Community//

“Prioritize Self-Care” With Fotis Georgiadis & Courtney Smith

During a pandemic, poverty doesn’t pause. People are in greater need now than ever before. So even though our drop-in center is closed, we’re still reaching out to our youth and young adults letting them know they’re not alone. They may not be able to physically get to us, so we’re bringing the services and […]

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During a pandemic, poverty doesn’t pause. People are in greater need now than ever before. So even though our drop-in center is closed, we’re still reaching out to our youth and young adults letting them know they’re not alone. They may not be able to physically get to us, so we’re bringing the services and resources to them.


As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney Smith of the Detroit Phoenix Center.

A fearless advocate fighting to break the cycle of poverty in Detroit, Smith has distinguished herself as a rising industry leader and champion for youth. She is founder and executive director of Detroit Phoenix Center (DPC), a nonprofit organization that responds to the needs of underserved and transient youth in Detroit. Under her visionary leadership, Under her visionary leadership, Detroit Phoenix Center opened the first and only Asset Based Resource Center to meet the emergent and holistic needs of teens and young adults in crisis in Detroit, launched an Emergency Winter Youth Shelter in partnership with the faith based community, and endowed a memorial scholarship fund in a little less than 18 months.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

I grew up in Detroit. My siblings and I were put into foster care and eventually I was adopted into a rather large family. Due to some familial conflicts within the home, I left when I was 15-years-old, staying in shelters, living in group homes and couch surfing.

In spite of the issues and conflicts we had while I was growing up, they instilled values that I carry with me today, such as the importance of education and serving others. I can recall always finding joy in helping others and desired to make a difference. My sister recently reminded me of the time I broke her piggy bank so that I could give the money to a classmate that needed it to buy lunch.

Reflecting on that now as an adult, and as someone who has dedicated her entire career serving the community, I know that this experience and others like it, shaped me into I am today. I was resilient. Going into this work, this informed me wanting to bridge those gaps for others.

Looking back, I now recognize that my adopted parents gave me the best that they knew how to give with the resources and knowledge that they had. We’re now reconciling this relationship.

I’ve also been very fortunate to have loving siblings, mentors and Godparents who support me. My life journey has always challenged the traditional narrative of what it looks like to have experienced a childhood laced with traumatic experiences. I often say, there’s a blessing in every storm.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

As a teenager and college student, I learned firsthand the challenges homeless youth face on the streets. This certainly played a major role in where I am today. But my professional advocacy journey started when I was staying in a youth shelter. Some procedures and rules did not serve the youth well and were a bit extreme. I emailed the CEO of the organization to address the issues and gaps in the system. After some back and forth, I was basically told by a staff member that if I thought I could do better that I should write a proposal, so I did and sent it to the director and CEO. They were blown away and started to implement some of my recommendations. I’ll never forget the feeling this gave me. I felt powerful, that I had a voice. Later I was invited to serve on the board. And after that, I was offered a job at a national organization doing homeless advocacy work.

Post college, I learned my younger brother was at risk of not graduating from high school, engaging in risky behavior and was experiencing homelessness. I thought I could do the most good by allowing him to stay in the house I was renting a room in at the time. He and his friends came and went regularly. I gave them food, offered them showers, until one of my roommates told the landlord and I was threatened with eviction. I had to tell my brother he couldn’t stay there, that his friends couldn’t come over, and it got me thinking, ‘Where can he turn to for services?’ He and his friends trusted me to help. The resources in the community were scarce.

One day I saw an ad that drew me in. It led me to apply for a fellowship that cultivates next-generation leadership development, community engagement and social enterprise. I submitted a proposal where I could train with others on an issue, which for me was youth homelessness. It was during this training that I visited six major cities where homelessness was prevalent. I talked with youth who were experiencing homelessness and executive directors to determine the best ways to help young people living through these issues. I learned from these street-connected youth that their voices weren’t being heard, that many of the shelters have too many policies that didn’t serve them and the heads of organizations didn’t have personal experiences with homelessness to properly guide youth. They just didn’t ‘get it.’

