Michigan faces affordable housing shortage

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan has a shortage of rental homes that are affordable and available to extremely low-income households, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Its study found that 71 percent of extremely low-income renter households in the state spend more than half of their income on housing costs and utilities.

We’re seeing more and more people who maybe precariously housed, being at greater risk of becoming homeless,” said Eric Hufnagel, the executive director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, a nonprofit organization of emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.

Hufnagel said the cost of housing is going up, and it’s getting more difficult to afford or keep housing.

“The housing market is tougher. Fewer units and higher costs are pushing more and more people to the point where they may become homeless,” Hufnagel said. And when people live from paycheck to paycheck, any economic downturn can put them at risk of losing their housing.

The national coalition’s 2018 report shows that households whose incomes are at or below the poverty line spend more than half of their income on housing. Its recent report said poor households are more likely than other renters to sacrifice necessities like healthy food and health care to pay the rent and to experience “unstable housing” situations like evictions.

The national study found that, on average, a Michigan household must earn $16.24 per hour (working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year) or have a $33,775 annual household income to afford a two-bedroom rental home without paying more than their income.

In some communities, not everyone working 40 hours a week can afford housing.

For example, Cynthia Arneson, the executive director of a Ludington-based shelter called Youth Staircase Services said, “So there are people who have jobs, and even if they are working 40 hours a week they cannot necessarily afford to live in the housing that is available in our counties.

The organization serves Lake, Manistee, Mason, Missaukee, Wexford and Oceana counties.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition says the housing crisis “isn’t just about affordability—it’s about economic mobility, too.”

Adam Sheren, a real estate agent with the Adley Group Realty & Development in Ludington, said housing in West Michigan is a concern, and the major difficulty is that it’s tough to lure major housing developers to the city.

“It’s very hard for a community such as Ludington to attract big-time developers because they don’t see the dollars,” Sheren said. “For them to come and do a project here, there has to be a ton of incentive.”

In Michigan, Sheren said rent for a two-bedroom apartment in rural communities ranges between $600-$850 a month, and in the city prices can go up to $2,000.

Jana Cooper, from Third Coast Development, a Grand Rapids-based commercial real estate firm, said the company has two affordable housing projects under construction in Grand Rapids. One is set to open in August 2018.

The apartment complex will feature 165 one- and two-bedroom units priced to be affordable to households of mixed income levels.

Sheren said it’s hard for many local developers to break into the development game even though they have the skills and the desire to do so. Because they don’t have experience, they aren’t always aware of available grants and financing opportunities.

In Mason County, Sheren said initiatives such the Growth Alliance and the Vacant Property Campaign have done a good job of understanding the need for local developers.

Those initiatives, brought in by local groups, conduct marketing campaigns to show local developers the opportunities around the area and help them meet with local stakeholders.

“Municipalities should assist developers in finding properties, development opportunities, grants or whatever it may be so that they can address these affordable housing issues,” Sheren said.

Instead of trying to attract developers from Grand Rapids or out of state, Sheren said the key to solving the housing problem is working with people already in the community who have a vested interest in seeing that community flourish.

“Provide them with a team and tools and incentives — whether it’s tax reductions, a grant or being a voice between them and organizations like the Michigan Economic Development Corp. — so somebody in the local community can get a project done,” he said.

Campaign against plastic straws picks up speed

Capital News Service

LANSING – People like plastic straws, but they’re not good for the environment, experts say.

Using plastic straws “cause problems in a variety of aspects,” said Mick DeGraeve, the director and senior environmental scientist at the Great Lakes Environmental Center based in Traverse City.

“Straws are small, and people just inadvertently or intentionally leave them lying on the sidewalk,” said DeGraeve, adding that they not only spoil natural beauty but also harm wildlife. Animals might ingest plastic straws that aren’t digestible.

Every day, Americans use 500 million plastic straws — enough to fill over 125 school buses — according to a report from the Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycler based in Boulder, Colorado.

“The plastic straws are kind of sturdy because they hold together for long time,” DeGraeve said. “If they end up in the Great Lakes or in the environment, they’re going to be there for a decade at least.”

However, environmental problems caused by plastic straws aren’t easily fixed by recycling, said Kerrin O’Brien, the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

“There is no program that I know in the state that actually will recycle the straws,” O’Brien said. The reasons could be the shape of straws and that they’re too small to separate from other types of plastic and easily fall through the sorting mechanism.

