When Courtney Smith was 16, she was forced out of her adopted parents’ home in Detroit and found herself with nowhere to live for the first time.
Several years later she founded a drop-in centre for young people who have no place to go.
Between 16 and 24, Courtney was homeless several times. Most often during school breaks when the dorms closed and she had to live in shelters.
“When I was a teenager, I experienced housing insecurities. This is when I started to notice the gaps in the system”, she told RollingOut.
Statistics prove the girl’s words: American youth are in alarming need of the kind of housing support.
Every 10th young adult experience homelessness within a year, a 2017 study found. Those most at risk are LGBTQ-youth, black and Latino youth, young parents and those without a high school diploma
Smith was helped by college – but it took a few years until the girl was able to access the much needed apartment from the school.
Her own painful experience motivated Courtney to begin advocating for other young people.
A recent study noted that youth of color are less likely to self identify as experiencing homelessness, even if they are in need of assistance. We are working hard to use language that youth of color identify with and feel empowered by. One of our strategies is connecting with champion organizations to glean and share best practices. Our Board Chair, Jimmy Ramirez, spent the weekend in Chicago at La Case De Norte conducting interviews, facilitating workshops and learning about how Casa Corazón is working to get youth off the streets. #partneringwithyouth #youthoffthestreet #bestpractices #boardchair #innovation #detroit #chicago #googlers #bestpractices #hope #youthmatterhere #millennialslead #langaugematters
During the junior year at college, she started writing thesis on the living experiences of students who were facing homelessness.
The student also joined an association that helped homeless kids as a task force coordinator and even helped call on a senator to improve access to resources for homeless.
All of them had different stories of misery. But each of them felt their voices weren’t heard
Courtney realized: albeit being a big issue, youth homelessness was somehow an overlooked topic in the public discussion.
“It’s an offset of other things that are going on in society. Discrimination, poverty, and homophobia are usually the catalyst behind homelessness,” she underlined in an interview to RollingOut years later.
In August 2016, Courtney joined the Millennial Trains Project, a fellowship with ideas to better society. Touring different cities, Courtney met with people from both sides of the fence – homeless and those who help them – to work out a low-barrier approach to social services for youth.
All of them had different stories of misery. But each of them felt their voices weren’t heard.
Those experiences laid the foundation for Courtney’s own social project in her home city. Smith initially pitched the idea to five spaces. When they all declined, she presented the idea to her church’s pastor.
Finally, Detroit Phoenix Center opened in January 2017 in central Detroit.
It is a resource center that provides drop in services to teens and young adults at risk.
“The first thing we do when they arrive is, we see if they’re safe.Then, we provide them with basic needs which include food, toiletries, a place to bathe, and clothes,” Courtney says.
Detroit Phoenix Center was intended as more than an overnight shelter. In addition to being a place to sleep and take a shower, the centre can help its visitors get a job, an ID card and more.
On the first day of the center’s opening, Smith faced heartbreaking news. Her brother Blair had died at the age of 19.
It was a hard blow for the girl.
“I couldn’t allow myself to say because he passed the work that I was doing wasn’t effective,” she recalls. Courtney remembered Blair by naming a room in the center after him.
Sadly, despite much effort Detroit Phoenix Center had to stop its drop-in activity – the funding the centre got wasn’t sufficient to handle the number of help requests.
But it continues to provide other help to young people.
Opportunity breaks the cycle of poverty
Courtney and her volunteers assist visitors with transportation, help them connect with housing facilities, organize events with food and presents, especially now that winter has come.
Courtney remains thankful, optimistic and very determined.
Her next goal is a bigger and better centre, new services and even youth employment through a social entrepreneurship model.
“Opportunity breaks the cycle of poverty,” Smith says.