Community groups, state, fight homelessness

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan had more homeless people in 2009 than a year before but communities are making strides in helping them find a place to live, experts say.
The state’s more than 100,000 homeless people last year represented a 10.8 percent jump from 2008, according to the Michigan Campaign to End Homelessness.
The primary reasons were unemployment and poverty.
Southwest Michigan had 12,309 homeless people in 2009, and its 24.8 percent increase was the highest in the state. The number in Southeast Michigan increased by 1.1 percent, but with 35,109 homeless people, the area still had the most.
Programs across the state are working on the problems, including shelters in Holland and Royal Oak.
“It’s not really surprising when you consider what has happened with the economy here in Michigan,” said Karen Holcomb-Merill, the state fiscal project director at Michigan League for Human Services.
She said many residents lost jobs and their homes were foreclosed because of the distressed economy.
Barb Ritter, the project manager at Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, said that despite increased joblessness and poverty, the state’s homeless rate rose about 7 percent less than the national average in the past two years.
“We are holding the line as best as we can,” she said.
Both Ritter and Holcomb-Merill said the Campaign to End Homelessness has helped many residents.
Sally Harrison, director of the Office of Rental Development and Homeless Initiatives at the state Housing Development Authority, said the campaign is a collaborative effort among major state agencies, such as departments of Human Services, Community Health and Corrections, and local groups.
Their goal is to end homelessness in 10 years.
“We want to ensure that every person in Michigan has a safe, stable and affordable place to live,” Harrison said.
She said Michigan was the first state to develop a 10-year plan for ending homelessness.
Launched in 2006, the campaign has developed strategies to get resources to people in need and has helped more than 10,000 households.
Harrison said the homeless population includes military veterans, single mothers, people with disabilities and families living in their cars.
More than half are adults and children in families, most of which are headed by single mothers, statistics show.
That’s the case with the South Oakland Shelter in Royal Oak, which served 213 clients in 2009, of whom 113 were women and children, according to Austin Kralisz, a community relations officer at the shelter.
But more two-parent families than single mothers sought assistance from the Holland Rescue Mission last year.
The mission is a Holland-based organization that serves primarily Ottawa and Allegan counties.
Janet Ewing, director of its Family Hope Ministry, said the organization served 997 homeless people in 2009, fewer than in previous years.
Single women and two-parent families are a growing proportion of its clients, Ewing said.
Harrison said the campaign helps people to pay for housing by themselves.
For example, she said, homeless people may be eligible for apartments at a rent of less than 3 percent of their income. Meanwhile, they get other services that help them get back on their own feet.
“In 2009, 81 percent of the people we assisted are still housed after six months, which is pretty good,” Harrison said.
Local organizations also help homeless people gain skills.
For example, the South Oakland Shelter has programs to encourage self-sufficiency, such as job placement, budget management and computer training.
Ewing said the Holland Rescue Mission offers vocational tracks to help people get certificates and develop a career.
Harrison said she’s pleased with what the campaign has achieved but worries that a lack of resources may slow the progress.
“In a poor economy where jobs are rarely available, people need longer assistance and resources aren’t enough to go around to help everybody who needs help,” she said. “That is probably one of the greatest challenges.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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