Because plastic straws are hard to recycle, O’Brien suggested reusable ones instead.

And automatically providing a plastic straw should be a thing of the past, she said. “I would like to see eating and drinking establishments ask first before they assume people want to use a straw.”

In response to the problem, the Last Plastic Straw Committee TC, a group in Traverse City, has launched a campaign that calls on the public to reduce the use of straws.

A similar campaign is also operating in Ann Arbor organized by Stop the Straw, a student activist group from the University of Michigan.

Jeffery Elsworth, an associate professor in the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University, said restaurants are putting more effort into moving away from plastic straws and informing customers about their negative impacts.

Instead of automatically bringing customers plastic straws, more restaurants provide straws when customers ask, Elsworth said.

However, some customers complain about the absence of plastic straws in restaurants, he said. “It’s a habit for them to use straws, and they use them for different reasons.”

Therefore, providing paper straws could be a solution, but price is another concern, Elsworth said.

While a paper straw costs about 1 to 2 cents apiece, a plastic straw costs less than half a cent, he said. “If you are buying 20,000 straws in a case, it’s essentially a difference in price.”

To raise public awareness of plastic pollution caused by straws, the Great Lakes Environmental Center’s DeGraeve suggested improving education about environmental protection in schools and homes, as well as posting informational signs in public areas.

In addition, DeGraeve said a ban could be an effective way to deal with plastic straw pollution.

Autism diagnosis doesn’t come with a job

Capital News Service

LANSING — To combat high rates of unemployment among autistic individuals, mental health organizations statewide are connecting them to job opportunities — or even hiring them directly.

No reliable source tracks employment rates for adults with autism, according to Autism NOW, a national information center. Employment statistics generally fail to identify specific groups like those on the autism spectrum.

However, using results from a U.S. Department of Education study of youth who received special education services, the center suggested that young adults with autism are less likely to work than most other disability groups.

Thirty-three percent of young adults in the study with autism spectrum disorders had a paid job, compared to 59 percent for all disabled respondents.

Northern Transitions, a nonprofit community rehabilitation organization in Sault Ste. Marie, hires people with autism to assist with janitorial work and help with the county recycling service run through the organization.

The nonprofit connects people to jobs with local businesses as well. For example, Northern Transitions partners with the famed Soo Locks, placing autistic individuals into janitorial jobs around the park and supplying summer staff for its visitors’ center.

“Some people just come in the door — you know, ‘Hey, I’m a person with a disability and I’m looking for a job,’” said Karl Monroe, Northern Transitions’ rehabilitation director. “Some people we hire and some people we send to a job developer that works with about 40 companies down here and does placements.”

People with autism can bring unique skills to the workplace, Monroe said. Although autism can severely impact one’s social skills, it also often comes with an increased level of concentration and attention to detail.

Monroe told of an individual who found a grocery store job through Northern Transitions’ employment program and began to spot things most other employees simply skipped over.

“He’s noticing stuff that needs to be thrown away — which is not something that the boss appreciates,” Monroe said, tongue in cheek. “He’s the only person they have who always pays attention to the expiration dates.”

To better prepare people with autism for the workplace, the state has to start with fixing its special education system, said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who chairs the Michigan Special Education Reform Task Force and has a daughter with autism.

“Now, even though we expect much more mainstreaming of kids with disabilities into general education settings, just putting a kid in a classroom is not really inclusion unless you have expertise on staff,” Calley said. “You can be as isolated in the classroom as you were if you’re not in the classroom if the student is not supported the way they need to be supported.”

“Our special education — we have to do better with that. If we do, I think it will open up more employment opportunities,” he said.

In 2012, Calley championed autism insurance legislation that eventually became law.  It mandated that insurance policies cover applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.

While Monroe said he sees value in such services for managing the symptoms of autism, there’s less clarity about whether they impact career readiness.

Autism affects people in such diverse ways — from self-injury and speech difficulties in severe cases, to delayed social skills in more high-functioning individuals — that an autistic person’s success in employment depends more on the individuals and the field of work they end up in, he said.

Not all employers are equipped to hire autistic individuals, however — especially ones  with more severe symptoms. Even if individuals are prepared with the skills necessary to enter the workforce, finding an employer with the resources to accommodate their other needs is a separate challenge.

While the federal Rehabilitation Act prohibits employment discrimination based on disability, federal law also says employers don’t have to accommodate disabilities if doing so would cause “significant difficulty or expense” for the employer.

