Tuesday, May 18, 2021

How the community has come together to address homelessness

March 24, 2021
Downtown East Lansing on Nov. 20, 2020.
Downtown East Lansing on Nov. 20, 2020. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Despite the widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, local, county and statewide initiatives have expanded to address the devastating effects of poverty and homelessness.  

Largely thanks to temporary state and federal eviction moratoriums, homelessness in the Lansing area decreased by 20% from 2019 to 2020, according to the 2020 city of Lansing Annual Report.

But the problem still remains — more than 2,000 people in Ingham County spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing in 2020 alone, about 500 fewer people than 2019, according to the report. 

In January 2020, the Point-In-Time Count, which determines the amount of funding shelters and organizations receive, concluded 381 households experienced homelessness in Ingham county on any given night, a 9% increase from 2019. Additionally, 94% of homeless people resided in an emergency shelter or warming center during the 2020 PIT Count. 

State and local governments mostly rely on federal grants to fund shelters through the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness program. However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development won't provide adequate funding for homeless services if the homeless are under-counted in the census. 

PATH services aid people with serious mental illness, such as people with substance abuse disorders, those who experience homelessness or those at risk of becoming homeless. 

These services include assistance with accessing income support such as SSI/SSDI or veteran benefits, affordable housing, including help with security deposits, first-month rent and utility deposits, assistance with moving and acquiring household supplies, and medical, mental health and educational services. 

Additionally, President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11 a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. While it provides qualifying individuals and their dependents with $1,400, the stimulus package will also provide counties with additional funding, which helps general operating budgets of all communities. 

However, most of the time, the first responder to someone experiencing homelessness is a local police officer. 

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“Whenever we respond to an individual that may be experiencing homelessness —let's say they're sleeping in the stairwell, (or) they're in a parking ramp, most of the time an officer will respond." Deputy Chief of the East Lansing Police Department Steve Gonzalez said. "But on the back end, we are also contacting the PATH project so that they can send a caseworker out to try and help this person.”

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Mental Health Services administers the PATH grant. This grant is a component of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one of eight Public Health Service agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

In addition, the ELPD recently hired two police social workers and four Neighborhood Resource Specialists to help people experiencing homelessness find resources, Gonzalez said. 

Currently, the department has a referral system in place. If a social worker is not available to come to the scene and assist, the officer will refer the individual in need to the social worker for a follow up. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzalez said it can be an obstacle to get people resources in a timely fashion because the staff has been decentralized and dispersed. 

“Fortunately, we’re a 24 hours a day, seven days a week business,” he said. “We were able to try and mitigate against some of those obstacles that we saw early on in the pandemic.” 

According to the 2020 Lansing report, the pandemic has caused massive unemployment. High numbers of low-income households were impacted as they could no longer pay rent. 

To alleviate this, the state used coronavirus relief funds to create the COVID-19 Eviction Diversion and Rental Assistance Program through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. 

This funded local community collaborative processes with the District Court, Legal Services and the Housing Assessment and Resource Agency to help mitigate eviction cases. 

From July to December 2020, they provided $3,308,284 in program funds locally. In Ingham County, this prevented homelessness for 704 households to date. 

Subrecipients of the program including Holy Cross Services, Advent House Ministries and the Capital Area Housing cooperated with Legal Services and two District Courts to reduce homelessness and the spread of COVID-19. 

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said the county works with shelter partners, such as Holy Cross Services, to provide individuals experiencing homelessness with access to their other health clinics. The county has a federally qualified health center on the Holy Cross site as well.

Because of televisits, the pandemic hasn’t holistically affected access to primary care, but Vail said the homeless population usually don’t have access to the internet. 

“We’ve continued to operate clinics and continue to get people into care,” she said. 

Coronavirus infection rates among the homeless have been handled well in collaboration with shelters. 

“We did a lot of work with them to quarantine individuals on the way in,” Vail said. “They worked very closely as well throughout the winter to make sure people were not frequently going out into places where they might be exposed.” 

On March 8, prioritization guidance for COVID-19 vaccinations in Group 1B expanded to include incarcerated and detained individuals, along with workers and residents of homeless shelters. 

Vail said she expects vaccinations in shelters will happen fairly quickly. 

“It’s really a matter of whether they choose to get vaccinated," Vail said. "(We are) really working on that education and using trusted partners to work through that (hesitance).” 

Beginning March 22, high-risk patients ages 16 and older will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. On April 5, the state will expand vaccine eligibility for all residents 16 and older, including students at Michigan State University. 

Three in every five Michigan State students are experiencing essential need insecurity, according to MSU’s School of Social Work. One-third of employed students have lost a job due to the pandemic, and 15% of students at universities are experiencing homelessness. 

Associated Students of Michigan State University Rep. for James Madison College Gavyn Webb said ASMSU has passed legislation that aimed at helping students who, due to COVID, are dealing with difficult circumstances. This included a bill that allocated money to provide gift cards to grocery stores or Visa gift cards to students who were laid off due to the student layoffs that happened earlier this year. 

Webb also wrote a bill that passed, mandating an addition to the Residential and Hospitality Services student contract requiring MSU to give student workers at least a 14-day notice before any layoffs in the future. This would allow students to find a new job or new way of income and prepare for not having a job in the next two weeks. 

Statewide initiatives

State Rep. Julie Brixie of the 69th District, and member of Homelessness and Poverty Caucus, said the rising cost of college education contributes greatly to homelessness among youth in Michigan. The cost of college tuition is rising faster than inflation for a 20-year period, Brixie said.

"It's really a recipe for disaster,” Brixie said.

To combat this, Brixie said there needs to be an overhaul of the tax structure. She advocates for a graduated income tax, where around 85% of Michigan residents could get a tax cut, and the remaining 15% of individuals would get a tax increase.

This would result in a couple billion dollars extra for the general fund budget, which could then be diverted to a number of different things. 

“When I was a student, the states were paying about 80% of the operating costs of the universities," Brixie said. "Today, the state is only funding MSU about 15% to 25%, depending on what you count and how you count the money that is going into MSU from the state's budget. This lack of investment in our higher education system has contributed greatly to the rising costs of college education, which in turn, contributes to the homelessness among college students.” 

Brixie said she doesn’t believe the state legislature has taken a step forward in combating these issues because of Republican control in both the House and Senate. When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed an increase in the gas tax, the legislature wouldn't negotiate it. 

“They wouldn't even raise it a nickel,” she said. “They wouldn't raise it a penny. They wouldn't raise it at all.”

However, Brixie said she finds hope in the latest stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress, allowing the state legislature and local governments to allocate funding and resources to those who need it most. 

“These are the types of programs that really make a big difference in people's lives and can help extend a helping hand to them for a few months, until they get back on their feet,” Brixie said. “If we as a society are able to provide people who are unemployed with unemployment assistance, then that can prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place. If the person is homeless, was unemployed, and we are able to give them unemployment relief, then they can have resources to get back into housing.” 

This article is part of our Stop Asian Hate print issue. Read the full issue here.

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