Forty percent of Americans struggle to afford basic needs like housing, child care, food, health care and transportation.
For many, one minor financial setback can lead to a major crisis that results in homelessness. In 2016, nearly 20,000 people in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties were homeless, according to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.
Dorothea “Dottie” Billy was one of them. Little more than a year after undergoing brain surgery to have a tumor removed, Dottie was attending a master’s program at Wayne State University. She was living with a friend, but they had a falling out, and she was forced to leave.
In the middle of December, Dottie was faced with a cold reality. While she had a job, she had nowhere to go. After a discussion with her school adviser, she contacted South Oakland Shelter in Lathrup Village.
“I told them on the first day ‘I’m not here to stay. I’ve got goals. This is not forever. Anything you can do that will help me get where I’m trying to be, I’m for it,’ ” she said.
United Way is committed to helping people like Dottie access opportunities for a better life. One of our core roles is to coordinate regional efforts and maximize limited resources to make the greatest impact. It’s why we provide grants to more than 100 local nonprofit organizations, like South Oakland Shelter, that work directly with people in need.
In addition to funding, we also provide technical resources, training and data to help our partners run more efficiently. We also recruit volunteers and advocate for public policies that strengthen our institutions that serve our community.
“Because of our reputation, our resources and our track record, we’re able to bring organizations together and create resources that can help our entire region,” said Kerri Gentry, director of United Way’s Partner Network. “By using our available tools, our partners are able to work more efficiently and focus on what they do best.”
By working with United Way, South Oakland Shelter is able to assist more people in need. The organization also uses our 2-1-1 resource, which offers 24/7 referrals to people who seek assistance for shelter, food and health care. Through our regular partner and nonprofit CEO meetings, we gain insights on where our community needs help. During these meetings, our nonprofit partners have a space to work with one another and share ideas and resources to better serve the community.
We recently announced our latest rounds of grants to community partners, including South Oakland Shelter.
“United Way is good at listening and remaining flexible, understanding that we don’t always know the answers. They’re open to us coming back and saying ‘Hey, this isn’t exactly what we need,’ ” said South Oakland Shelter President and CEO Ryan B. Hertz. “They work with us as partners and we value that relationship.”
It’s relationships like these that create a stronger safety net in Southeastern Michigan. When we learn from our partners and through research, we maximize every dollar we invest.
“We invest in the types of services and delivery methods that are most effective and impactful,” said Caitlin Kelly, program specialist at United Way. “Our partners have been pushed to connect, collaborate and coordinate with one another.”
Another organization that makes use of our networking opportunities is JVS in Southfield, which offers services to help the unemployed, disabled, elderly and youth.
JVS uses United Way funding for its Bridging the Gap program, which provides internships to people who are unemployed and at risk of becoming homeless. eCycle Opportunities, a subsidy of JVS, hosts interns for work experiences where they can sort electronics for regional recycling centers. The work allows them to build skills and self-esteem as they prepare to re-enter the workforce.
“If you just give someone a shot and give them a little extra time and some extra supports to learn the position, the return you get on that investment in time is tenfold,” Stacey Lareau, director of new business development at JVS.
Through United Way-funded workforce development programs offered by JVS, 115 interns are placed in work programs each year.
“I’m so proud of the people who have graduated,” Stacey said. “They need full-time jobs with benefits. They need an above minimum wage job to get off the ground and get their lives back together. To be the stepping stone for them for that is incredible.”
Dottie’s stay with South Oakland Shelter lasted two months. Today, she lives in an apartment in Pontiac. Her illness set her back a bit, but she’s set to graduate next April with a master’s degree in social work.
“While the stories and circumstances of each person our agency serves are unique, there is one common thread among all of them that never fails to move me,” Ryan said. “That thread is resiliency. Every intervention we employ is only successful to the degree that it capitalizes on this one asset that can never be taken away, no matter how dire one’s condition may become. Dorothea’s accomplishments, despite the challenges she has faced, are impressive. She’ll be a great addition to the social work field when she graduates.”
It’s difficult to think of what might have happened if Dottie had nowhere to turn.
“I would have been couch surfing and living in my car,” she said. “Everything works out in the end. Even when you’re going through things, you have to be able to smell the roses. If you can’t, then you’re just as good as dead.”
When organizations and individuals unite, we can change lives.