elevator and it was just scary to me. My mom had worked there when I was in the second grade as an administrative assistant. So I knew what it looked like but my memory of it was not cool. So for me to have to go and actually sleep there, I just felt like I was the worst parent. My self-esteem had completely dropped. This is horrible and this is the worst of the worst.”

But things got better less than two weeks later when Murria was able to get into COTS transitional housing which gave her back some independence. Now Murria owns a non profit called Supreme Transitions, which provides people with resources to help with self-sufficiency and First Lady Motivations LLC.

Detroit has a population of 713,777 people according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Of those people about 20,284 were homeless, according to a report by the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. The report documents the statistic of homelessness as well as progress from all the shelters in and around the Detroit Metropolitan area. According to HANDs’ Self-Sufficiency Matrix, those who go through the shelters and transitional homes with supportive services improved in four categories in 2011: housing, income, employment, and life skills.

COTS services range from emergency to long-term housing. Cots Emergency Shelter, at the COTS headquarters, has 140 beds available as well as food and other resources. COTS transitional housing program allows residents to stay for up to two years. Peterboro provides 57 units of transitional housing for single men and women. Peggy's Place and COTS on the Boulevard provide a total of 30 units of transitional housing for women with children and single women. New Beginnings provides 23 housing units for domestic violence survivors. The cost for transitional housing is up to 30 percent of your monthly income maximum.

COTS’ Permanent Supportive Housing Program is geared towards individuals with special needs such as physical disabilities, mental illnesses, chronic illnesses and addiction. COTS provide apartments around the city of Detroit through this program. Cots also provides child care through Bright Beginnings Infant and Child Development Centers for those who have to work or are seeking jobs for $10 a day.

At the Emergency Shelter people are able to stay for the night, and eat and wash up in the morning. When they are done they have to pack up their things and wait until they are able to come back later that day. It’s first come first served at Cots since beds are limited. Murria did this for 10 days until she was approved to be in one of the Temporary Housing programs at Peggy’s Place.

Some people like Versandra Kennebrew, 49, never expected to be homeless. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks Kennebrew lost everything trying to hold on to her business, the Healing Power of Touch Relaxation Center.

“The security in the corporate headquarters was really tight. People couldn’t get into the building so I lost several accounts. Basically I wasn’t prepared financially to take a major hit in my business so I ended up closing up the shop,” says Kennebrew. “I was trying to continue to hold onto my business by just providing massages for hotel guests at a hotel in Southfield. I lived in a hotel after hours. I got evicted from my townhouse just trying to hold onto my business.”

During this time she was also going through a divorce, had a second miscarriage and she was diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which is a disorder where women have severe depression symptoms before menstruation.

“It was several things happening at one time. And basically I lost my mind. I thought about suicide,” says Kennebrew.

But Kennebrew didn’t give up. Instead, she signed up for COTS transitional housing program at Peggy’s Place because she realized she “needed extra support.”

“I was very fearful because I only had the thought of shelters or transitional housing from television. I was scared it was going to be a bad situation with drugs being involved and unclean facilities,” says Kennebrew. “It was well kept. It was just a big family. All of the things that I was fearful of were totally different from what I thought. It was people who genuinely wanted to help one another.”

Kennebrew left Peggy’s Place seven months later and is now the Marketing and Community Relations Specialist for Whole Foods.  She even serves as the board of directors at COTS. She also wrote a book called “Thank God for the Shelter Memoirs of a Homeless Healer” to help people to understand the new face of homelessness.

Kennebrew and Murria both say that they are grateful for all the help COTS gave them to make a better life for themselves.  But some people like 28-year-old Leslie Smith, who serves on the Development Committee for COTS, feels grateful without even using COTS services.

“Shelter is a very basic need that we all have, and therefore homelessness knows no age, gender or race; and that tells me that at any given moment homelessness could be me and my daughter,” says the early childhood educator. “And because of that I am intentional to be very grateful to help support and execute the work that strives to provide people with the very basic needs of life.”

Taylor Trammell is the 2012-13 Center for Michigan journalism student fellow. She is pursuing a journalism degree at Wayne State University. 

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