The most recent annual report of the Michigan Campaign to End Homelessness is out and there’s a lot to celebrate: homelessness in the state decreased for the third year in a row, falling by 9% from 2015 to 2017. Michigan saw reductions in homelessness among veterans, unaccompanied children, people age 18-24 and single adults 25 and older. Additionally, organizations serving homeless people in our state are getting them into housing more quickly.
We should be mindful, however, that these successes don’t overshadow the fact that more than 63,000 Michiganders experienced homelessness in 2017 and despite the overall decline, homelessness among seniors and children in families has grown, and health and racial disparities persist among the homeless population.
There are many factors that push people out of stable, healthy living situations including a lack of jobs, low incomes, a shortage of affordable housing, eviction, scarcity of supports for people with disabilities and health challenges, criminal history, violence in the home and racism.
In many communities, people can be charged with crimes for the things they have to do to survive while homeless, such as sleeping in public and panhandling. In addition to the punishment of jail times and fines that a homeless person can’t possibly pay, the stigma of a criminal record can destroy the chances of getting out of homelessness by making it extremely difficult to get a job or rent a place to live.
People with disabilities represent only 15% of Michigan’s population but 44% of the state’s homeless population. Transportation challenges and barriers in school and the workplace lead to higher unemployment rates and lower wages among people with disabilities, while they also face increased costs for healthcare and housing that meets their needs.
A long history of discrimination in education, healthcare, employment, law enforcement and housing has created a wide racial divide in wealth and living conditions. Despite making up only 14% of the state’s population, African Americans are 53% of the homeless population. Through its impacts on health, education and employment, homelessness is a factor in the passage of poverty from one generation to the next. Thus, it perpetuates the racially lopsided distribution of resources and opportunity that leads to homelessness in the first place.
The state’s population is aging. At the same time, the setbacks of the Great Recession have hit seniors particularly hard. The loss of a job, home or retirement savings during that stage of life, when people don’t have the luxury of time to rebuild their nest egg, can drive them into poverty. Seniors’ pensions and Social Security payments may not be enough to cover the rising costs of basic needs. The result is a concerning uptick in homelessness among older adults.
Rising homelessness also is affecting some of the state’s youngest residents. While homelessness has dropped among unaccompanied children, there’s been a troubling increase among children who are together with their families. The state’s shelter system is ill-equipped to accommodate families, especially larger ones, so those with more than a few children are particularly at risk for having to make the traumatic choice between homelessness and family separation.
Ending homelessness in Michigan must be a group effort. You can make a difference in your community by educating yourself about homelessness, supporting local shelters and service providers, and advocating for quality affordable housing. Elected officials can do their part by making it easier for people experiencing homelessness to get state IDs and other vital records necessary to get medical care and apply for supportive services, jobs and housing; maintaining recently enacted legislation to raise the minimum wage and provide paid sick leave to all workers; and committing to state and local policy changes that will make housing more affordable for struggling families.
Our recent successes in reducing homelessness provide a strong foundation for our continuing efforts to break down remaining barriers to safe, healthy homes for all. The falling numbers among most groups show that we know what works. With adequate resources and the collective will, we can ensure that everyone in Michigan has housing that promotes individual health and well-being, academic success, vibrant communities and a strong economy.