Pope Francis Center provides lifeline for those ex...

Pope Francis Center provides lifeline for those experiencing homelessness during pandemic

Pope Francis Center volunteers distribute food. Courtesy photo

During the six or seven years he was without housing, a 54-year-old Detroiter who goes by the name Knowledge said he was a frequent visitor to the Pope Francis Center for a reprieve from the weather. 

The nonprofit offers meals, laundry and showers six days a week to guests and medical, legal and dental clinics, all with the help of a team of a dozen or more volunteers.

Knowledge has his own place now and visits for a different reason, he said. 

“I come back now to stay humble,” he told Detour Detroit on Friday. “I met a lot of people [here]. It touched me. It touched my soul.” 

The Pope Francis Center is operating out of downtown’s Huntington Place — formerly the TCF Center, and Cobo before that — for a second consecutive winter. 

Detour Detroit is partnering with the Pope Francis Center and The Apparatus Room for an afternoon of community service and socializing with our members from 3-7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16. 

The service social is our third installment in the Detour DoGooders series, where we bring our readers together to support local Detroit nonprofits, give back to our community, get to know each other AND have a great time doing it. Become a Detour member to attend and support local journalism (until Dec. 31, your contribution will be DOUBLED through NewsMatch), then register for the event here.

The Pope Francis Center moved its services outdoors at its original St. Antoine Street facility in March 2020 as the pandemic began and then went indoors at Huntington Place from November 2020 to June 2021. They returned to the convention center again last month. 

The number of guests visiting on an average day has increased to about 170-200 people a day and appears to be rising after a federal eviction moratorium in place during the pandemic came to an end, said Father Tim McCabe, the center’s executive director. 

An annual U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department count conducted on one night in January 2020 found 1,589 people experiencing homelessness in the Detroit area, a number that doesn’t reflect pandemic hardships.

Beyond the direct health threat, the pandemic has made numerous facets of life for those experiencing homelessness harder, center staff and guests said, from services that were once available on a walk-in basis going virtual to public bathrooms becoming harder to access. 

The coronavirus “made things seem even more impossible” for homeless people, said Knowledge. 

The 2030 plan 

Earlier this month, the Pope Francis Center broke ground on a west side property that’s key to the organization’s big picture plan, working in concert with other service providers. 

“Our goal is to end chronic homelessness in the city” by 2030, McCabe told Detour.

The planned $30-million Bridge Housing Facility is expected to bring 40 studio apartments and supportive services such as access to doctors and a community kitchen to a parcel near Warren Avenue and the Jeffries Freeway. The Pope Francis Center has raised about $24 million of the cost so far, according to The Detroit Free Press

The plan calls for guests to stay in the apartments for 90 to 120 days as the Pope Francis Center helps them secure permanent housing. The plans include an outdoor heated shelter for those who cannot come inside. 

McCabe traveled to 22 facilities for the homeless nationwide to study best practices to incorporate into the Bridge Housing Facility.

The Pope Francis Center hopes to open the facility in the second quarter of 2023, depending on variables such as disruptions to the supply of construction materials, he said. 

‘Come and be as they are’ 

At Huntington Place, the four private shower stalls for guests are usually fully booked, said JD Lesada, the center’s spokesman.

Ditto for the full-service laundry offered to guests. “These machines are humming pretty much all day, everyday,” he said.

Pope Francis Center mobile showers. Courtesy photo

The center also provides hygiene items like toothpaste, combs and tissues to guests. Narcan is kept on hand in the event of an overdose. Guests can use the center as their mailing address, something that is required in order to receive many services. 

The Pope Francis Center has zero bars for entry, meaning it does not require identification or an alcohol and drug screening. 

“We allow them to come and be as they are,” said program director Tenia Denard. 

The nonprofit is fundraising for its annual Sanctuary for the Season initiative in order to pay for its space at Huntington Place through the winter. 

Guest David Levy, 71, said the Pope Francis Center is a source of encouragement.

Levy, who noted he’s fully vaccinated, said the center helps people find homes. 

“A lot of people out there don’t even know about this place,” he said. “[With] these times now, it’s good to have someplace to go.”