Living on the edge

Feb 27, 2002 at 12:00 am

Loretta Cooper zips up her daughter Robin’s blue parka and sends her out the door of the Cass Community United Methodist Church in Detroit. The smiling 6-year-old bounces down the concrete steps. Her long black braids swing in the winter air.

It is a chilly February morning, and the first-grader is headed to school with her siblings, Christopher, 11, and Brittany, 8. They have just left the church warming center, which provides shelter, meals and other services to homeless women and children. Loretta, a single mom, has been living at the center with her three children for about six weeks.

The Coopers are one of several families staying at the warming center this winter. In fact, the center’s census has never been higher, says the Rev. Faith Fowler, who heads the church and center.

“We have been amazed at the number of kids this year,” Fowler says. “We have been working with the homeless for 14 years, but never saw that many families on the edge.”

The church, which has provided year-round shelter for the homeless since 1988, opened the warming center three years ago; it is accessible from mid-November through March. A handful of kids stayed at the warming center with their mothers last winter. The average stay was seven to 21 days. This winter, through January, 41 kids had been at the center, with some families staying more than a month. The youngest child was a week old; the oldest was 15.

“We have been making sure kids get to school and make sure there is baby formula. It’s a whole new way of providing for people,” says Fowler.

The number of women at the center has increased as well. Last year, the center served 40 to 60 women a night. The center has served in excess of 100 on three different nights this winter. In February, the center had to limit the number of women to 50 per night since it lost a $50,000 state grant — more than 30 percent of its annual budget. The grant was awarded to another Detroit shelter.

Fowler says that women come to the center because they were kicked out of other shelters or fled abusive relationships. But she suspects that more women and children are using the center this year because of the troubled economy, recent closings of mental-health facilities and welfare reform.

Appropriately, Cooper, 29, came for the warmth. She and her brood arrived in December after her landlord refused to install a functioning furnace.

“I was there seven months until winter hit,” says Cooper, who each month receives about $320 in food stamps and $500 in state aid.

A small church gym is used as the warming center, where Cooper and her children have breakfast and dinner each day with other families and single women. At night, women without children lay out mats on the gym floor where they sleep. Cooper and her kids sleep on mats in the church basement.

When she moved into the center, on Cass between Forest and Mack, her kids had to change schools. Cooper hopes to find a home near their new school so they don’t have to change again.

“I don’t like being here, but it’s a blessing to have it,” Cooper says of the warming center. “It’s not a place for kids because some of the grown-ups have nasty mouths. That’s why I’m working on getting a house.”

Cooper, who worked in a factory in Battle Creek before moving to Detroit last year, is trying to find a job through Jewish Vocational Services. She would like to get her GED and go to nursing school.

“I have a lot of goals,” says Cooper. “First I want to move into a house, want to get my GED, go to school for nursing, have me a nice job, and just live happily ever after.”

People interested in donating to the center or volunteering there can call 313-833-7730.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected] or