There’s no formula by which employers can figure out what would constitute “significant difficulty,” said Mark Cody, the legal director for the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, although the size of a company is one consideration.

“The cost of the hardship for a small company of 20 or 25 employees is going to have a bigger impact than a place like General Motors,” Cody said.

However, Cody said the law is generally tailored to both employer and employee needs. Treating the accommodations process as a continuing conversation can give potential employees the best shot at securing a job, while protecting employers from discrimination suits.

Autistic individuals seeking employment would be best served by submitting their request in writing and having a “give-and-take discussion” with the employer about what exactly they need on the job to perform their essential duties, Cody said.

“There’s a fair degree of flexibility, and it can work well for both employer and employee,” Cody said. “If the employer is too bureaucratic or too rigid, that’s where they tend to get into trouble because they don’t really work with the employee to figure out what needs to be done.”

Northern Transitions’ Monroe said employment is a quality-of-life matter for people with autism, and overcoming the many barriers to their employment is almost always a positive.

“I think you’d have a lot more happy persons with disabilities if more of them were employed,” Monroe said. “When you identify yourself, I think most people start out with what they do for a living.

“There are a lot of values to work besides a check.”

Young people are struggling with homelessness, studies find

LANSING — Schoolchildren and youths in Michigan are struggling with homelessness at high rates, new studies show.

Poverty Solutions, a University of Michigan initiative dedicated to prevention and alleviation of poverty, found Michigan among the states with the largest number of homeless youths — more than 36,000 children in elementary, middle and high schools facing homelessness and housing insecurity.

This report was confirmed by the 2018 Kids Count report– a study by the Michigan League for Public Policy that analyzes and evaluates the wellbeing of children in the state. It  found that in 2016, 444,100 children lived in poverty.

The report ranked 82 of the 83 counties for overall child wellbeing. The top five counties are Livingston, Ottawa, Clinton and Oakland. The bottom five counties are Lake, Clare, Muskegon, Calhoun and Oceana.

Between 2010 and 2016, the Kids Count shows a 23 percent improvement in children homelessness rates. However, more than one in five Michigan children lived in poverty in 2016.

“It’s not a great improvement but it is some improvement. More than one in five children living in poverty really has huge implications on education and health and other indicators of well-being for kids,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count director.

Despite the slight improvement and the lowest unemployment levels in decades, the Kids Count report said jobs are paying significantly low wages that don’t  keep up with growing inflation rates, causing income levels to remain below pre-recession levels.

According to  U-M’s Poverty Solutions analysis, dropout rates for homeless students are increasing and homeless high school students are particularly vulnerable.

Some areas in the state are affected more than others. In West Michigan, for example, counties like Oceana, Muskegon and Mason have the highest rates of homelessness.

Staircase Youth Services, a Ludington-based nonprofit organization operating in a number of West Michigan counties, said its Oceana County agency is experiencing higher rates of homelessness than other counties in the area.

“I was not surprised by the high number in Oceana County. There is a real lack of housing in Oceana County and the poverty level is pretty high,” said Cynthia Arneson, the executive director of Staircase Youth Services.

The organization works with high school students and youths between the ages of 12 and 21.

“We have a host home program where we place youth that are homeless in a host home within the county so that they can stay in school,” Arneson said.

Participants can stay in the program for up to 18 months while receiving support by the staff.

Poverty Solutions created a map that shows the percent and number of students experiencing homelessness in each Michigan school district and the percentage of low-income students experiencing homelessness.

During the 2015-16 school year, Michigan ranked sixth among states with the most homeless students, after California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois.

Though homelessness is a statewide issue impacting children in rural and urban areas, the highest rates are among students in the smallest school districts, the U-M report said.

Guevara Warren of the League for Public Policy said workforce development and the types of jobs available locally are a big piece of economic security and poverty.

“We still have in this state over 30 percent of children whose families lack full-time permanent work. You see a lot of families who are either working at low wage jobs or are trying to piece together several part-time or seasonal jobs,” she said.

Arneson said that in Oceana County, even if people are employed, the level and amount of income they earn is insufficient for the local housing market.

“So there are people who have jobs, and even if they are working 40 hours a week they cannot necessarily afford to live in the housing that is available in our counties,” she said.

