Photo via: Courtney Smith
26-year-old Courtney Smith is the founder of the Detroit Phoenix Center, a part-time drop-in resource for youth needing access to hot showers, food, transportation assistance and information on securing stable housing and educational options. Smith, a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, has experienced first hand the trials of youth homelessness. Her first experience occurred at the age of 16, when she was forced out of her adopted parents’ home in Detroit and placed in a city youth shelter.
Smith went on to complete her freshman year of college at St. Augustine University in Raleigh, North Carolina where she again faced temporary homelessness when the school closed their dorms for winter break. Smith then transferred to Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan where she was placed in an apartment through a local shelter program during the school year.
Housing insecurity issues arose again in 2012 and 2013; however, as a result of Smith's school counselor becoming aware of her situation, Eastern Michigan University helped her with an apartment while she completed her senior year.
Smith began her advocacy work while experiencing housing insecurities in her teens and early twenties. During her last couple of years of college, she wrote her thesis on the living experiences of students who were facing homelessness. She reached out to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children for research, which eventually led to them hiring her as a consultant. Following this work on the national level, Smith wanted to make more of an impact locally and began to use her personal experiences and those of her younger brother Blair to shape her ideas for the Detroit Phoenix Center (DPC).
Some of our amazing executive team members that work tirelessly to ensure that DPC is a place that youth will rise. They are holding our resolution declaring November National Runaway Prevention Month in Detroit. Thank you Councilwoman @marysheffield for being an advocate and supporting the work that we do💓 #millennialleadership #youngprofessionals #innovating
"His situation was very different than mine," Smith said in a phone interview with Mic. "He wasn't as agreeable as I was. He was more of a free spirit. He didn’t like rules. He was experiencing a lot of challenges. He would come to my house just to take a shower. He would drop in and drop out. And I was saying to myself, where do people like my brother go? How do they receive services?"
4.2 million young people have experienced homelessness as of this year and 1 in 10 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 will experience homelessness at some point in their lives. Many youth face homelessness due to abuse and aging out of the foster care system. Those most at risk for homelessness are LGBTQ youth, Black and Latino youth, young parents and those who do not have a high school diploma. For them, resources can be scarce or difficult to access without help from organizations like the Detroit Phoenix Center.
Unfortunately, Smith's 19-year-old brother passed away on the day of the opening of the Detroit Phoenix Center.
"When my brother Blair transitioned -- I really wanted to quit. I questioned purpose, but it became clear through healing and intentionality that DPC was my *now* purpose, Smith wrote on Instagram. "I made a promise that whatever I could do to share his legacy with the world, I would do. I made a promise that whatever I could do to bridge gaps in my community, I would do."
Pictured: Volunteers helping paint Detroit Phoenix Center prior to its opening in January/ Photo via: Courtney Smith
Along with founding the Detroit Phoenix Center, Smith serves on the board of directors for SchoolHouse Connection, a national organization promoting success for homeless children. She is also a youth adviser for the National Network for Youth, where she works with other millennials to identify best practices to serve youth experiencing housing insecurity.
Smith's long-term goal is to be able to have a larger drop-in center and to add other services like a transitional living program, where youth have access to overnight housing options. She also wants to use a social entrepreneurship model to be able to employ youths, according to Mic.
Courtney, your perseverance and passion for youth is an inspiration to us all. Keep up the great work!
For more information on the Detroit Phoenix Center and how you can help, please visit here.