Michelle Henry is a mother who has made it her mission to help other mothers.
In addition to raising six children of her own, she has for the last four years provided transitional housing and mentoring to single homeless mothers and their children through a nonprofit she founded called Charismata Homes and Co.
“I pick them up, get them off the streets,” she told The Huffington Post. “They may have nowhere to go. We try to set them up, to help them get out and get a job and break that circle of being homeless.”
Charismata currently houses 10 families at five properties in Detroit. The organization provides participants with food, clothing and hygiene products, and has a resource center where it offers mentoring and life-skills classes, including career development, nutrition and crocheting.
The organization works with mothers to develop life plans and to stick to them. Henry cited one notable case where a woman in the program went on to graduate from college and become a nursing assistant.
Henry, 45, is a Southfield resident who works at the Detroit Medical Center, owns a Southfield retail shop and mentors youth at her church. Her work is an extension of her Christian faith — a fact reflected in the name Charismata, which means “gift of God” in Greek, she said.
Henry started working with homeless mothers in 2004, when she was a single mother herself, and learned that several young women — friends of her children — were living on the streets. Henry decided to take them into her home.
She later married, which meant less space to share, but wanted to continue her charity work — so she got creative. Using her own money, Henry bought some homes in Detroit and fixed them up to provide places where the young mothers could turn their lives around.
Referrals often come from social service workers, hospitals and churches, and Charismata has a number of volunteers who help with programming and offer logistical support.She also started organizing fundraisers and collecting donated supplies. Later, recognizing the extent of her clients’ needs, she added a diaper pantry, a food pantry and educational services.
It has provided transitional housing to nearly 50 women since 2009. Some stay only temporarily, like those transitioning from foster care, but others stay longer, finding jobs and working out a payment arrangement with the nonprofit. The ultimate goal of Charismata, however, is independence.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many mothers are living with their children on the streets of Detroit, but according to Henry, the need for transitional housing is urgent; she recently received more than 30 email referrals in single day.
Data from a national survey show that homeless families tend to be disproportionately headed by women. A 2009 HUD study found that females made up about 80 percent of individuals who stayed in shelters with their families.
Henry said the women she encounters are often victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse, or have lost a parent. Many have lived in cars or abandoned homes, and a high percentage of them have turned to prostitution to support themselves and their children. She said homelessness can also put mothers at risk for having their children taken away by the state, leaving them depressed and even suicidal.
Working with homeless mothers requires looking beyond appearances to see inner value and gain a better understanding of the struggles they face, she said. “They really love their kids, but don’t know what do to keep themselves off the streets. Some people look down on people who are less fortunate, [but] if you get to know them, they are big-hearted and loving.”