To address the issue of poverty, Guevara Warren says one way to improve economic security for children is to take a generation approach, which ensures that children, parents and caregivers all receive help and support at the same time.

As an example, she said the state has started investing  to improve the child care system, particularly concerning eligibility requirements.

“We have improved that slightly but we’re still really towards the bottom when it comes to child care eligibility in the country,” Guevara Warren said.

She said the state has also improved provider reimbursement rates through child care subsidies but still tends to be at the bottom when it comes to reimbursement to providers.

Michigan reversing prison population boom of ‘90s

Capital News Service

LANSING — Following the closing of some correctional facilities in recent years, the size of Michigan’s prison population is at its lowest in two decades.

Criminal justice experts, however say, there’s still more to be done.

John Cooper, the policy director for the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a nonprofit public policy organization, said the Department of Corrections’ current recidivism rate of 28 percent isn’t a good measurement of what’s going on in the criminal justice system.

“To have 28 percent of people who got out of prison return still is a very high rate,” Cooper said. “We don’t want anybody to be going back to prison.”

Earlier this year, the department reported that the prison population is below 40,000 for the first time since 1992.

Cooper said there are a number of reasons for that development, including low crime rates, fewer people going to prison and high parole rates.

However, there’s a need for improvement.

“Michigan has a very punitive system,” Cooper said, adding that the state has the longest average length of imprisonment in the country, with an average minimum sentence of  almost 10 years.

“About 13 percent of the prison population in Michigan will never be released because they are serving life sentences,” Cooper said.

A recent law sponsored by Sen. Steven Bieda D-Warren, eliminates the requirement that repeat drug offenders get an increased sentence, up to life in prison without parole. Instead, prisoners would be eligible for parole after serving five years of their sentence.

When it comes to offenders with mental illness, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the justice response needs to be different.

“Our system in the past has been a one-size-fits-all approach. A person has a negative interaction with the law, they go through the system. If they are found guilty of a crime, they go to jail or prison,” Calley said.

If a person commits a crime because of an untreated mental illness that might include developmental disabilities, addiction or anything that changes the way that the brain works, the justice system response should include evaluation and treatment, he said.

“That still might include some jail or prison, but maybe it doesn’t have to,” Calley said.


He heads the Snyder administration’s mental health diversion council that works with sheriffs, prosecutors and judges on programs intended to provide treatment rather than jail for arrestees with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Cooper, of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, said Michigan doesn’t have  a compassionate release policy for medical parole.

“Many aging prisoners and sick people are not allowed to be released to medical facilities that are more appropriate,” he said. “These are very old and sick people who are no longer a threat to society.”

A set of bills pending in the Legislature would create a compassionate release policy. The bipartisan package is sponsored by a number of representatives including David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, and  Larry Inman, R-Williamsburg.

In terms of re-entry into the community, Cooper said it’s hard to get a job with a criminal record. The unemployment rate for people with a criminal record is 67 percent.

“There are legal barriers to getting employment for people who have been formerly incarcerated. Many employers do not want to hire someone who has a criminal record,” he said.

And at the same time, it’s hard to find housing. “Private landlords can decide to not rent their property, and there are also limitations on the availability of certain government assistance if you’ve got a criminal record,” Cooper said.

The underlying problem is that most people who go to prison don’t have any work history or a high school diploma, he said. If they don’t get an education and/or job skills while they are in prison, it’s going to be hard for them to get a job when they get out.

“The department understands this and is trying to do the best it can,” Cooper said.

The Department of Corrections has created jobs and trade skills training programs and so far, these programs are producing good results, according to reports on the department’s website.

Calley, the lieutenant governor, said that when the criminal justice system started treating addiction, it had a profound impact, and mental diversion programs have the same potential that treating addiction had in improving recidivism outcomes.

“Throwing people in jail does not treat addiction, does not cure addiction. It’s not a willpower issue, it’s a health care issue,” he said. “If we start treating mental health effectively and connect people to gainful employment at the same time, recidivism rates will go even lower.”

Citizen panel helps community recover from decades of contamination

Capital News Service

LANSING — Jane Keon has written hundreds of letters.

Letters to the state and federal environmental officials. To her local St. Louis government and to the officials of Velsicol, the chemical company that left the small Gratiot County city after it created one of the nation’s most notorious Superfund sites.

Keon is the former president of the community advisory group – commonly called the CAG – that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established to assist the cleanup of the factory site that sits on the Pine River in the middle of St. Louis, about 20 miles south of Mount Pleasant.

