By EMERSON WIGAND
Capital News Service
LANSING — As winter approaches, local officials worry that a reported drop in homelessness is misleading or temporary based on short-term pandemic relief.
Michigan’s Campaign to End Homelessness recently reported a 19% decrease in those seeking emergency shelter since 2019.
“Those numbers don’t tell you that homelessness is down,” said Cheryl Schuch, the chief executive officer for Family Promise of Grand Rapids. “What they tell you is that the number of people being served by our shelter system is down.”
Family Promise operates the only family shelter in Kent County. There’s been an increase in families facing homelessness here, Schuch said. Collecting data on the issue can be challenging, especially in the case of families.
Despite the reported decrease in homelessness, Family Promise is at capacity, she said.
Full shelters aren’t limited to West Michigan.
“I don’t see that the homeless population is going down,” said Michelle Munn, the case manager at New Hope Center, in Cadillac. “The numbers look good, but it’s only because there’s extra funds right now for COVID.”
New Hope Center is the only shelter provider in Wexford and Missaukee counties. Its shelters are generally full, with vacancies filled quickly by walk-ins or those on a waiting list, Munn said.
While she said she thinks this drop is positive, Munn worries about what will happen when pandemic relief programs end.
COVID impacts were a large part of the statewide decrease, said Eric Hufnagel, the executive director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness.
The biggest help was the eviction moratorium, which ended in August, Hufnagel said. Another factor was the Covid Emergency Rental Assistance funds that are still available.
“That was the No. 1 reason we saw our numbers decline,” Hufnagel said. “We believe that’s slowing down what could be a flood of evictions.”
Imagine a front door and back door, Hufnagel said: The front door is how people come into homelessness, the back door is how people are rehoused.
“Our hope is that we can put a dent in the flow through the front door,” he said. “The challenge we are seeing now is that back door.”
Michigan’s affordable housing stock is the weakest it’s been in decades, Hufnagel said. That means higher prices and rental rates for the housing that is available.
It’s even harder for people to move to new housing because there are fewer options, and existing options cost more.
“The majority of our families can’t afford housing even though they’re working,” Schuch said. “That has really been magnified in West Michigan.”
But others report similar problems elsewhere. In Traverse City there’s a lack of affordable housing, said Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, the director of the Traverse City-based Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness.
Schuch said it’s important to increase access to temporary housing to keep people safe for now.
“We have families staying in cars and other places,” Schuch said. “We have to make sure there’s adequate shelter available.”
The pandemic has decreased shelter space in part due to fewer volunteers to staff facilities, Hufnagel said. Additionally, distancing recommendations have reduced available space in some shelters.
Rising COVID-19 cases adds to these concerns, said Susan Cancro, the executive director of Lansing-based Advent House Ministries. Increasing positive cases could halt new admittances for areas with limited shelters.
“That’s a problem for those on the street who are homeless,” Cancro said. “Especially as the weather becomes more cold and wet, and there’s nowhere to go.”
Traverse City lacked shelter options before the pandemic, said Halladay-Schmandt. There is a seasonal shelter that opens for winter, but only one is year round.
“When that second shelter is not open,” Halladay-Schmandt said. “We typically have around 80 people who are unsheltered.”
Increasing temporary shelters is important, not a long-term solution, said Halladay-Schmandt. Her organization works with building developers to set aside units that they can subsidize for the local homeless population.
“We have the system in place,” Halladay-Schmandt said. “We just don’t have the units.”
Without more affordable housing, those problems will only get worse, Schuch said.
“Only investing in shelter doesn’t make sense. They won’t need our shelter if there’s enough housing.”