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

By GLORIA NZEKA
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

By JACK NISSEN
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

By CRYSTAL CHEN
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
By GLORIA NZEKA

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

By CASEY HULL
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

By RILEY MURDOCK

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.

Some colleges tackle homeless students’ problems

Capital News Service
By AGNES BAO

LANSING – Although homeless college students have access to various types of assistance, many are reluctant to be identified as homeless because of stigma, experts say.

“There is a sense of denial about what homelessness actually is,” said Lynn Stufin, a public information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Stable housing is a stressor for many individuals,” Stufin said. “The identification that the individual is homeless may (bring) stress they are unable or unwilling to handle at that time.”

Pam Kies-Lowe, the coordinator for homeless education at the Department of Education, said,

“Lots of folks think about the homeless as bad people in the park, or they think the homeless are on the corner of an intersection with signs saying ‘homeless and hungry.’”  

However, an invisible group of homeless consists of students, Kies-Lowe said. They don’t live on the street and some of the older ones who are unaccompanied by parents stay with their friends or relatives.

The definition of homeless children and youth isn’t limited to those sleeping on the streets, but also includes lacking a regular nighttime residence, sharing housing or sleeping in places that aren’t supposed to be a regular accommodations, according to federal law.

More awareness and better identification of homeless students are needed, Kies-Lowe said.

“The whole experience of being homeless hurts their mental health a lot more than being identified, because once they are identified we connect them with the services and support they need to stay and succeed in school,” she said.

Those services typically include financial aid, housing, food and transportation.

Wayne State University launched the HIGH (Helping Individuals Go Higher) program for homeless students in 2013.

The program aims at helping homeless, precariously housed and financially challenged students to earn their degree and prevent them from dropping out because of financial problems.

“Sixty-one percent of the applicants are seniors, and so we do what we can to provide a bridge so that they graduate,” said Pearlanne Pollard, the program’s executive assistant.

“At the point, we have a 100 percent graduation rate of our seniors that come in [to the program],” Pollard said. But still, many homeless students haven’t been identified yet.

As homeless students don’t necessarily sleep on the street, “we don’t have any way of identifying them,” she said. “If they don’t apply for [the program], then we don’t know who they are.”

The HIGH program put in great efforts on reaching out to potentially homeless students through social media, flyers, deans, advisers, financial aid staff and a welcome center.

Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association, said the challenges facing homeless students are a growing concern.

“The colleges in the state are not really set up to deal with homeless students,” Hansen said. Connecting them with local agencies and organizations is better.

Colleges are educational institutions and aren’t experts on homelessness, he said. “But we are doing what we can to connect homeless students to appropriate services and service providers.”

Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College collaborate with the MORE Support program provided by Ozone House, which is a nonprofit agency based in Ypsilanti with the goal of helping young homeless people.

The MORE Support program partners with campus “coaches” to provide health care for homeless students.

Many problems cause homeless students to suffer trauma, including abuse, the disruption of care and changes in housing, said Dave Zellmer, the program’s therapist.

Partnering with colleges reduces the barrier for students who need care, Zellmer said. “The stigma around homelessness can make it hard for students to talk about that, and they might not want other people to know.”

The program isn’t about labeling homeless people but it’s about providing support for students and making sure they get what they need to succeed in school, he said.  

With the program’s mental health care, 80 percent of  participants showed reductions in traumatic stress and 75 percent demonstrated reductions in symptoms related to depression and anxiety, according to Ozone House.

They also had higher class attendance rates and higher academic achievement, the agency said.

 

Drink up? Depends on where you live

By BAILEY LASKE
Capital News Service

LANSING – If you’re thinking of moving in Michigan and worry about water quality, finding the perfect area might be harder than you think.

Because of  a wide variety of contaminants, pinpointing one area that has the cleanest drinking water or the worst drinking water isn’t an easy task.  

“It’s hard to say where the most issues are. There are different issues in different communities around the state,” said Sean McBrearty, a program organizer at Clean Water Action, an advocacy group..

Lead receives the most headlines but Michigan’s main drinking water contaminants include arsenic, nitrate, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and lead.

Some areas are affected worse than others, but overall, Lansing has no worries about lead and Northern Michigan enjoys fairly clean water, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

One of the biggest problems facing almost the entire state is the crumbling infrastructure, McBrearty said. “Michigan has more lead service lines than almost any other state.”

With around 460,000 lead service lines, many local governments are scrambling to find the money to replace them.

According to McBrearty, the only area where all lead pipes have been removed is Lansing. The Lansing Board of Water and Light finished replacing all of them in 2016.

Lansing and  Madison, Wisconsin, are the only two cities in the country to replace all of their lead service lines, according the the Board of Water and Light.

Because of the makeup of Michigan’s landscape, the state tends to have naturally higher arsenic levels in the groundwater. Arsenic is found in some bedrock, sand, gravel and soil when it’s dissolved by and absorbed into drinking water.

Some areas with the highest rate of arsenic contamination are Bad Axe, Lapeer  and southeast Genesee County. The cleanest counties include Mason, Manistee, Alpena and Mackinac.

Unlike arsenic, problems with VOCs are generally caused by human activity such as the release of industrial solvents, fuel and chemical spills, and illegal disposal of waste products. VOC levels are also much lower in the northern parts of the state than in southern Michigan, according to the DEQ.

Areas with the most VOC problems include Jackson, Battle Creek, Portage and Muskegon. DEQ data shows counties with the least problems include Montmorency, Luce, Baraga, Iron and Keweenaw.

In contrast, nitrate levels have a pattern that follows east and west, not just north and south. High levels tend to be found in West Michigan, focused on the southern and middle parts of the Lower Peninsula.

These contaminants come from livestock waste, septic tanks and drainfields, crop and lawn fertilizers, municipal wastewater sludge and natural sources, according to the DEQ.

The counties with the most serious nitrate problems include Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Montcalm and Oceana. The east side of the state, particularly the Thumb, and the Upper Peninsula have lesser rates of nitrate contamination.

Another major factor whether the water is being pulled from the Great Lakes or from groundwater sources. Because the Great Lakes are so large, understanding the quality of the water is much easier and results in fewer  problems, according to James Clift, the policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council.

With groundwater, people need to be more wary of possible contaminants and localized threats, Clift said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority in Southeast Michigan gets most of its water from Lake Huron or the Detroit River. However, the region it serves has the most lead service lines in the state to deal with, Clift said.

Those who get their water from private wells need to be far more wary than those on municipal water, according to Clift, so it’s important to test well water not only when moving but also every two to three years.

County health departments can test for most common contaminants. For the consumer, strange smell and taste are indicators that something is wrong, Clift said.

McBrearty of Clean Water Action said some contaminants that are far harder to examine include perfluorooctane sulfonate, a VOC that’s been discovered in about 15 areas in Michigan.

“The science is not complete on how dangerous it is for human health,” McBrearty said. Only a handful of labs in the country can test for it, but the expensive testing is typically funded by the organization or company that caused the damage.

According to Clift, Michigan is working toward having its own means of testing for such contaminants.