Most CAGs across the country let the EPA give them information and maybe ask a few questions, but that’s just about it, Keon said. “Our group took that word ‘advisory’ in a different sense. We thought it was up to us to advise the EPA on what we thought would be best for the community.”

The CAG’s oversight created friction with EPA officials charged with cleaning up the site. As Keon describes in her 2015 book chronicling the cleanup process, “Tombstone Town,” often officials ignored their input and talked straight to local leaders.

“To me, that’s the biggest challenge,” said Jim Hall, the current president of the advisory group. “When you look at it, what CAG stands for, we’re supposed to be an active conduit between us and the community.”

Velsicol manufactured chemicals that killed insects, prevented fire and supplemented cattle feed. In 1973, a packaging error mixed a fire retardant with feed that was fed to cattle all over the state. That error poisoned thousands of animals and the people who ate them.

In 1978, the plant was closed and demolition of the site began. The initial solution to keeping contaminants from leaching into the ground was to bury the site and cap it with concrete. That failed. The chemicals eventually made their way into the Pine River flowing through the city.

“It continued that way through the ‘80s and the ‘90s,” Keon said. “There was such a bad attitude in the community. By the time our group formed in 1997 and ‘98, we were bound and determined that this time around we were going to clean up.”

The initial group was made up of eight or nine people with different backgrounds. Some had experience working with the state Department of Environmental Quality while others worked at Consumers Energy. Others had experience in law and applying for grants to clean up the city.

“We’re the largest, most active cleaning advisory group that they (the EPA) have,” said Ed Lorenz, vice chair of the group and a professor at nearby Alma College. “And that’s been going on for a long time.”

Lorenz, who has also written a book on his experience with the group called “Civic Empowerment in an Age of Corporate Greed,” points to the group’s persistence as a factor in its success. It didn’t just write letters, he said. It applied for funds for more cleanups, consulted experts on how to run its own tests and collaborated with other groups.

The advisory group now goes by the name of Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force. Along with that name change has been a broadening of the area it wants cleaned.

“Even though we like to say St. Louis when we set ourselves up, we didn’t just limit ourselves just to the Velsicol site,” Hall said. “That allowed us with a mission to encompass more.”

That redefinition has translated into results. Nine separate cleanups have been completed since 1999. Improvements have been made to injection wells and creeks that lead into the Pine. The pesticide DDT was excavated from soil in athletic fields and residential yards.

And more help is on the way. Projects to fix a burn pit and a dam on the river will be completed in 2021. A larger cleanup project on the 52-acre chemical site is expected to be completed by 2036.

There are also ongoing health studies that analyze the PBB – the fire retardant that got mixed with the animal feed – and DDT contamination of residents.

Hall, a lifelong resident of St. Louis, had his blood tested in 2013. He has PBB levels seven times higher than a chemical worker’s average, and 16 times higher than farm families in the area, he said.

He lost his thyroid in 2008 to cancer. His brother died of cancer at age 24 and his daughter at age 2.

“For me, because I grew up three blocks from the site, it makes sense,” Hall said. “I spent my childhood just sucking all that stuff in.”

While his daughter never came into direct contact with those chemicals, those health studies are beginning to examine if the damage from chemicals like PBB can be passed to younger generations.

Even now Keon, who is the group’s secretary, works 40 hours a week. She doesn’t know why she still works as much as she does.

“Just speaking from a personal standpoint, I’m not a political person, I’m not a scientist, I don’t enjoy law or bureaucracy,” Keon said. “But here I am up to my eyebrows in it, and I have no explanation for why I personally stuck with it, other than it needs to be cleaned up, and somebody’s gotta do it.”

Perhaps it’s her Midwestern roots.

Former Michigan State University sociology professor Marilyn Aronoff told her years ago that Michiganders have a determined spirit, Keon said.

“The people in our area of Michigan are from pioneer stock,” Keon said. “When we run into problems, we find ways to keep going.”

Jack Nissen writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Commitment wanted: State seeking more foster parents

Capital News Service

LANSING – Rachel Kornilakis, who has been a foster parent for several years and adopted three children out of foster care, says being a foster parent creates a sense of helping others and belonging to a community.

“It is lovely and fulfilling to see children heal, grow, develop and experience firsts,” she said. “Take a kid to the zoo or for ice cream for the first time and your heart will be forever changed. It’s magical.”

