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Michigan’s Homeless Population Grows as Aid Ends and Prices Rise

There are an estimated 1,228 people experiencing homelessness in Oakland County, Mich., and officials worry that numbers will continue to worsen as federal aid programs end and inflation continues to increase costs of living.

(TNS) — The dollars don't match the demand.

During the height of the pandemic, as millions of dollars in federal aid flowed to community organizations, homeless families and individuals received the support they needed and advocates say things improved.

But these programs, including anti-eviction measures, emergency rental assistance and child tax credits, have ended and homelessness is deepening and returning to pre-pandemic levels.

In Oakland County, Mich., advocates say there's been an increase in residents experiencing homelessness and in need of help. Increased economic insecurity due to rising prices for housing, food, fuel and life's basics have not helped.

Leah McCall, executive director of the Alliance for Housing Oakland County, said the influx of federal pandemic dollars helped the organization and its community partners support more people in need of emergency housing who might not otherwise have been assisted.

"We were able to utilize hoteling for additional shelter space with COVID funding as well but as those dollars disappear the additional hotel/shelter space is back to our pre-COVID response that doesn't meet the need of emergency shelter," she said.

As the public has sought a return to normalcy, the early pandemic focus on the needs of people struggling economically has shifted.

"With the end of one-time relief programs associated with the pandemic alongside the pressures of inflation, gaps in our community's basic needs safety net are growing rapidly, including in homeless services," said Ryan Hertz, CEO of Pontiac-based Lighthouse, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter, food and other support for the county's homeless.

During the pandemic, housing advocates said that prioritizing chronically homeless people, those living on the streets, ensured government funds had the greatest impact since those experiencing long-term homelessness spend so much time in shelters. It also costs less to provide permanent housing than to provide temporary shelter.

There has been a slight increase in the number of county residents identified as homeless. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines individuals or families as homeless if they lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and whose primary nighttime residence is not meant for human habitation such as under bridges or in vehicles.

According to data obtained from the Alliance for Housing Oakland County, the county's homeless population was 1,228 in 2021, an increase from the 2020 total of 1,184, but still lower than the 2019 total of 1,249. Around 30 percent of the county's homeless are under the age of 18, while 38 percent are first-time homeless and over 20 percent have been homeless for at least one year.

Finding Those in Need

Oakland County's annual Point In Time count provides a snapshot count of people who are unsheltered and living on the streets on that day. The count, which does not include the county's true homeless population, is conducted on one night in January and is reported directly to HUD by the Alliance for Housing Oakland County.

Russ Russel, chief development officer at Lighthouse, works as a volunteer during the annual count.

He said the count, which is conducted in every Michigan county, is tied to state funding. But he said the funding has never been enough to help all those in need.

"The thing about the homeless in Oakland County is that they are the hidden homeless, mostly families living in their cars for three days or living in the basement for two days of someone they know, and then living in their cars the rest of the week," he said. "It saddens me that after 40 years of working with the homeless that we as a community, region or nation have not solved this problem."

According to HUD data, Oakland's count, which includes those in emergency and transitional housing as well as unsheltered, was 330 in 2022, a decrease from 333 in 2021, 459 in 2020, and 425 in 2019.

In 2021, the Oakland count only included those sheltered due to the pandemic, according to Ashley Burton, grants and community manager for the Alliance for Housing Oakland County.

Increased Need

Ryan Hertz, president and CEO of Lighthouse, said the pandemic's impact on homeless rates has been complex as the organization sees increases in the number of low- to mid-income families with children seeking assistance.

"The pandemic has been particularly challenging for these households, due to lack of accessible childcare, missed work due to illness, the pressures of inflation, and more," he said. "We saw an increase in the number of people seeking all of our basic needs services, including shelter, as many of our community's low- to mid-income households were pushed into poverty, though we were able to temporarily stave off thousands of evictions."

State and local programs for those who were homeless and seeking to find temporary shelter or a place to stay, such as those offered through Lighthouse and Grace Centers of Hope in Pontiac, saw an increase of 15 percent between 2020 and 2021 statewide, according to the 2021 Ending Homelessness in Michigan annual report.

According to the report, COVID-19 has played some role in the increased demand for temporary shelter due to the loss of income or individuals needing to find an alternative housing option besides doubling up.

To help meet the increased need for assistance, Hertz said Lighthouse has temporarily shifted its emergency shelter program to a hotel model and has quadrupled its nightly bed capacity. Still, the organization's beds remained full throughout the pandemic.

Homeless individuals prefer staying in motels over using temporary shelters, but the number of motels participating in the state's emergency housing voucher program is limited. In 2021, the state's 2-1-1 helpline reported that in 98 percent of cases the service was not available at all or was not immediately available for a referral.

Pontiac-based Grace Centers of Hope, one of Michigan's largest faith-based organizations helping the homeless, is seeing an increased need above their pre-pandemic numbers.

The Rev. Kent Clark, CEO of Grace Centers of Hope, said overcoming homelessness is difficult but suggests compassion with a step towards responsibility, accountability, and work ethic is a winning strategy.

"Lets learn to come alongside the hurting and not enable but compassionately help," he added.


Pontiac-based Common Ground, a 24-hour crisis agency helping with emergency housing and counseling services, sees the number of homeless youth in need of assistance returning to pre-pandemic levels.

"We are also starting to see a slight increase in youth we serve where whole families are close to becoming homeless or have recently become homeless which has caused more conflict in the house between the youth and their parents," said Kim Seid, runaway and homeless youth program manager for Common Ground.

As more families reach the brink of homelessness, more children are affected.

"With the average age of a homeless person under 10 it tells you that children are probably the majority of homeless in our area," said Russel. "Most of the homeless are working people and a parent with children, so the image of what people see is not the reality of who the homeless are in Oakland County."

(c)2022 Daily Tribune, Royal Oak, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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