Courtney Smith Empowers the Homeless and High Risk Youth in Detroit

Born and raised in Detroit, Courtney knows the struggle of housing insecurity all too well. It is her experience as an overcomer that led her to create the Detroit Phoenix Center (DPC) in 2016. DPC is a high-impact nonprofit organization that provides critical resources, and a nurturing environment for youth ages 13-24 experiencing homelessness. Under her visionary leadership as Founder & Executive Director, DPC opened Detroit’s first drop-in facility meeting the emergent needs of youth in crisis, launched a scholarship fund, and tripled its operating budget to expand its programs and services. “We would like to become a model that different cities can use to solve youth homelessness,” Courtney says.

1.) So who is Courtney Smith? 

I am compulsively compassionate, deeply intuitive and fun loving. I live life according to my convictions  and aim daily to make the world a more equitable place to live. I thrive under pressure and enjoy spending time with loved ones, traveling, theatre and all things social impact.

2.) What is the Detroit Phoenix Center? 

Detroit Phoenix Center is a thriving non-profit that provides critical resources, support and safe nurturing environment for teens and young adults who are at risk of — or currently experiencing homelessness. It is a sacred place where young people come who need a safe haven — to be seen — heard — felt – valued and support. We are truly a place where youth rise.

3.)What experiences lead you to open the Detroit Phoenix Center?

After having my own personal struggles with housing insecurity and seeing friends and family members struggle with stability in Detroit and feeling so hopeless – I wanted to explore best practices and solutions in other communities to implement back in my hometown.That desire led me to taking a transcontinental journey  on board the Millennial Trains Project(MTP). MTP was a train that doubled as a social incubator for misfits (like me) who were not only crazy enough to believe that they could change the world –but actually set out to do it. Onboard the train, I conducted youth focus groups and spoke with thought leaders around the youth homelessness space in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Denver and Detroit. I learned that many of the young people felt like they didn’t have a voice and that the best way to serve youth experiencing homelessness was rarely ever used. So I set out to amplify the voices and lived experiences of youth experiencing homelessness and to adopt a service  model in Detroit that was both innovative and effective. Thus, birthing Detroit Phoenix Center. We opened in 2017  as a completely volunteer driven Asset Based Resource Center providing drop in services and basic need support to teens and young adults  in need– but we are evolving into a human service organization.

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4.)What were some of the early challenges with opening the center?

Due to the population we serve, many had reservations and a stereotypical view of street connected youth and didn’t want to allow us to lease their space to host our Asset Based Resource Center. I approached 10 different locations and they all said NO — but the space that we have now is perfect for our program. We literally worked hard to restore a diamond in the rough. It fit right into the fabric and culture of us as an organization. Additionally, resources is always a challenge — having so much need in the community and not being able to meet the need was a challenge. Also, I was gaining stability myself while I was trying to uplift my community, so trying to find that balance was a challenge. Thankfully, with communal resources, corporate support, mentors, family/friends — we were able to offset the earlier challenges and take on new ones.

5.)What services does the center provide?

When a young person,  between the ages of 13-24  comes to Detroit Phoenix Center, they can access at no cost:

  • Clothing
  • Food
  • Transportation Assistance
  •  Showers
  • Washer & Dryer
  • Hygiene and Pamper Kits
  • Employment &educational resources
  • Referrals for mental health, medical, legal, housing and other crisis support through program partners
  • Computer lab available for online school courses, homework, job searching, resume development, art projects, and networking.
  • Safety and supportive, caring , competent staff and volunteer

During the winter months, we partnered with the faith based community to host the RISE Emergency Youth Winter Shelter.  RISE runs through the duration of the winter months. It is provides overnight respite, food, and support that meet immediate needs for young adults, ages 18-24. We also provide opportunities for our young people to lead. Our Trailblazers Youth Outreach Team is designed to elevate the expertise of  youth, ages 16-24 who have experienced, or are experiencing difficult life circumstances and equip  them to foster resiliency, develop leadership skills and improved well-being through advocacy and community service. In an effort to honor the life and legacy of my youngest brother, we created the Blair M. Smith Memorial Scholarship: Awarded every other year to DPC youth members who demonstrate academic fortitude and wish to pursue post secondary education.Right now, we are apart of the MBK Innovation Challenge, so we are training our youth to lead in the areas of outreach and programming.

6.)How many youths does the center to service daily? Monthly?   

On average, we have 10-15 youth drop in daily to receive drop in services, but when we have life skills, educational and workforce classes, we cap them at 25. We also host monthly outreach events where we touch 50-60 youth.  As a thriving organization, that provides intense and intentional service with a focus on relationship building — we value quality support  and one on one coaching.

7.)How can the youth in Detroit access the center?

Most of the youth we serve heard about our services via word of mouth. Also, Detroit has a coordinated access point that make referrals and Detroit Phoenix Center is on it.

8.)What programs do you believe need to be put in place to break the cycle of homelessness? 

I believe that continuum of services  stemming from drop in centers, to transitional housing to workforce development opportunities, education,support  network with mental health providers, mentors, legal support, social services, transportation, family support, etc can  break the cycle of homelessness. I don’t believe it’s one solution, I believe it’s holistic approach that serves the whole person. I also believe that we need to look at our systems and how they affect those who are most vulnerable and advocate for policy changes.

9.)What can individuals do to give back or contribute to ending homelessness? 

I believe that raising awareness is one of the most impactful ways that a person can support youth experiencing homelessness. Find ways to share with family, friends and coworkers. Youth are not as visible or vocal about sharing their situations. Use national resources like SchoolHouse Connection and National Network for Youth to gain additional tools, resources and opportunities to become advocates. Also, support organizations on the ground doing the work by volunteering, hosting a drive or making a monetary donation.

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Written by Mish Saka

Mish Saka is a creative Human Resources leader in New York City. She loves creating employee programs and internal HR systems using an entrepreneurial approach. Her side hustle is working entertainment events with exclusive companies like the Vanity Group, Gate Pass Entertainment and the WIE Network. During her time-off from work she loves to travel and learn about different cultures. She has traveled to Nigeria, Jamaica, Bahamas, Bermuda, and Thailand. 

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