Her foster children have stayed with the family for as short as three months and “as long as forever.”

Kornilakis, who lives in Southeast Michigan, says she doesn’t differentiate between her foster children and her own. “Out of the thousands of families I know, I don’t know any who think otherwise.”

According to a national study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly half of foster parents quit in their first year.

And while Michigan experts say that’s not a major problem in the state, they see a need for more adults to sign on.

According to Kornilakis, a foster parent should possess patience, stamina, flexibility, communication and parenting skills, as well as trauma training.

Kornilakis is the founder and co-president of Fostering Forward Michigan, a nonprofit group started in 2014 to help families through the process of becoming licensed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and going through the initial placement processes.

The organization took the name as a reminder that “no matter how difficult or slow progress seems sometimes, we must push to move forward,” she said.

According to the Michigan Health and Human Services Department, the state has about 6,000 licensed foster families, and more than 13,000 children are in foster care.

“We are always recruiting,” said Heidi Raubenolt, the director of child welfare at Judson Center,

a nonprofit human services agency working in Wayne, Washtenaw, Macomb, Oakland and Genesee counties.

A license is required for prospective foster parents. State Health and Human Services marketing specialist Erica Quealy said it takes seven months on average for a family or individual to complete the steps to becoming a foster parent.

The process includes contacting a foster care navigator who will help them get started and answer questions about the process, selecting an agency to work with, attending orientation and training, and participating in a home evaluation, Quealy said.

Quealy said her department is always looking for more foster homes.

“When a child is being placed in foster care, we first make it a priority to find them foster homes with appropriate relatives whenever possible,” Quealy said. “That helps maintain stability for children who have experienced trauma.”

If children can’t be placed with relatives, the department tries to place them close to their home   so they can stay in the same school and be near their friends and family, she said. “Having more licensed foster families throughout Michigan provides a greater opportunity to keep children in their community.”

“There are a lot of different reasons,” said the Judson Center’s Raubenolt. “Sometimes there’s a good reason, such as they have run out of rooms in their home, or they had a child reunify to their own family and they want to take a break after that.”

She said another reason is that foster parents are struggling. “That is when the agency comes and tries to support them, to really help them stay and care for children.”

Kornilakis, of Fostering Forward Michigan, said new foster families are rarely prepared for the challenge of traumatized children who’ve been abused or neglected by their own parents. “They think they are simply going to love kids.”

Increasingly stringent and often confusing rules and regulations could also contribute to the drop-out rate, Kornilakis said.

“The investment of time and resources that families have to provide while undertaking a great deal of risk cannot be overstated,” she said. “Most foster families say you have to be ‘all in,’ and it takes a very special family to do this difficult work.”Some foster parents encounter difficulties that could be due to system failures such as delayed payments and services, or returning children to their birth families, said Kornilakis.

Raubenolt said, “Anyone who’s even thought about becoming a foster parent or might be passing the idea around cant call the statewide phone number at 855-MICHKIDS to speak to a foster care navigator and see if it might be right for them.

“If not, that’s OK too, but at least there is more awareness,” she said.

Nationally, teen suicide rate rises as Michigan counties fight trend

Capital News Service

LANSING — Suicide rates among teenagers nationally are at a 40-year high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The federal study shows that the rate of girls 15 to 19 years old dying by suicide between 2007 and 2015 more than doubled, from 2.4 to 5.1 per 100,000. Meanwhile, the rate among boys in the same age range rose from 10.8 to 14.2 per 100,000.

Among states with the highest rates of suicide among residents between 15 and 24 in 2016 are Alaska at 45.6, Montana at 29.2 and South Dakota at 27.9, the American Association of Suicidology reported. Michigan’s rate was 14.7 per 100,000.

For families who have lost someone to suicide and for communities seeing the rising death toll among teens, the most frequent question is – why?

“It’s really hard to say why that would be,” said Michael Pyne, the chair of Muskegon County’s Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Among adults, Pyne said men die from suicide more frequently than women. Men use more lethal means such as firearms and suffocation, which is why they probably die at an higher rate, he said. Although that’s changing, women typically try less deadly  means such as poisoning and therefore stand a better chance of surviving.

Among the younger population, however, Pyne said the statistics show a complex situation, but it’s hard to positively state why rates are on the rise.

“We do see young people using guns more frequently. It’s possible, too, that young females might attempt suicide more frequently, repeatedly at times,” Pyne said.

