By SAODAT ASANOVA-TAYLOR
Capital News Service
LANSING – While improving economic conditions have reduced homelessness overall in the state, the numbers are still rising for some regions, including the Northern Lower Penninsula.
A total of 94,033 people were homeless in Michigan sometime in 2011, according to the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. That is down 6 percent from the previous year.
That reduction is strong evidence of successful work by programs such as the Michigan Campaign to End Homelessness, said Eric Hufnagel, executive director of the coalition.
This campaign was launched in 2006 to prevent homelessness and support people at risk of becoming homeless.
It emphasizes cooperation among 600 partner agencies and provides data that enable those agencies to quickly solve housing problems.
In 2011, overall homelessness declined in six of the eight regions in the state.
The biggest improvements were seen in South Central Michigan with an 18.8 percent decline, West Central Michigan with 11.8 percent and the Upper Penninsula with 10.4 percent.
However, efforts have been less successful in the Northern Lower Penninsula, including such as Grand Traverse, Emmet, Charlevoix, Alpena and Cheboygan counties.
The campaign reported that the number of single homeless persons in the region increased from 2,182 to 3,407 between 2010 and 2011. The number of homeless people in families increased from 4.329 to 4,486.
The number of single homeless persons went slightly higher in the Upper Penninsula from 1,221 to 1,385 between 2010 and 2011 but dropped among families.
The reasons vary from county to county but economic downturn, unemployment, low wages and foreclosures remain the leading factors, said Hufnagel.
Until 2009 non-profit organizations relied on federal government funding to provide public services but those funds are gone, he added.
“There are some state funds, private foundations and other sources available but that is tenuous fare compared to federal funds,” Hufnagel said.
Therefore, resources to reduce homelessness have substantially declined over the years, according to the campaign’s report.
The coalition and other agencies are calling on the federal government to look more closely at the homelessness situation in the country.
Homelessness can be a symptom related to wide range of problems such as a health crisis or child development problems, Hufnagel said.
“Policymakers need to understand who the homeless are. It is foolish not to put the money and resources where they are supposed to be because, in the long-run, the system can pay for it,” he said.
The campaign report said about 52 percent of the homeless are in families and one in three are children, disproving a myth that most people who are homeless are single men.
The average age of homeless children in Michigan is 7 years old.
But Jamie Winters, chair of the Charlevoix Emmet Continuum of Care, said the overall number of homeless children is underestimated, so in many cases it remains a hidden issue.
“We don’t have people on the street. Sometimes they live with family and friends,” she said.
Many media reports in the past suggested that the problem is underreported because many homeless families worried their children would be taken from them for being bad parents or they were afraid their children will have to switch schools if they found shelter in another school district.
According to Winters, in Emmet and Charlevoix counties some children become homeless simply because their home environment is not safe for them to live in.
“It is definitely an issue for us and we have some funding to provide housing, but it’s not enough to meet all the needs,” she said.
Winters added that homelessness in the two counties occurs mostly because of foreclosures or residents unable to find sustainable jobs with good pay.
“In rural communities, most of the jobs are seasonal. Living wages are not sustainable around here and that leads to the poverty,” she said.
Unemployment in Michigan currently stands at 9.4 percent, the fifth-highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The situation remains dire in Grand Traverse county, said Jo Bullis, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center in Traverse City, and unemployment is high, especially among women.
“The economic downturn and loss of jobs certainly increased homelessness compared to four to five years ago,” she said.
Her center provides emergency shelter for hundreds of homeless families and victims of domestic violence. In recent years, the shelter was always full and the agency intends to raise funds for additional resources.
Most people referred to the center are women between 50 and 60 years old, who are unemployed, with low income or have exhausted unemployment benefits.
“We have a lack of affordable housing in our region and it is difficult to move our clients when they are ready to move,” Bullis said.
Currently the center operates with state funding, private donations and constant fundraising. It also is supported by local residents. Faith-based organizations provide food and other support to the homeless.
Bullis is concerned that many people will not be able to cover higher utility bills in the upcoming winter season
“Some people can’t pay utility rates when they rent and become homeless,” she said.
Bob Cain, director of the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency in Alpena, said as the state assistance programs gradually face more and more cuts, it has tremendous impact on the population all over the state.
“There are also additional rules and regulations to qualify for this funding that decrease the affordability of adequate services to the homeless,” Cain said.
“I really hope the legislators will see the need and pursue additional funding to help the homeless and poverty-stricken populations in our state,” he said.
The non-profit Northeast Michigan Community Health Center is part of a state and national network of community action agencies and covers Alcona, Alpena, Arenac, Cheboygan, Crawford, Iosco, Montmorency, Ogemaw, Oscoda, Otsego, and Presque Isle counties
By SAODAT ASANOVA-TAYLOR