May 14, 2020

COVID-19 Community Response Fund Partner Profile: COTS

United Way for Southeastern Michigan and our partners work to ensure that our region’s most vulnerable families have the support they need to weather the short- and long-term impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. The COVID-19 Community Response Fund allows us to rapidly deploy funds to organizations that are working tirelessly to help individuals and families access food, shelter, health care and other critical resources.

As of May 14, more than $13 million had been awarded to nearly 500 organizations.

We’ll continue to share more stories of how together, we’re helping families in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties weather this crisis. Visit our blog to learn more about how we’re responding.

On any given night in Michigan, there are more than 8,000 people living on the streets, in abandoned buildings or “doubled up” with family and friends.

The Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) has housed individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Detroit for nearly 40 years. Initially serving single men and women, the organization shifted its focus to families to continue to meet the need in our community.

“Family is often where support originates,” said Aisha Morrell, chief development officer at COTS. “A lot of times, when a person is struggling, they go to their family first — whether it’s to vent, or receive emotional, financial or physical support.

“But a lot of families don’t have that family. COTS makes it a point to become that family.”

COTS shelter room Detroit

A glimpse inside the space that families at Detroit’s Coalition on Temporary Shelter are often confined to due to social distancing mandates.


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adjust our lives in ways we never thought possible. For homeless shelters like COTS, it’s bringing a whole new meaning to the term “shelter in place.”

Support from United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund has helped shelters like COTS continue to provide services to individuals and families. As of mid-May, United Way approved 50 grants for shelter services.

“It’s tough for us to be quarantined at home, but at least there’s more space and more flexibility,” Aisha said. “These families are in a shelter, and most of them are confined to one room.”

It’s also putting a strain on children in the shelter.

Across the world, parents strive to maintain a sense of normalcy and balance for their children with homemade recipes, online tutors, or free play. But life in a homeless shelters does not afford children with such luxuries.

Due to school closures, children in the COTS shelter must stay there all day, every day. Free school meals that eligible children depend on are harder to access. COTS is working to fill the gaps by providing meals and snacks to children who might otherwise go hungry.

COTS COVID sanitizing

A staff member at Detroit’s Coalition on Temporary Shelter sanitizes common areas.


It’s just one of the many reasons COTS is facing increased expenses during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen an increase in many costs, but the largest is maintaining sterilization amid the crisis,” Aisha said.

COTS has doubled their efforts to maintain the cleanliness of their facility and mitigate the spread of the virus. This protects not only families, but staff as well.

The nation-wide shortage of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer has been a creative challenge for COTS. Aisha and her team have pulled together fabric swatches and supplies for families to make masks until supplies are replenished.

“Just the other day, we were all out of hand sanitizer, but we do have enough soap and ample bathrooms with water. Every day, we are trying to procure things, like hand sanitizer. We get some and run out and try to secure some again.”


Although the pandemic has impacted COTS in more than one way, the organization isn’t fighting this crisis alone.

A grant from United Way for Southeastern Michigan has helped COTS continue to serve its clients. With the grant, the organization is meeting the needs of 108 people in its emergency shelters during the pandemic.

The sterilization of its facilities through contract services and employee training would not have been possible without the help of United Way. The grant supported their needs for equipment to properly sanitize common areas,

In addition, COTS has been able to support their increased food budget. They’ve also purchased five laptops to enable remote work for staff and provide hazard pay to front-line shelter workers.

United Way isn’t just helping organizations continue to meet the need in the community; we’re also giving organizations the opportunity to continue to focus on the people, instead of the pandemic.

“People who experience homelessness don’t necessarily even understand the full scope of their own dreams and goals until someone gives them an opportunity to explore them,” Aisha said. “COTS does that, and we’re able to continue doing that because of United Way.”