In Grand Haven, Steve Shannon, the facilitator of the Survivors of Loss to Suicide support group, said young girls seem to be the children who are dying most often.  Although suicide rates for boys remain higher, males who commit suicide are usually older — young adults in their mid-twenties.

“For young teenage girls, it’s been our opinion in the group that it goes back to the pressure on them to be beautiful, sexy and all that, which is why I’m so glad that the #MeToo movement is happening these days,” Shannon said.

Shannon and his wife lost a son, Patrick, to suicide six years ago and are now working to help other parent-survivors.

In trying to understand what could be the leading causes of the rise in teen suicides, Shannon pointed to the rise in cyberbullying and depression rates as negatively affecting youth.

Pyne, however, said more often than not, there are multiple causes.

“Oftentimes, people want to put one singular reason to it, but the reality is that it’s quite often a complex concern. It’s usually more than one thing,” Pyne said.

He added that today’s teens are the first generation to be completely raised on social media, which makes bullying — a contributing factor — easy because it’s done over a distance. But probably a more important factor than that, Pyne said, is personal resilience and an ability to handle stresses.

“You may have been bullied and ridiculed but you got through it. Maybe a friend of yours also got bullied, had other pressures maybe from family to achieve and they died by suicide,” Pyne said.

The number of Michigan teenagers dying varies from one county to another.

To tackle the growing problem, Shannon of Survivors of Loss to Suicide said there’s a need to raise awareness, and he said parents of teenagers need to pay close attention to their children’s internet activities.

“We have had four different parents in our group who lost a child because they were being bullied, and they didn’t know they were being bullied that bad. They weren’t aware because they were not on top of their texts and internet activities. That has a large part to do with it,” Shannon said.

Pyne said complex layering of issues and concerns in society contributes to suicides.

“It’s a sick society frankly,” Pyne said. “There’s a lot of name-calling, there’s a lot of bullying just in general with groups, there is a lot of in-fighting that is seen because of social media. I think this trickles down to young people in a way that is different from the older generation.”

Shannon said that for some parents, current affairs content on TV also fuels confusion and depression in young people. “Today’s journalists are very argumentative, especially conflict newscasters,” Shannon said. “They argue, they talk over each other on TV.”

Shootings, politics and leaders who Shannon said are acting like children all contribute to an overall feeling that the world is negative and hopeless.

“I think it’s difficult for young people to watch adults fighting,” Pyne said. “You think adults are going to be in control, control their temper, their words, they’re not going to be bullies. But the reality is, they are.”

“You also live in a country where you think we’re supposed to have an equal shot at achieving the American dream, and I think that is just simply not the case,” he said.

Shannon and his wife have been working to raise awareness of the issue, such as an interview with the Grand Haven High School student-run newspaper. “It was kind of refreshing to see the students taking care of themselves and report on these tough-to-talk-about issues,” Shannon said.

Pyne recommended raising awareness about the ripple effects that behaviors such as bullying, harassment and name-calling can have on people.

“If we start to work on those things that have impacted us as human beings in a negative way and recognize that once we identify those things, we can actually get well,” Pyne said.

Libraries continue to evolve in a technological age

Capital News Service

LANSING — As online technology has crept into everyday life and education, free public access to computers and internet has become an important attraction of public libraries.

“There’s a divide between families that have technology available and those who don’t,” said Gail Madziar, director of Michigan Association of Libraries. “If you’re a student that needs to do their homework, sometimes a library is the only place that you have to access information in a safe place.”

Many libraries serving rural populations report significant demand for their online services. For instance, internet services at the Presque Isle district libraries were accessed over 14,000 times in 2017. The county has a population of 13,000.

“We have internet access at all five of our locations,” said Amber Clement, director of Presque Isle District Library. “Besides us as a library, McDonald’s is the next best bet for free internet.”

One big use of the service is by high school students who are dual-enrolled with Alpena Community College, which requires internet access.

“A lot of these kids live out in rural areas without internet access and so they rely on either the school or the library to provide that,” Clement said.

On the other side of the state, more of Grand Traverse County has access to broadband internet than in Presque Isle County, but the Traverse Area District LIbraries still see use of its internet.

The district’s six libraries have recorded 3,477 users spending 11,289 hours on library computers this year.

Libraries also provide a basic technology education.

