South Oakland Shelter: A Primer

What started in 1985 as an impulse to get the homeless out of the harsh Michigan winter elements has grown into a thriving non-profit that offers much more than temporary shelter.

South Oakland Shelter (SOS) works with 67 religious congregations, including churches, synagogues and a mosque, to operate a rotating shelter system. Each week a congregation hosts SOS’s shelter guests with overnight accommodations, three daily meals and transportation.

Ryan Hertz

Ryan Hertz

“We’re really unique because our programming is not in any way theologically driven,” says CEO Ryan Hertz. “It’s secular but the resources are all motivated by the volunteers’ commitment to their faith and faith community. People who are not overtly religious are also involved.”

The goal is to get clients into long-term housing as soon as possible. SOS formed a subsidiary called Spero Housing Group in 2015 dedicated to providing quality, affordable housing for low/moderate-income people. That may include building or renovating existing structures. 

“It’s likely to be done in partnership,” says Hertz, who is also Spero’s president. “We don’t intend to go into a completely different line of work.”

Securing quality housing in a safe neighborhood with decent schools may cost more at first, but it’s actually a cost savings, Hertz says. 

“All the barriers related to why clients became homeless are better addressed with a bigger bang for the buck when they are in housing. Expecting someone to find a job when rotating from shelter to shelter is not a recipe for success. When they are in a chaotic external environment or tackling addiction, they are not going to be as successful.”

Each client works with a case manager to develop and implement a plan of goals and action steps. That approach has led to impressive success rates: in 2015, 80 percent of sheltered households successfully exited into housing, and 86 percent sustained housing for a full year.

Roughly half the funding comes from federal, state and local government contracts and the rest is private contributions and proceeds from three annual fundraisers, including Dancing with the Detroit Stars. The staff includes 21 full-time employees (of which nine serve SOS through AmeriCorps programs) and three part-timers. Hertz says that 89 percent of SOS resources go directly to client support and services.

Some 8,000 volunteers also pitch in.

“There are all kinds of ways to get involved,” Hertz says. “It is no less meaningful to help plan a party than to cook a meal.”

Only about 20 percent of clients fall into the category of chronic homelessness, “this image people have of who the homeless are,” Hertz says. They need the most help and are also the most expensive to serve, with some 80 percent of resources going toward that group.

The majority of clients are educated. More than 52 percent have at least some college and most have work experience and are able to take care of themselves once they have a home.

“Homelessness is a solvable problem,” Hertz says. “The only thing lacking is our community’s will to solve the problem.