Julie Cassidy: We must build the will to end homelessness in Michigan

January 2, 2020 6:47 am

The most recent Ending Homelessness in Michigan annual report is out, and we cannot ignore the numbers as the state grapples with a housing affordability crisis.

As we work to create an economy that ensures everyone has the safe home that we all need to thrive, we must learn from our successes in reducing homelessness and fight back against malicious, irrational policies threatening our progress.

According to the report, Michigan saw a slight increase in its homeless population in 2018 following several years of decline. In positive news, the percentage of homeless people successfully obtaining and retaining permanent housing is increasing. Homelessness is rising, however, for families with children and unaccompanied minors, and the numbers continue to reflect the impacts of racism and injustice for people with disabilities

Unbelievably, the President Trump administration is proposing to increase red tape for those who receive disability benefits, which are already hard to get and woefully inadequate to meet people’s basic needs in a world that’s not designed for their well-being.

African Americans are only 13% of Michigan’s population but 52% of the state’s homeless population. This is the result of historical and ongoing discrimination in education, employment and housing, as well as blatant theft of Black wealth by government and the private sector.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives are overrepresented and most likely undercounted among the homeless population. A lack of access to safe, stable housing is one of the many manifestations of the social, political and economic harm federal and state policies have inflicted on Native communities. Yet indigenous people are often rendered invisible in the data and left out of conversations about how to address homelessness.

The upward trend in homelessness among older adults continued in 2018. Half of Michiganders experiencing chronic homelessness (lasting at least a year, or four episodes totaling at least 12 months in the last three years) are 55 or older. More than three in four homeless people in this age bracket have an identified disability.

At $649, the average monthly income for a family experiencing homelessness isn’t enough to cover housing and other basic necessities. Supports like vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are crucial to bridging the gap for more than 55,000 Michigan families. Many landlords, however, won’t accept housing vouchers and some also discriminate against families with other non-wage sources of income, such as Social Security.

Some communities require landlords to accept all legal sources of income as payment. The Michigan League for Public Policy is proud to join our partner the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness (MCAH) in calling for a law to protect renters’ civil rights statewide, and we thank state Reps. Robert Wittenberg (D-Huntington Woods) and Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) and state Sen. Mitch Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) for sponsoring legislation to do just that. 

While this legislation is encouraging, more is needed to counteract an incoming tidal wave of policies that threaten to undermine housing stability for even more people and then criminalize them for experiencing homelessness.

Of particular concern in Michigan is legislation requiring able-bodied adults on the Healthy Michigan Plan (Medicaid expansion) to work at least 80 hours per month or lose their health coverage. Through Medicaid expansion and insurance premium assistance, increased coverage under the Affordable Care Act has had a life-changing impact on housing stability and economic security for families all over the country.

This policy took effect on Wednesday and jeopardizes health coverage and the broader security that comes with it for up to 100,000 Michiganders. Following massive coverage losses in Arkansas and several pending lawsuits against the federal government, a number of other states have wisely paused their efforts to implement Medicaid work requirements. Michigan should follow suit.

We know what works in ending homelessness, and there’s more than enough wealth in the United States to ensure that everyone has a safe place to live. The vital resource we’re lacking is the political will to create an economy that reflects the inherent value of all people. You can help us change that by joining MCAH’s Legislative Advocacy Committee and sticking with us in the fight for equitable housing.

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Julie Cassidy
Julie Cassidy

Julie Cassidy is the Michigan League for Public Policy's senior policy analyst. Before that, she spent 14 years working as a legislative analyst for the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency, where she specialized in health, energy and environmental issues.