2022 Hour Detroiters: Tenesa Sanders Gives Back with Detroit Action

The end of the COVID-era eviction moratorium pushes thousands to the brink of homelessness and propels Sanders — a Detroit community organizer who makes our annual list of people who are making Motown a better place — into the streets
Detroit Action Tenesa Sanders
Detroit Action’s Tenesa Sanders

In August, when the COVID-era residential eviction moratorium expired, the potential homelessness crisis in metro Detroit was among the worst in the nation. Members of some 110,000 metro Detroit households told the Census Bureau they were at risk of losing their homes, in mid-September. So, Tenesa Sanders and her organization, Detroit Action, raced out into the community to spread the word that rent assistance was out there to help. “People often don’t find out about resources available to them until they expire, and they miss out on help they could’ve gotten,” she says.

As the housing organizer for the social justice nonprofit, Sanders, 48, launched a door-knocking campaign to distribute information about rent, utilities, and eviction assistance programs. Detroit Action and four other nonprofits shared an $80,000 grant from the National Low Income Housing Coalition to do this work.

The effort appears to have worked; by early October, according to the Census Bureau, members of about 21,000 households said they were on the brink of eviction. That’s less than one-fifth of the earlier figure.

Sanders became a community organizer by accident. The Berkley High School graduate had worked at a car dealership, until fibromyalgia flare-ups caused persistent employment struggles. The 2008 death of her husband added to the financial hardship and left her and her five kids “kind of a little homeless.” After years relying on the hospitality of friends and relatives, one friend persuaded her to attend a meeting that Sanders thought would help her obtain free housing. 

Instead, it was a meeting for Detroit Action. “When I got there meeting, it wasn’t about getting houses,” she says. “But I gathered that they were building power in the community, and that connected with me.” While she didn’t get a free house, Sanders did eventually find a place in her native Detroit and began volunteering at Detroit Action. Years later, she landed a paid staff position.

Sanders says the anti-eviction information campaign will continue into 2022 alongside her usual work informing residents about property tax exemptions and other forms of relief. “In my heart, it’s about people not being put out of their homes or, if they have to be, then at least helping them pick themselves back up,” she says. “That’s my happiest place — seeing a person’s story become a victory, not a demise.”

This story is part of the 2022 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2022 issue here.