By KENZIE TERPSTRA
Capital News Service
LANSING – Although the number of homeless residents in the state has declined over the past 15 years, there were still more than 8,000 people without homes on any given night last year, a new study says.
Michigan’s homeless population decreased 71% between 2007 and 2022, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C.
Lisa Chapman, the director of public policy for the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, said continuum-of-care programs that promote a community wide commitment to ending homelessness, an emphasis on data and targeting groups within the homeless population have contributed to the lower number.
While the data shows a drop in homelessness over that period, the number of homeless residents last year was higher than in 2021, according to the Campaign to End Homelessness’s 2022 annual report.
“The (COVID-19) pandemic was really challenging, and we’re still feeling the effects of it,” Chapman said.
Chapman said there are many common characteristics among the state’s homeless residents.
“The most egregious is the disproportionate representation of people of color, especially Black residents and Indigenous people, ” Chapman said.
According to the Campaign to End Homelessness 2021 annual report, Blacks were three to four times more likely and Indigenous people were twice as likely to experience homelessness than whites.
Other common characteristics include people with disabilities, seniors, veterans, female-headed single-parent families and LGBTQ+ youth.
As winter comes closer, the state’s struggle to provide enough affordable housing is magnifying the issue.
“Michigan has a severe lack of affordable housing,” Chapman said. “It’s really hard to get people rapidly into housing when shelters are at capacity. There’s all kinds of challenging barriers.”
Barriers to housing access include the fact that some residents have no official identification, have poor credit histories and have criminal histories that may deter landlords from renting to them, Chapman said.
To help deal with the below-freezing temperatures of a Michigan winter and the lack of affordable housing, many communities operate warming centers “where people can come in, take a shower, maybe get a meal or other resources they may need,” Chapman said.
Chapman serves on the board of the Macomb County Continuum of Care, which is opening its warming shelter Nov. 1.
While some shelters offer housing only during colder months, many others are open all year.
One year-round shelter is Share the Warmth of Lenawee, an emergency organization providing a safe environment for people experiencing homelessness.
In 2022, 158 people experienced homelessness in Lenawee County on any given night, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Detroit led the state with over 1,600 on a given night last year. Kent County experienced over 1,000, Saginaw County had 313 and the Traverse City area of Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Antrim counties had 164.
Many communities with continuum-of-care programs also have street outreach teams to find residents without homes, especially during the winter, Chapman said.
“People have frozen to death, and we don’t want that to happen, even if they’re reluctant to ask for help,” Chapman said. “There’s health concerns about people being outside during the winter, like freezing and frostbite.”
Michigan’s Campaign to End Homelessness hosted its annual Summit on Ending Homelessness at Shanty Creek Resort in Bellaire on Oct. 23 and 24.
The event featured more than 50 speakers from around the state. Some of the sessions included information on shelters being pet-friendly, advancing equity and developing new local partnerships.
Lynn Hendges, the manager of the Housing and Homeless Services Division at the Department of Health and Human Services, spoke about insights into the state’s homeless population, including use of data to improve services.
Hendges said the department uses a case management system to collect information “to get a better understanding of the needs of our homeless population and to be able to prioritize those in a variety of programs.”
That includes matching the information against Medicaid data to identify those with medical needs, she said.
The data is used to give individuals with health problems priority for permanent housing, providing significant benefits to their health and well-being, Hendges said.