GRAND RAPIDS — A few days before Christmas, a stressed-out Victoria Smith was doing her best to keep it together.
A single mother of four young children, Smith, 22, slipped into homelessness a couple months earlier when she lost her Grand Rapids apartment. Home for the family was now a fourth-floor room in a Grand Rapids shelter, Mel Trotter Ministries.
While at the shelter, her car broke down. Smith had a job in a suburban auto parts plant some seven miles distant – and knew she needed the paycheck if she and her children were ever going to get out of the shelter.
For three weeks, she departed the shelter with her children at 5 a.m. to board a bus, dropped them off at her mother’s, then boarded another bus to her $12.70-an-hour job nearly two hours each way.
Mel Trotter Ministries CEO Dennis VanKampen said there is a “massive need” for homeless family shelter space. (Courtesy photo)
“I’m not a quitter,” Smith said, tears streaming down her face. “I’m going to give everything I have for my children. You can’t just give up when life gets hard.”
Still, it haunts her when her oldest daughter, Keoniah, 5, asks: “Are we going to be here forever?”
In 2006, Michigan officials announced a plan to end homelessness within 10 years, joining states across the country with similar declarations. It was largely aimed at the chronically homeless – mostly single men – and homeless veterans.
By several measures, the effort has made great strides.
Thanks to increased federal funding, today there are far fewer homeless veterans and sharp drops in the number of chronically homeless residents using shelters or other temporary housing.
But by another standard — the number of homeless students in the state — Michigan is nowhere near cracking the code of ending homelessness. Indeed, data show the situation has in many ways grown far worse for children and families.
According to the Michigan Department of Education, there were more than 40,000 homeless children in the state’s public schools in 2015-16, which included about 8,000 in shelters, nearly 28,000 in homes or apartments of friends or relatives, and 2,500 staying in motels.
Those 40,000-plus homeless school children represent nearly triple the number from 2008-09, when 14,875 Michigan students were counted as homeless. (The latest year’s numbers are slightly lower than 2014-15, when 43,884 students were counted as homeless.)
“On a given night in the state, there are thousands of school age children without a permanent place to live,” said Pamela Kies-Lowe, state coordinator for homeless education, a position mandated by a federal measure known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The law requires every public school district in the country to appoint a liaison to seek out homeless children and ensure they are educated, including providing transportation if necessary.
“They are oftentimes doubled up with relatives and friends,” Kies-Lowe said. “That could mean sleeping on a garage floor or unfinished basement. They are without their own beds and own possessions. They may be staying in cheap motels with everyone and all their possessions in one room. We have families who take up living in their car.”
In one case in the Upper Peninsula, she recalled, a student moved in with a friend’s family until they told him he could no longer stay. His friend secretly moved him to the family dog house, supplying straw and blankets and bringing him food at night.
Why It Matters
Homeless children face an array of adverse outcomes in school and beyond
A 2009 report by the National Center for Children in Poverty, a nonpartisan research organization, found that homeless children were “significantly more likely” to be held back in school and less likely to graduate high school than their classmates. One study estimated that a high school dropout costs taxpayers nearly $300,000 over the course of a lifetime in lost earnings, paid taxes and higher social costs in incarceration, health and welfare.
Homeless children in families have higher rates of disruptive behavior disorders, social phobia and depression compared to low-income housed counterparts. Runaway teens are three times more likely than youth who have not run away to suffer depression and post traumatic stress disorder. A 1989 study of 291 runaways teens found that 30 percent reported having attempted suicide.
Runaway youth, because they have few legitimate means to support themselves, are more likely to resort to survival strategies that include selling drugs, shoplifting, burglary or prostitution. They are more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases. The longer they are homeless, the more likely it is they will commit a crime.
In the morning, she said, “He would get on the bus and go to school. Nobody had any idea.”
Other analysis puts the number of Michigan homeless children far higher than the number cited by the state.
In 2014, a national report by the Massachusetts-based National Center on Family Homelessness concluded that Michigan had nearly 80,000 homeless children in 2012-13, an estimate based on data from the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Census Bureau.