The district sees a large turnout for technology information classes, said Brice Bush, adult services coordinator for Traverse Area District Libraries.

“We’re working on creating a senior summer camp series designed for older patrons,” Bush said. “The programs would be focused on social media literacy and decoding your device. … Anyone is welcome to bring the technology you use to the session and we’ll be there to help.”

Involving the community can be done in other ways as well. In Alpena, the focus of Tinker Tuesdays is less on education and more on experimentation.

Tinker Tuesdays at Alpena Public Library are an opportunity for students and adults to play with new technologies.

“Kids are coming in with their parents, and pretty soon their parents become interested and start participating,” said Nancy Mousseau, technology specialist for Alpena Public Libraries.

“We have a 3-D printer and 3-D printing pens, along with low-tech projects as well like Legos and K’nex.”

In Traverse City, Bush is committed to opening the tech world to patrons.

“Public libraries are staying relevant in the technological world we’re living in by the dedicated free access to computers and internet connection,” Bush said.


Trails built, growers boosted with rural development grants


Capital News Service

LANSING — A nonprofit in Marquette is improving trails and promoting sustainable tourism.

A distillery in Grand Traverse is buying a second still to contract whiskey distilling using Michigan ingredients.

And a pasta company in the same town plans to improve seed processing to further promote the Michigan agriculture industry.

These are among the organizations that won Rural Development Fund grants from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in 2017.

The development grants fund projects to help industries that make use of local land, create jobs and support infrastructure that benefits rural communities. The department’s 2018 grants were announced in mid-March.

The grants are very competitive, said Heather Throne, an outreach specialist for the department’s Agriculture Development Division.

“We received 86 proposals requesting more then $6.4 million” for 2018, Throne said. Eleven were awarded for $891,905 in projects, including in Escanaba, Marquette and Ludington.

Of 73 applicants for 2017, 17 received grants, including Grand Traverse Distillery and Grand Traverse Pasta Co. in Traverse City and the Superior Watershed Partnership in Marquette.

The watershed partnership received a $75,200 grant for its Tri-County Nature Tourism Project, according to the department.

Carl Lindquist, the executive director of the partnership, said the grant has allowed the nonprofit to fund improvements for local tourism and maintenance of its natural spaces.

“It’s been an amazing grant,” Lindquist said.

Marquette and nearby Upper Peninsula communities have seen such an increase in tourism that they’ve incurred some of its negative effects, including trail erosion, Lindquist said.

A lot of local governments don’t have the resources to address costs related to tourism and maintain their sites, he said. The grant helped the watershed partnership make trail improvements and better maintain local sites.

It also helped fund a Great Lakes Conservation Corps crew to work with local governments and small businesses in Marquette, Alger and Delta counties to enhance nature tourism opportunities. The crew helped to build new trails and restore historic structures. The work also gives young adults the opportunity to gain experience in local government and conservation, Lindquist said.

Grand Traverse Distillery owner Kent Rabish said his grant will help purchase a second still that will allow him to contract out whiskey distilling. He said this will allow other companies to produce a product that is 100 percent made in Michigan, as more than half of all craft distilleries are purchasing starter ingredients from large companies rather than local ones.

“Just because a customer sees something distilled in Michigan doesn’t mean there’s an ounce of Michigan grain in it,” Rabish said.

Instead of buying ingredients from out-of-state and “repackaging” them, Rabish said his contract distilling will allow Michigan breweries and distilleries to support Michigan agriculture. Rabish buys grain and other ingredients directly from a neighboring farm for the company’s lineup of alcohols.

The equipment must be ordered 12 months in advance, and the new still is expected sometime over the summer. The company is operating at full capacity, and because of seasonal finances the upgrade would have been three to five years down the line without the grant, Rabish said.

“It’s been wonderful,” Rabish said.

William Koucky, the owner of Grand Traverse Pasta Co., said his company easily fit the profile for the grant. The company buys grain right from local farmers, mills it and makes it into pasta, he said.

The company received a $75,250 grant last year to purchase equipment to improve its processes, according to Agriculture and Rural Development.

The company plans to use its grant to improve the efficiency and infrastructure for seed cleaning and conditioning, which will promote the local grain industry, Koucky said.

However, the grant hasn’t been implemented yet. Koucky said the grant will reimburse  him, so the company must have the money to spend on improvements first.

“If I bought a $10,000 piece of equipment, the state would cover $7 (thousand) of it,” Koucky said.