My education, coupled with my experiences and those of my brother, led me to open the Detroit Phoenix Center. The center gives youth ages 13–24 a place to drop in for meals, showers, laundry services, access computers, transportation assistance and more.

My younger brother later died by suicide, and it really moved me in a way that I had never experienced before. From then on, I promised myself that I would dedicate the work I do to my brother and people in need, as well as those that may not navigate traditional services (stay at shelters, identify as homeless) but needed and deserved a safe and supportive community to thrive.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

I believe it’s really hard to pinpoint whether youth homelessness has gotten better or worse due to the many implications; including not limited to, there’s no consistent definition of homeless youth across sectors and there isn’t a fluid system in place for identifying and counting homeless youth.

However, I do believe that digital media has made homelessness more visible and by sharing stories of those with lived experience, we humanize the experience.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

Looking through the lens of youth homelessness, we cannot assume that a young person started off healthy. In fact, statistics show otherwise. A young person who grew up in foster care or endemic poverty with limited social support are more likely to end up chronically homeless as an adult. Thus, it is important that we dispel the myths and provide youth and young adults with wraparound support at every stage of their life to promote equity.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

Many people view homelessness as a silo issue. Telling someone to move where there’s cheaper housing won’t solve the issue of homelessness. There are other issues and many barriers. Without considering, race, social status, socio-economic classes, what does ‘cheaper’ mean? It all depends on where you live. Each community has its own challenges. Here in Detroit, it’s much harder to find employment and, since we don’t have a rapid transit system, getting back and forth to work even presents a challenge. We have to lead with compassion and empathy.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

It’s not always obvious that someone in this demographic is experiencing homelessness. It’s not always physically visible. Young people often do everything they can to blend in to the larger community. They are literally often hidden in plain sight.

Importantly, youth homelessness also looks very different depending upon the city. Here in Detroit, it’s cultural. In San Francisco, on the other hand, young people don’t consider themselves homeless, but rather they live free, and they congregate in parks. Young people here in Detroit want to blend in.

If a young person tells you they are experiencing housing instability, then listen and provide them resources within the scope of the capacity you have. However, because they are at a much greater risk of being sexually exploited and engage in risky behaviors, it is important to connect them to resources in the community and professionals who are trained in this line of work.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

From a service provider perspective, I’m going to do whatever I can to remove the barriers to get them what they need. However, it is rare that you will see a youth asking for money or some other handout, especially from a stranger. Street-connected youth are incredibly resilient and typically make a way on their own.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

During a pandemic, poverty doesn’t pause. People are in greater need now than ever before. So even though our drop-in center is closed, we’re still reaching out to our youth and young adults letting them know they’re not alone. They may not be able to physically get to us, so we’re bringing the services and resources to them.

It’s a scary time. The young people we serve aren’t able to wash their hands regularly or “shelter in place.” Some are temporarily staying on friends’ couches or in abandoned buildings or homes without running water. Without the luxury of hand sanitizer and face masks, this underserved population is extremely susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

Our staff and volunteers are packing and distributing boxes with the essentials — from food to toilet paper. We’re also providing virtual wellness check-ins and assisting with housing solutions. We want to focus on permanency planning during this time.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

The challenges in providing critical resources, support and a safe, nurturing and inclusive environment to youth experiencing homelessness and those at high risk in Detroit often seemed insurmountable even prior to the pandemic.

In these even more uncertain and complicated times, one of our core goals is to improve coordination of services among groups like ours, as we work to eliminate barriers to needed services, including schooling and housing.

Thankfully our partners, stakeholders and community members have stepped up in a major way and are supporting us as we meet the emergent needs of our community.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Years ago I learned that a group of young people were asked to leave a Starbucks, despite the fact they had been paying customers. I wrote a letter to the corporate office, calling out how they were discriminating against these group of young people. Instead of criminalizing them, I challenged Starbucks to think about how they could help create a supportive environment for youth who are experiencing housing instability.

The corporate office put me in touch with the manager of the location the incident took place, and I eventually connected with him in person. I explained the issues these youth face and how he and the corporation as a whole could better support the youth. The manager and I have since become good friends and he ended up hiring two of the young adults, who have since graduated from high school and went on to college.

