A few months back, the family routine of 12-year-old Jayla Bluntson was anything but routine.
First, Jayla and her family were evicted from their Grand Rapids apartment. Her parents slept in a car, while Jayla and her six siblings stayed with a nearby relative. That lasted two weeks.
Then Jayla, three of her siblings and her mother, Joy, moved from church to church, staying a week in each in an emergency shelter network operated by a nonprofit Grand Rapids-based organization called Family Promise. Their typical “home” was an empty church conference room with beds, no television and little or no furniture. Three other siblings and her father, Jerry, stayed with a relative in Milwaukee.
That lasted seven weeks.
“I thought that one day that God would bless us and that we would be all right,” Jayla recalled. “It just took a while.”
This family of nine is back together, having secured a modest Grand Rapids duplex in September for $750 a month. Joy Bluntson, 29, works second shift at a factory, earning about $320 a week, while Jerry is looking for work. Joy is grateful for the help the family received through Family Promise.
But she fears they are just one step ahead of another crisis. She drives a 1993 van to work that she bought for $800. It has more than 230,000 miles on the odometer. With no money in the bank, the family can't afford a major repair bill.
“I pray every time I start it,” Joy said. “If the car breaks down, the checks stop. You are one check away from being homeless.”
80,000 homeless children
A national study issued last month, estimated there were nearly 80,000 homeless children like Jayla in Michigan in 2013, an estimated 2.5 million nationwide. The homeless estimate, by Massachusetts-based National Center on Family Homelessness, is 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), and even lower, 37th, in the overall environment for homeless children, based on additional factors such as the overall health of poor children and state policies to deal with homeless families.
Experts concede there is no quick fix for this problem. A 2007 survey by the United States Conference of Mayors concluded that the top three factors that lead to homelessness among children are lack of affordable housing, poverty and domestic violence. Any one of the three might seem intractable social issues on their own.
But Carla DeCandia, executive director of the National Center on Family Homelessness, said that's a poor excuse for inaction: Michigan could do better.
Research shows that homeless children are more likely to struggle in school, drop out of high school and suffer high rates of mental illness. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a 2011 report stating that homelessness may impair brain development in very young children, interfering with learning and cognitive skills. Runaway teens are more likely to be incarcerated, be trapped into sex trafficking and commit suicide.
“We know what to do,” she asserted.
DeCandia noted that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has driven down homelessness among veterans by expanding housing and support services for veterans. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, increases in rental assistance and housing vouchers for homeless veterans are a key reason homelessness among veterans fell by a third from 2010 to 2014.
“The same attention and the same level of resources have not been targeted at homeless families,” DeCandia said.
Statewide coordination needed
One place to start: Better statewide coordination of programs and services for the homeless.
“Those numbers (in Michigan) should be a wake-up call, not just to citizens but to us as legislators,” said Democratic state Rep. Phil Cavanagh of suburban Detroit. “I do believe there should be more focus on this.”
Cavanagh introduced a bill in September to expand the role of the Interagency Council on Homelessness in statewide homeless planning and policy. Its membership would include either the director or a designated representative from seven state departments, up from four. If it fails to move out of the House Oversight Committee, Cavanagh said he is optimistic that GOP Gov. Rick Snyder will issue an executive ordering implementing the measure by the end of the year.
DeCandia applauds the approach. States that have successfully attacked homelessness in children and families typically have robust state councils on homelessness, she said. She singled out Massachusetts, which ranked 3rd on its overall index and second for policy and planning. In Massachusetts, the councils meets monthly, focused on increasing collaboration among state agencies and local programs.
“I know that in Massachusetts the interagency council is very active. They do have an extensive focus on kids and families,” she said.
DeCandia also pointed to Pennsylvania, which approved legislation in October to expand early intervention services to the estimated 6,000 homeless Pennsylvania infants and toddlers up to age 3. It includes children living in shelters and transitional housing, children doubled up with other families in living quarters and other non-traditional housing. Research shows homeless children are at high risk to suffer multiple developmental delays, emotional and behavioral problems, and learning issues when they enter school.
Those children are automatically qualified to be screened for developmental delays to determine their eligibility for early intervention services. If it is determined they have developmental delays, the system pays for assistance that includes family training, speech and language therapy and educational services.
An advocate for the Pennsylvania measure said it will change lives.
“It is absolutely critical for these kids,” said Joe Willard, vice president for policy at the People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit housing and support program for homeless families. “Early intervention can get them back on track.”
In Michigan, Snyder signaled his concern for the issue when he volunteered to help in December 2013 at the City Rescue Mission Women and Children shelter in Lansing, the city’s largest emergency shelter. “There are opportunities for all of us to step up and lend a hand,” Snyder said.
It remains unclear, however, whether Snyder or leaders in the Republican-dominated House and Senate are interested in funding new initiatives on homelessness. State Sen. Judy Emmons, (R-Sheridan), chair of the Senate’s Families, Seniors and Human Services Committee, did not return a call asking for comment. A spokesman for Snyder directed Bridge to the state Department of Human Services.
