My "Life" as a Homeless Teen by Kyla Carlsen

“Having money isn't everything, not having it is” - Kanye West


Earlier this year, I had a unique opportunity to work with the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) with my fellowship program, Challenge Detroit. Through the program, 30 young professionals from across the country consult for local Detroit non-profits on social impact projects addressing socioeconomic challenges such as neighborhood small businesses, education empowerment, economic development, and land use. For COTS we focused on workforce development.


Many people know COTS is a homeless shelter, but they may not know it is Detroit’s only family shelter (not to be confused with other shelters that serve families; COTS is the only shelter solely for families). You also may not know their clients receive the option to go through a life coaching program called Passport to Self SufficiencyTM which provides fundamental wrap-around services including education, financial literacy, as well as a physical and mental health wellness component.


As with every project in the Challenge Detroit program, we employ Design Thinking methodology which starts by empathizing with our non-profit partner and key stakeholders. COTS conducted a hands-on interactive poverty simulation that felt something like the game of Life, only being horrifically cheated and dealt a hand without the full resources. We were assigned to small groups (i.e. families) which consisted of all different dynamics from grandparents to single parents to my family, which was three young children being cared for by a 20-year-old brother (our father was in jail). Each group was given a pre-determined amount of assets (television, refrigerator, stove, car if you were lucky), bills, transportation passes, and money. We then had to navigate utilizing our resources to pay our bills, buy groceries, and get to and from work or school. Since the resources inevitably were not enough, this navigation also included applying for jobs, applying for food stamps, visiting the local food pantry, trading in assets at the pawn shop, and occasionally borrowing or stealing from your neighbors. A description doesn’t even do justice to the raw emotions and feelings of anxiety, fear, and isolation experienced during the “game.” It was invaluable setting the context for our project and I highly recommend going through the simulation if ever afforded the opportunity. I was raised in a very working-middle class home, and yet I can honestly say it truly doesn’t feel real until you experience it directly.


Although it may sound intuitive, working with COTS I learned first-hand that helping someone out of poverty requires so much more than housing. There are often many barriers to obtaining steady, reliable employment including transportation, education, and child care. Moreover, there can be underlying issues that must be addressed to help prevent an individual from ending up in the same situation again, such as learning financial literacy, which is key to financial freedom and independence. Because homelessness is a condition that extends far beyond housing, the Passport to Self SufficiencyTM is COTS’ solution to creating poverty resistant families.


Now COTS staff will be the first to tell you they can only provide the help people are willing to receive and unfortunately not every client will go through the Passport to Self SufficiencyTM program. But those we met that have gone through the program, have seen a dramatic turnaround and often a drastic transformation.


Another key insight from working with COTS is how unique every situation is, and how many people, regardless of race, age or gender, are just one step away from homelessness. Their clients will often say “this isn’t really me,” or “I’m not like those people.” Each has a unique story and set of circumstances which led them to this point in time. Too many times we associate homelessness with substance abuse, irresponsibility, and a million other negative connotations. In reality, the hard working blue collar auto employee who was laid off during the recession was just a few paychecks away from losing their home. As was the single mother paying rent every month to her landlord but was evicted when the home foreclosed because the owner didn’t pay their property taxes. Thus, it is important to make the distinction between “someone who is homeless” and “someone experiencing homelessness.” We don’t refer to “bankruptness” or “the bankrupt;” we say “someone going through bankruptcy.” It’s no different for someone experiencing homelessness.


As our focus was creating workforce development strategies for COTS clients we created a marketing campaign and sponsorship engagement plan to develop key strategic sponsorships with local partners that would create jobs and provide essential skill training for long-term employment. We learned that most of the residents want job opportunities just like you and I. The difference is the basic challenges which many of us take for granted that they must overcome to even reach those options. 

Over 16,000 Detroiters are experiencing homelessness, 17% of which are children under the age of 17 (HAND). Join DYP in providing resources for those in need by supporting our Purses with a Purpose + Bags for our Brothers initiative. Click HERE to learn more!