This is a good example of how a business and a nonprofit can work together. This also speaks to our progression as an organization, being able to meet the needs of youth through our Asset Based Resource Center.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

A very impactful story that I remember vividly was the first day our Asset Based Resource Center opened. A young man came in and said, “I just need to take a shower.” After the shower, he said, “I needed that! I haven’t taken a shower in six months.” That was a very pivotal moment, because I truly realized that our services were needed. We later helped the young man reconnect with family and relocate out of state. He’s thriving with a job and a stable home. The relationship started with a shower.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

Those in the community and society can help by supporting organizations that are doing the work. Helping to raise awareness of youth homelessness, advocating for systems change, elevating the lived experiences of those experiencing homelessness and removing barriers to opportunities would go a long way as well.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I would like to see a consistent definition across sectors that define youth homelessness. This would make it easier to identify and support. I’d also like to see unaccompanied minors who are chronically homeless have the right to consent to their own medical care, apply for SNAP benefits, sign leases, etc.

Lastly, I’d like to see more funding for wraparound, supportive and permanency planning.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

I have a very strong faith foundation and that keeps me going. I know that I’m called by God to do this work. Therefore, I know that I’m graced with the supernatural power and support to persist. There are literally youths lives that are attached to the work we do. So I’m making sure that I’m using my tools to remain motivated, such as staying connected to my church, loved ones, fitness community and therapy.

My brother’s legacy is an additional ‘why’ for me. I made a vow to dedicate this work to him and so many others, so it’s very personal, even during the dark moments. Also, I pull from the bright spots, such as the stories of resilience and strength that the youth we serve possess. Those stories move me in a sacred way.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I do have hope that through innovation and coordinated services, we can have stronger solutions to address the issue of youth homelessness. I often say that success is measured by us not needing to exist.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Prioritize Self-Care — This work is emotionally taxing and very heavy. We as servant leaders cannot pour from an empty cup. It is imperative to prioritize moments of stillness. It wasn’t until I found myself sick and in the hospital that I truly realized if I am not well, then I cannot do the work. So, I decided to join a fitness community, started going to therapy and allowed myself to take days off.
  2. Embrace Failure — As a child, I believe that we are conditioned to believe that “failure is not an option.” I went into this work with my Type A personality, trying to do everything “right” and afraid to take big risks. Now I believe that every day is an opportunity to learn something new.
  3. Lean Into Your Community — Growing up in poverty, I looked at life through the lens of lack. However, as a nonprofit leader, I’m learning to view life through the lens of community. People are literally wanting to believe in something and to support a great cause. Allow them to do so. Detroit Phoenix Center ran an entire emergency shelter and housed 30 youth just off the strength of volunteers providing labor and in kind support. Also, join peer support learning groups for professional development.
  4. Don’t Do Too Much Too Fast — There is so much need in space and that won’t change. It’s critical to have a strategic plan in place to scale and grow your organization to effectively meet the need.
  5. Transparency is Key — Be honest with stakeholders, clients, consumers about your organization’s progress, needs and progress. Also, as a leader, highlight not only successes, but areas where you need support. Initially, I was so afraid to share our weaknesses, but as I’ve shared them, I’ve learned that we received more support to strengthen.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would trigger a movement of radical love. I truly believe that love conquers all. When we radically love ourselves and our neighbors, we will be moved to make decisions that contribute to ensuring the world is a safer, more equitable and better place for us all. Given the political climate we are in, it’s imperative that individuals ban together to uplift and support each other.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This quote by Gandhi always reminds me that real change starts within. We literally have to emulate the values we want on this Earth in every aspect of life. Every day I strive to be my personal best, which in turns elevates the slow and humble work.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would have to say Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She is a fearless and lifelong advocate in the social justice movement. Her work has literally transformed many of the systems that impact youth. Her leadership has inspired me to fight harder and longer. I would love to just listen to her journey and glean from her strength and wisdom.

How can our readers follow you online?

http://www.detroitphoenixcenter.org/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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