DHS spokesman Bob Wheaton said Cavanagh's legislation would make homelessness among children “an even higher priority” by bringing three additional state departments to the Interagency Council – the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Corrections and the Veterans Affairs Agency. He added that the council meets with leadership from DHS, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the Michigan Department of Community Health every other month to discusses collaborative solutions to homelessness.
Looking to other states
Advocates for the homeless say there are more concrete steps Michigan should consider expanding or adopting that can make a difference. They include:
Rapid rehousing: The goal is to move families into independent housing within 30 days of becoming homeless. Twenty is better. In many cases, communities find that rental assistance of four to six months, along with case management, helps to stabilize vulnerable families so they can eventually survive on their own.
“The idea is to offer services without any precondition,” said Vera Beech, executive director of Community Rebuilders, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit housing organization that has used this approach since 2007. It is primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“They can come in without any income. They don't have to be sober. They could have criminal records. The core element is that you get them into housing quickly so they don't remain homeless.”
Community Rebuilders’ rapid rehousing program taps a network of some 800 landlords the organization has cultivated over the years to rent to homeless families. It requires flexibility to work with families that may been evicted from a previous residence, have a member with a criminal record or may have mental health issues.
But Beech maintains this approach is more efficient – and in a time of limited resources – more sustainable than trying to build designated housing for homeless families or housing them in shelters. Many Michigan communities employ this approach, as an alternative to depending on homeless shelters. Beech said she believes more could do so.
“There aren't any new dollars coming into the system. It is one of the most cost-effective interventions,” Beech said, because it leads families to independence and makes them less reliant on shelters or other social services.
Increase in affordable housing: According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Michigan ranks 29th in affordable housing in 2014 among U.S. states, with 50th being the least expensive state. The group calculated it would take a full-time hourly wage of $15.08 to afford Michigan’s “fair market rent” for a two-bedroom apartment, which amounted to $784 a month.
With an estimated average hourly wage of $11.62 for a renter in Michigan, a renter would have to work 51 hours a week, 52 weeks a year to afford fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
Standard guidelines for housing affordability say a household should not spend more than 30 percent of its income for housing. But the share of renters in Michigan paying more than that went from about 40 percent in 2001 to 56 percent in 2009.
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.
One possible solution has never been funded.
Signed into law in 2008, the National Housing Trust Fund was designed to build and rehabilitate rental housing that would help close the gap between the rental housing that is available and the housing low-income people can afford. It was to be financed through assessments on new business by federal loan agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But those agencies went into conservatorship before transferring any funds. They are again profitable - but no money has been transferred.
“It is extremely important that it be funded as soon as possible,” said Megan Bolton, research director for NLIHC.
Reach out to runaway or unaccompanied teens: In Grand Rapids, the community's first drop-in center for homeless and runaway teens opened earlier this month. Called HQ, it aims to connect with some of the estimated 2,000 area teens who are homeless and living apart from families at some time in the course of a year. It was developed by an area church in partnership with Arbor Circle, a local social service agency that operates a shelter for children and teens aged 10-17.
The center – one of just a few in Michigan - is not a shelter. Rather, it is designed to help homeless teens feel comfortable, with the hope they will take advantage of existing services to support them. Visitors will be able to shower, store their gear, make a snack and charge up their cell phones. It also has rooms for counseling and computer access.
Thom McGuire, a supervisor at HQ, said it can be “super scary” to be a homeless teen. He should know – he spent two years homeless in Florida from age 15 to age 17. He couch-surfed, slept in abandoned buildings, between a 7-Eleven and a dumpster and lived in a homeless village where he was told he had to sell pot and share the profits for the right to remain there.
“Within 48 hours of a teen being homeless, they are going to be approached for trafficking, be that for labor or drugs or sex. They need a safe place,” he said.
Local housing trusts: Communities like Florida’s Dade County, which includes Miami – and some states – are funding housing trusts to support the needs of homeless individuals and families. Their advantage: They provide a more reliable, stable source of local funding to support services for the homeless.
In 1993, the Dade County Board of Commissioners created the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust to administer proceeds of a 1 percent food and beverage tax dedicated toward housing and services for homeless individuals and families. Its budget is about $40 million a year, with about $12 million from the tax, $20 million through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the remainder from state and private sector contributions.
Recent figures assembled by the state show a steady drop in the number of homeless individuals in Dade County, from 5,160 in 2005 to 3,832 in 2010.
Public-private partnerships: In Washington State, the Washington Families Fund has cut family homelessness by 35 percent from 2006 to 2014, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce. The fund was established in 2004, with the state allocating $17 million since then to the fund. That leveraged $38.5 million in investments from a couple dozen corporate and nonprofit funders, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The fund supports 81 organizations in 21 counties, with a focus on coordinating services between those agencies and organizations including public housing authorities, K-12 schools and mental health agencies. Through job training, and assistance with everything from family budgeting to parenting, it is focused on employment as a critical strategy for ending family homelessness.