Every November is Homeless Awareness Month in Michigan, and this year it was especially important. As the COVID-19 crisis and the presidential election crisis have converged, it’s become clear that home is essential to health—not just for our bodies but also for our democracy.
As Governor Whitmer’s proclamation of Homeless Awareness Month noted, more than 61,000 Michiganders—including nearly 16,000 children—experienced homelessness last year. These numbers would fall dramatically if policymakers really committed to funding homeless services and dismantling the racism and ableism driving homelessness. While Black people are only 14% of Michigan’s population, they are 52% of the state’s homeless population. Michiganders with disabilities are also significantly overrepresented among those without homes.
We also must remember that these numbers reflect the homeless population in 2019—before the coronavirus devastated hundreds of thousands of Michigan families. Without sufficient COVID-19 relief and more long-term solutions to address the state’s critical shortage of affordable housing, the numbers for 2020 and 2021 could be much higher.
COVID-19 and other disasters both contribute to homelessness and magnify health and economic challenges for those who are already without homes. People experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die from coronavirus as those who are housed.
It’s not a coincidence that, like homelessness, COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color and people with disabilities. These disparities are the result of policy choices. Their persistence exposes a flawed democratic process that results in legislative bodies whose decisions don’t accurately reflect the needs of the communities they serve.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen blatant attempts to suppress the vote: a mob tried to sabotage the counting process in Detroit—America’s largest majority-Black city—and absurd lawsuits meant to undermine the election results have been filed in several states.
But our democratic process is routinely undermined in many other ways, too—ways that are more systemic and not so easily defeated with a court ruling. People experiencing homelessness or housing instability face other obstacles to voting, making it less likely that those elected to represent them will actually champion their policy interests—not just affordable housing, but also access to food, healthcare, and other measures that keep all of us safe from public health threats.
For someone who’s got to worry about where their family will sleep at night, voting understandably might not be a top priority. Also, it’s common for people who experience homelessness or eviction to move frequently. They might never be in one place long enough to meet voter residency requirements or keep their voter registration and identification updated. People experiencing homelessness may lack identification altogether. While Michigan law does provide mechanisms to help address some of these barriers, they’re not always successful in practice. Inaccessible voting facilities and unqualified poll workers further suppress the vote among people with disabilities, who are overrepresented among the homeless population.
We can fight COVID-19 and strengthen the democratic process by ensuring that all Michiganders are safely housed, both during the pandemic and beyond.
Michigan wisely used federal funds to create an Eviction Diversion Program (EDP), which supports landlords whose tenants have fallen behind on rent during the COVID-19 crisis. This funding, however, will be available only through the end of the year. With COVID-19 surging again and a federal eviction moratorium also expiring at the end of the year, the need for rent payment assistance will certainly continue.
We need Congress to pass another relief package that includes substantial funding to keep people housed. The legislation currently under consideration includes $25 billion for rent payment assistance nationwide.
It’s also important to keep pushing our state lawmakers to prioritize continued EDP funding with any available federal or state dollars. While there are only a few days left of the Michigan Legislature’s Lame Duck session, negotiations are also continuing between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature on COVID-related relief funding. This includes the governor’s proposal for $50 million for individuals and families adversely impacted by the pandemic to help with housing costs and other essential needs. Earmarking $20 million of these funds for rent payment assistance would help bridge the gap until more federal money comes through. Residents in every part of our state and of all political persuasions have been hit hard by this crisis, and policymakers need to step up and work together to help our state and our people get through these tough times.
We also need to focus on housing stability in the long term. In that spirit, we ask you to join us in the coming year to elevate some critical policy priorities. These include prohibiting landlords from discriminating against renters with non-wage sources of income (like housing vouchers or Social Security) and identifying a sustainable revenue stream for Michigan’s housing trust fund.
Preventing homelessness through measures like these is a win for health and civil rights. Stable housing helps empower the most marginalized people to exercise their right to vote, which in turn promotes the election of policymakers who will make decisions that keep all of us safe and healthy. If we want to see systems change, home is essential.