Adjusted for population, the center ranked Michigan 31st in the extent of child homelessness, with 50th being the worst. It ranked even lower, 41st, in child well-being, which measures their health problems, with the state receiving a composite ranking of 37th in the overall environment for homeless children.
Research shows the risks these children face go beyond housing; the trauma of homelessness can leave lasting scars.
The American Academy of Pediatrics cites mounting evidence that the “toxic stress” of adverse childhood experiences, including homelessness, can impair brain development in young children and have long-lasting emotional and physical effects. It noted that such stress is linked to changes in brain development in children, adding “the developing architecture of the brain can be impaired in numerous ways that create a weak foundation for later learning, behavior, and health.”
Research also shows that homeless children are more likely to struggle in school, drop out of high school and suffer high rates of mental illness.
Megan Gunnar, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota and an expert on toxic stress, said children will pay a price as long as traumas like homelessness continue.
“The more we overload parents, the more likely it is that they are not going to be able to create the sense of safety and security that kids need,” Gunnar said. “Kids like their own beds and their own things. To be constantly moving from one place to another can have a direct impact on them.”
Kies-Lowe of Michigan’s school homeless assistance program said it is one thing to try and ensure that homeless students are educated. It is quite another to do something about their circumstances out of school.
“We know how to do it. We have the methodology. We have put most of our effort into the chronically homeless and veterans and that has worked well. Now we need to add the supports for families and children. We need the funds to make that happen.”
No End in Sight
The number of homeless students in Michigan has roughly tripled since 2008-09
Source: Michigan Department of Education
Indeed, the feds reported last year that the number of Michigan residents living in shelters dropped 64 percent in the past decade, from 25,736 in 2006 to 9,316 in 2016. The number of homeless veterans also fell dramatically, by 80 percent, from 4,054 in 2006 to 822 in 2016.
But the outlook is grimmer for families and children, where homelessness is tied to a web of factors, including domestic violence, in some cases mental health and substance abuse issues – but especially poverty. Families that live on marginal incomes can be a broken-down car or one paycheck away from losing their home.
And for families thrust into that crisis, Michigan’s safety net is anything but secure. Experts cite the following factors:
Lack of emergency shelter space for families
“It’s a massive need,” said Dennis VanKampen, CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids.
All told, VanKampen said, Grand Rapids has emergency shelter space for 32 homeless families, including 22 at Mel Trotter Ministries.
In September, all 32 were full. That left 161 families on a waiting list.
“It’s always full,” he said. “So many families are turned away. The majority are female households. Not a lot of mental illness, not a lot of addiction. For the majority of them, something happened – it could be the development of cancer, loss of a job.
“Nobody wants to be in that situation. They want to get out of homelessness.”
The situation might be even worse in Wayne County, where there were nearly 8,000 homeless students in 2015-16.
“There is always a waiting list for all of our family shelters,” said Julie Ratekin, who coordinates homeless education for Wayne County’s public schools, which includes Detroit, the nation’s most impoverished big city.
“We know the effect it has on students. It makes it harder for them to do (homework) projects at home. It puts stress on individuals not knowing where they are going to stay at night. At lot of times, the only place they know that is permanent is their desk or locker at school.”
Lack of affordable housing
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington D.C. nonprofit advocacy organization, Michigan ranked 32nd in affordable housing in 2016 among U.S. states, with 50th being the least expensive state.
The group calculated it would take a full-time hourly wage of $15.62 to afford Michigan’s “fair market rent” for a two-bedroom apartment, which amounted to $812 a month. But with an estimated average hourly wage of $12.72 for a renter in Michigan, an average renter would have to work 49 hours a week to make those payments. At Michigan’s minimum wage in 2016 of $8.50 an hour, a worker would have to work 74 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Demand for federally subsidized housing, known as Section 8 – for which residents with very low income pay no more than 30 percent of their income for housing — far exceeds the estimated 24,000 vouchers allocated to Michigan. The NLIHC estimates that Michigan has .a shortage of 230,000 affordable, available housing units for extremely low-income renters.
Lack of resources for unattached homeless children
According to the state’s count of homeless students, the 40,000-plus homeless students in 2015-16 included more than 5,000 “unaccompanied” youth – which means they were on their own.
