Why people without shelter are choosing mid-Michigan

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LANSING, MI—Among Lansing’s 112,700 residents, it may seem easy for the 515 individuals without a place to stay for the night to go unnoticed, especially when only 90 miles away in metro Detroit about 1,500 people will go without permanent residence on any given night. But recently, local shelters have noted that people have been traveling from outside of the city, and even out of the state, to find shelter in Lansing.

“There’s oftentimes an idea that Lansing will be able to help because Michigan has better services. I have definitely heard of that, where people were recommended to come here because the state where they were living does not provide the same kind of services that they would get in a state like Michigan,” said Laura Grimwood, senior director of community engagement at The City Rescue Mission. “(They may be) coming from Chicago, or they might be coming from the south. You don’t often get people from places like California. But we have had individuals who actually are living more of a transient lifestyle that kind of travel all over the country.”

Loaves and Fishes Ministries is another Lansing shelter and offers 13 emergency beds and 17 long-term beds. They focus on transitional housing to help families and individuals get the support needed to keep them out of shelters after they leave Loaves and Fishes. Teri Looney has been the executive director of Loaves and Fishes Ministries for about a year and has already witnessed the long miles people travel to find assistance within the Lansing area.

“I have seen those calls as far away as Texas, Florida. We don’t get a lot from out of state but if it’s a situation where it fits and we have the room, we personally don’t limit the area,” Looney said. “Maybe the family is up here but they can’t live with the family, and they don’t have somewhere to go. Or it could even be a case where they could be trying to leave somebody down there in a [domestic violence] case.”

Concrete data of exactly how many homeless individuals migrate to Michigan is difficult to compile as Census data is tracked by residences and local counting efforts often underestimate the number of homeless individuals in a given area.

Representative Emily Dievendorf represents Michigan’s 77th House District, which encompasses Lansing and its surrounding areas. They are also the Majority Vice Chair of the Economic Development and Small Business Subcommittee on Housing. They expressed that they have also heard of people traveling to Lansing for support.

Representative Dievendorf as pictured in their official House portrait. Courtesy Michigan.gov.

“It happens in part because we don’t recognize homelessness as being a rural problem. We don’t recognize it as being something that can exist near the suburbs. Because we don’t recognize that regardless of where you live, you can become unsheltered, they’re usually the resources for unhoused folks are in the middle of cities and are not available further out,” said Rep. Dievendorf. “I also think the sad fact is that there just is not enough shelter. There’s not enough shelter anywhere. There is not enough room in our shelter in our current emergency shelters. There are not enough beds, there are not enough houses, there are not enough apartments. So I do feel like our transient communities. And not just coming to Lansing, but shifting around the state because there just is no place to live.”

Rep. Dievendorf introduced bill 4919 in July 2023, which establishes a bill of rights for the unhoused of Michigan and is currently waiting to be passed in committee. 

“We’re not only experiencing homelessness, we’re seeing it more than we used to in our daily lives. We’re seeing folks who are unhoused,” said Rep. Dievendorf. “I became very concerned when I saw the reaction to communities noticing the problem that is homelessness and people needing shelter and responding with criminalization. Because criminalization is really the least effective and least compassionate way to address homelessness. So I felt like if we’re going to have this conversation about housing in all areas, we need to set a baseline for what how we treat each other humanely.”

Bill 4919 is not the only thing moving through legislation with the hope of helping the unhoused. Representative Brenda Carter is also trying to move a separate bill, Bill 4818, through legislation, which would prevent credit scores and credit checks from being used against someone in tenant applications.

Rep. Dievendorf discussing Bill 4919 and gun control bills with Michigan State University students following a protest at the State Capitol. Credit Cassidy Howard.

In the recent State of the State address, Governor Gretchen Whitmer also addressed the housing crisis, vowing to address housing shortages by allocating $1.4 million to the creation and repair of 10,000 houses in the state. 

“Let’s work together to build more housing so every Michigander has an affordable place to call home,” Gov. Whitmer said.

Rep. Dievendorf said that what it boils down to is the housing crisis. This crisis is influenced by many factors, including predatory homebuying practices from corporations and equity firms, inheritance issues, and skyrocketing prices.

“Shelter is never just a roof. Shelter is one of our primary ways of getting access to our most basic needs” said Rep. Dievendorf.