EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was produced in partnership with Outlier Media, which runs an SMS texting service to share information about COVID-19 in Detroit. Text "Detroit" to 73224 for information about food, jobs health and safety.


Homeless shelters in Michigan were already strained before the coronavirus pandemic began nearly two months ago.


There were just 100 more beds in shelters than there were homeless people, or about 8,600 beds, in Michigan, according to a point-in-time count in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


In metro Detroit last year, there weren't enough beds in shelters for the people who needed them. In Detroit, there were 1,590 beds for 1,965 people; in Oakland County, 292 beds for 425 people on any given night, while in Macomb County, 205 beds for 265 homeless people, according to data from HUD.


Now, as shelters work to keep homeless people, who are among the most vulnerable to infection, healthy during the pandemic and at the same time make sure shelters comply with social distancing rules, they’re seeing a new wave of people with no place to stay.


Where to go?


The stay-home order, issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in March, led to people staying with friends and families, and those temporary arrangements are ending as relationships are strained, or someone is exposed to the virus, homeless shelter directors say.


Another group of people are seeking shelter, too, who are now not able to work because of furloughs or layoffs, and are without any income, leading them to be without a home for the first time in their lives.


Brittany Jennings falls into both categories. She thought she had a stable situation to weather the pandemic. She, her fiancé and baby were living with her mother in a home in Macomb County. But a kitchen fire in late February caused damage to the house, and everyone had to move out.


Insurance covered a stay in a hotel, but once that ended, Jennings and her family split from her mother and siblings because space was tight. They moved into a hotel room for $650 for a two-week stay.


Jennings paid for the stay with money she saved up working before her baby was born. But now, both she and her fiancé are in school and don't have any income. They're also both recovering addicts and were formerly incarcerated, and are just getting back on their feet. Jennings is also seven months pregnant with her second child.


At the end of the two-week hotel stay, she had $12 left in her bank account.


“We were up constantly at 4 a.m. trying to figure things out for the next day,” Jennings, 33, said. “It was really cold and we have a baby. We thought, ‘Are we going to be in a van?’ ”


She called the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team, a Roseville-based nonprofit that provides shelter and other services to homeless people. MCREST got the family a hotel room, and now Jennings is working with the nonprofit to find an affordable apartment.


But moving into an apartment isn't a quick process during a pandemic. Jennings and her family are doing virtual tours, but they don't expect to be able to move out of their hotel until after the stay-home order lifts and it's safe. They don't know when that will be.


MCREST is trying to raise the money to keep clients like Jennings taken care of through June.


'New and temporary homeless'


Before the pandemic began, the shelter system across Michigan was at or near capacity, said Eric Hufnagel, executive director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, an advocacy group for homeless shelters in the state. He said there are likely many people who aren't in the shelter system, but are homeless.


"We have more people going into non-sheltered situations who are not identified as homeless but are couch-surfing based on goodwill or families are doubling up," Hufnagel said.


Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, says she's seeing a new group that she calls "new and temporarily homeless." She said she's seen cases where someone had been living in the house of a friend or family member and had to isolate themselves, or were forced to leave because they show symptoms of COVID-19.


"There's an influx of those type of folks to shelters," Gray said. "We hope it’s just temporary and everything is addressed."


The influx is forcing the shelters to be creative in order to accommodate more people while at the same time maintain social distancing, which includes spacing beds at least six feet apart, Hufnagel said.


Linda Little said she knew early on in the pandemic that she would have to relocate a shelter run by the Neighborhood Service Organization in Detroit's Midtown to a larger space.


The executive director of the organization said there were 100 people living in the shelter, a cramped space with chairs instead of beds for residents.


"We spaced the chairs out as much as we could and it wasn’t enough," Little said.


She temporarily relocated them to an idled recreation center at an undisclosed location in Detroit at the end of March. Little said they're able to space people out further at the new building, and have cots now, instead of chairs, from a donation from the Red Cross.


“Capacity is an issue not just because of the existing population — there are so many people out of work,” Little said. “What this pandemic has done is exposed so many issues in our community and our transient homeless population. They were displaced ... and there’s not a lot of space to accommodate them.”


The NSO also saw a housing need for people who have recovered from or who are avoiding exposure to the coronavirus. So the NSO opened a recuperative housing center Monday with 50 beds.


“This is really for folks who don’t need isolation anymore, or someone at home is positive, and don’t have a place to go,” Little said. “They are a vulnerable population."


Adapting because of COVID-19


In MCREST's case, they had to completely change their business model.


Typically, the group works with more than 70 churches in Macomb County to provide overnight shelter on a weekly rotating basis for as many as 60 people. That model of housing guests in churches was no longer an option when the churches were forced to close down under the stay-home order.


“Our whole operation model has been flipped upside down,” said April Fidler, executive director of MCREST. “I can’t put them on the streets," she said of the program's clients. "I’m kind of at a loss because they don’t have a home to stay in.”


Fidler managed to arrange stays at hotels for her clients but needs to raise at least $125,000 in order to keep them in hotels until the end of June.


MCREST is working with clients like Jennings to get them into apartments — typically within 90 days — but the the stay-home order is making it more challenging to rent a truck or hire movers to move into a new space. She's allowing clients to stay for longer in hotels until the stay-home order is lifted.


'Tip of the iceberg'


One thing Fidler is more certain of is that the demand for shelters will increase as the pandemic continues and more Michiganders are laid off, or can't get back to work soon.


Whitmer issued an executive order halting evictions for non-payment of rent, but homeless shelter executives worry about what will happen if renters don't have the funds to pay back missed rent payments quickly, and are evicted after the executive order is lifted.


"As we move forward, we’re only going to see the unemployment rate go up," said Fidler. "It’s just going to get worse and folks have nowhere to go. Our bed capacity is 60. I can’t go to 75 because I don’t have the manpower or capability. There is a need but I can’t personally address that need."


Little is preparing for "a demand like we've not seen before" after the initial wave of coronavirus cases subsides and the state enters a new normal.


“With all the unemployment and instability in the economy, it’s a natural occurrence to see more homelessness," she said. "Housing instability is the tip of the iceberg. We are reading ourselves and need to be prepared."


How to find help



In Detroit, call the Coordinated Assessment Model (CAM) line at (313) 484-4449.
Call the United Way's 211 line for help finding emergency shelters, public housing or low-income rentals, among other options.