Two years ago, officials in Grand Rapids opened a daytime drop-in center called HQ for homeless teens and adults up to age 24, one of only three such centers in the state. It was estimated at the time there might be 200 homeless teens on a given night in the metropolitan area.
HQ executive director Shandra Steininger considers that number conservative.
“If anything, I think that number is actually low,” Steininger said. “In the past two years, we’ve met 750 (different) youth.”
That includes substantial numbers of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, she said, as well as young people who may have turned to prostitution to support themselves. Many have dropped out of school.
HQ offers a no-questions-asked policy, while offering supports like showers, laundry services, assistance with basic needs as well as a computer lab for online school courses, homework and resume development. The hope is that with time and trust, many of these youth will reach out to other forms of help.
“Two years after we opened, we keep learning,” she said.
If not a solution, there are other initiatives that can make a difference.
The Michigan Interagency Council on Homelessness
Created in 2015 by executive order by Gov. Rick Snyder, its aim is to better coordinate homeless services among state departments and local agencies.
It brings together representatives of the Michigan departments of Military and Veterans Affairs, Community Health, Corrections, Education, Human Services, Natural Resources, Technology, Management and Budget and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. It also includes a representative from the courts and four members of the public.
Local initiatives to keep homeless children in school
In Lenawee County in southeast Michigan, officials tap a network of volunteer mentor families (see accompanying story) to house homeless high school students until they graduate. More than 60 such students have graduated over the course of a decade.
An alternative to housing families in emergency shelters, the goal is to move families into independent housing within 30 days of becoming homeless.
In Grand Rapids, Community Rebuilders, a nonprofit housing organization, has employed this approach since 2007. It is primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Community Rebuilders taps a network of some 800 landlords the organization has cultivated over the years to rent to homeless families – families that may otherwise be turned away from housing because they have been evicted from a previous residence, have a member with a criminal record or mental health issues. It also offers rental assistance for a few months and case management if needed.
In 2015, the organization housed 818 families, including 887 children. With more funding, said executive director Vera Beech, “We could easily double the number served.”
Homeless mother Victoria Smith said she lost her rent-subsidized apartment because the father of her children occasionally stayed at the apartment – a violation of the lease. Someone reported it, and she got an eviction notice.
Afraid to challenge it in court, she moved out instead.
She’d been saving money since then from her factory wages to secure an apartment, without success. Many landlords wanted proof that she earned two or three times the rent amount each month, a standard that was out of reach for her.
“I’ve been looking but I can’t find anything we can afford.”
About a year-and-a-half ago, Shemeika Walker moved with her four children and mother, Debra Walker, from a violent neighborhood in Chicago to Grand Rapids seeking a better life. Thus began an odyssey that would soon leave them homeless for weeks at a time.
They moved in with a relative in Grand Rapids, a situation that lasted less than two months before they had to leave because of family conflict. They moved to the shelter at Mel Trotter Ministries, then to a cheap motel for about two months.
With help from Family Promise of Grand Rapids, a nonprofit organization that assists homeless families, the family got a voucher for an apartment and moved in. Shortly thereafter, Shemeika – whose children are 22 months, 5, 18 and 19 – and Debra drove to Chicago with the two young children to visit Debra’s mother.
They soon got a call from the older boys: All of their possessions were dumped on the curb, the result of a dispute with the landlord over terms of the lease. People came by, scavenging what they wanted.
“We lost everything, clothes, furniture,” Debra said.
They moved into a motel for a couple weeks, to Mel Trotter for a few days and turned to Family Promise, which put them up for a week at a time in a series of churches that is part of its shelter network. Debra recalled one night when they had no place to stay, went to a cafe until it closed at 2 a.m., contemplated sleeping in a park, then went to a fire station where firefighters let them stay overnight.
About a year ago, they secured their own apartment for $850 a month. It’s a collective effort to pay the rent. Shemeika works full-time as a customer service representative at a grocery store, while her oldest son works 60 hours a week in a manual labor job. The next oldest, in high school, works part-time at a sandwich store.
“I thought we would never land,” Debra said. “It was very scary, especially when you have kids, not knowing where they are going to sleep.”