Ingham County fights to reverse recent increase in homelessness

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Alexis Ayala

Chris Pruett, who calls himself the Happiest Homeless Person, shows off a sketch in an East Lansing Biggby coffee shop on Feb. 12, 2019. He drew his camp protected by his faith in God.

From 2007 to 2017, overall homelessness decreased nationally by 14.4 percent. Nearly 554,000 people were homeless in 2017 in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

While the overall national rate of homelessness leveled off in 2018, Michigan’s rate declined by 7.7 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to figures released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Unfortunately, Ingham County’s Annual Homeless Report shows that an increase in homelessness is a common occurrence each year in this Michigan community. Ingham County, in which about 5,000 people experience homelessness each year, has not seen a decrease since 2014-15.

Last year, there was a 3.4 percent increase in homelessness in Ingham County. The county has over 4,000 listings for programs helping homeless people that include emergency shelters, homeless shelters, day shelters, transitional housing, shared housing, residential drug alcohol rehabilitation programs and permanent affordable housing.  

“I know that there are a lot of programs that are there for homeless, but aren’t taken advantage of here,” East Lansing police Sgt. Tom Blanck said.

Chris Pruett started calling himself the Happiest Homeless Person after becoming chronically homeless in winter 2009, and the name has stuck to him ever since in Lansing’s homeless community. Pruett said he became homeless after his brother and mother died in the span of a few years.

“I think it just boils down to giving up on everything when you don’t really learn what love is,” Pruett said.

Pruett, an active member in the fight to end homelessness, is more concerned about helping others than helping himself. He puts on events for the Lansing community in local parks with help from members of the community and homeless programs. His only requirement is to bring an open mind and to try to leave with an awakened heart.

A new event being orchestrated by the Happiest Homeless Person is the “Happy Kids Saturday Movie Matinee,” which will take place Saturday, April 27, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at The Fledge, 1300 Eureka St.

“My events don’t get much participation, so I’m opening this one up to the whole city and I hope 1,000 kids show up,” Pruett said.

Pruett said he hopes to find sponsors for the event so kids can win prizes and eat good food.

Ivan Keener, a distribution account manager of Lyondell Basell, one of the largest plastics, chemicals and refining companies in the world, said that his company donated $2.3 million nationally last year and $26,839 locally toward programs helping homeless people. Lyondell Basell has administrative offices in 17 countries, but Keener works out of the business in Lansing.

“Last year we did Global Care Day at Volunteers of America,” Keener said. “We had a sock drive and collected 700 pairs of socks, hygiene items, blankets and underwear to pass out during a big luncheon where we served 117 homeless people.”

Programs in Ingham County are also helping homeless people by transitioning them to live on their own.

Rapid Rehousing and Housing Young Families are federally funded programs. Rapid Rehousing is for families and individuals ages 18 to 24. Rapid Rehousing’s partner program, Housing Young Families, is only available for pregnant women and mothers with children.

Other important programs in Lansing aren’t as fortunate when it comes to government funding.

“We’ve always operated off the goodness of churches, private donors and fundraisers,” said Sharon Matthews, house manager of Hannah’s House, another local program for pregnant mothers and children.

Hannah’s House hosted the annual fundraiser “Bowl for Babies” on Feb. 24 at City Limits in East Lansing. All proceeds will go to the shelter.

Keener said that even though low federal funding for the homeless is a problem, there are ways companies can help make up the difference.

“Opportunities aren’t there for the homeless because there isn’t enough corporate funding,” said Keener.

He said one of his fondest memories from Global Care Day was just hanging out and talking with homeless people.

“We were having a good time, and they felt like they were a part of something,” he said.

Matthews said that she noticed a big impact on the individual residents of Hannah’s House since she started working as a house manager in the shelter two years ago. She credits the Christianity focus of the program because she said that it teaches them how to have faith in something.

“Anytime we help the mother and her baby, we’re helping generations to come,” she said.

Note: This story has been edited to reflect an updated location for the planned “Happy Kids Saturday Movie Matinee.”

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