Government and Health Care

Homelessness still an issue statewide despite improvements

Nearly 100,000 people in the state were classified as homeless in 2014.

October 23, 2015
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LANSING — The coming winter and dropping temperatures are a great concern for people without a place to live.

Homelessness has improved across Michigan over the past decades — but not enough, according to the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness.

“There are services available throughout the state. And many communities have seen increases in the types of services that are available, but those are not significant increases that are across the board,” said Eric Hufnagel, the executive director of the coalition.

According to a report by Michigan’s Campaign to End Homelessness, there were 97,642 homeless people in the state in 2014. Of that amount, 13,370 were individuals and the rest were families.

Included among the individuals were 2,167 veterans, 2,748 chronically homeless and 2,664 seniors, according to the report.

Metro Detroit and West Michigan had the most homeless people.

“Detroit is the largest city in Michigan, so just from that standpoint alone, it’s likely that we have a higher population of homelessness,” said Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. “We also have a large population that is below the poverty level. So people who are living in poverty will have the propensity to live homeless.”

Some impoverished cities have low education levels, which is also a reason for a large homeless population.

But an inability to find affordable housing is the biggest cause of homelessness, according to the Coalition Against Homelessness.

“You can have 50 new houses built in a year, but the rental cost is exorbitant. It doesn’t matter how many are built if people can’t afford it,” said Hufnagel. “So the amount of affordable housing is as important as is making sure that people are able to make enough money to pay for rent.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing to be “affordable” if the cost doesn’t exceed 30 percent of household income. However, a single parent with two children in Washtenaw County earning minimum wage would spend 76 percent of his or her total household income to rent a two-bedroom dwelling. In Wayne County, it would be 69 percent, according to Michigan League for Public Policy.

Aside from the affordability issue, wages are another big issue facing the homeless.

“Not everyone has benefited from the economic upturn,” Hufnagel said. “Although employment has increased, we are finding a large number of people who are working, yet aren’t able to earn enough to afford appropriate housing.

“We also have seen wages that have flattened out,” he said. “People are not necessarily making more money than they did in 2008. In many cases, the wages have been reduced.”

According to the Michigan League for Public Policy, a single person needs to earn at least $21,570 per year to meet basic expenses. For a family with two children under 5, each parent should make at least $26,165 annually to afford basic expenses. That covers housing, food, utilities, clothing, child care and transportation.

Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst for the league, said the minimum wage is a problem for homeless people. The league is advocating the minimum wage to be raised from $10 per hour to $11 per hour.

Who qualifies for homeless benefits is also a problem.

“We advocate for a higher minimum wage,” Ruark said. “If people are earning more, then they are less likely to become homeless.

“We also want to see public assistance more available to people that need it — for example, making it easier for people below the poverty line to get cash assistance.”

To get cash assistance, a household income must be half of the poverty threshold, he said. A lot of poor people are not qualified to get cash assistance but also cannot afford their housing.

Michigan is part of a few long-term national initiatives with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to solve homelessness. They include Zero:2016, Citizen National and The Mayor’s Challenge. The Mayor’s Challenge specifically addresses the homeless veteran population.

The coalition’s Hufnagel thinks more resources are needed. He said the real challenge to address the homeless issue is to get enough resources for the entire homeless population.

The network’s Gray agrees the biggest challenge of solving the problem is “to get everyone on the same page.”

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