By SAODAT ASANOVA-TAYLOR
Special to the Record-Eagle
LANSING — Improving economic conditions have reduced homelessness overall in the state, but numbers remain high for some regions, including the Northern Lower Peninsula.
A total of 94,033 people were homeless in Michigan sometime in 2011, according to the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. That's down 6 percent from 2010.
That reduction is strong evidence of successful work by programs such as the Michigan Campaign to End Homelessness, said Eric Hufnagel, executive director of the coalition.
This campaign was launched in 2006 to prevent homelessness and support people at risk of becoming homeless. It emphasizes cooperation among 600 partner agencies and provides data that enable those agencies to quickly solve housing problems.
In 2011, overall homelessness declined in six of the eight regions in the state.
Not so in the Northern Lower Peninsula, including Grand Traverse, Emmet, Charlevoix, Alpena and Cheboygan counties.
The reasons vary from county-to-county but economic downturn, unemployment, low wages and foreclosures remain the leading factors, said Hufnagel.
"Policymakers need to understand who the homeless are. It is foolish not to put the money and resources where they are supposed to be because, in the long-run, the system can pay for it," Hufnagel said.
The campaign report said about 52 percent of the homeless are in families and one in three are children, disproving a myth that most people who are homeless are single men.
The average age of homeless children in Michigan is 7 years old.
Jamie Winters, chair of the Charlevoix Emmet Continuum of Care, said the overall number of homeless children is underestimated, so in many cases it remains a hidden issue.
The situation remains dire in Grand Traverse county, said Jo Bullis, executive director of the Women's Resource Center in Traverse City, and unemployment is high, especially among women.
"The economic downturn and loss of jobs certainly increased homelessness compared to four to five years ago," she said.
Her center provides emergency shelter for hundreds of homeless families and victims of domestic violence. In recent years, the shelter was always full and the agency intends to raise funds for additional resources.
Most people referred to the center are women between 50 and 60 years old, who are unemployed, with low income or have exhausted unemployment benefits.
Currently the center operates with state funding, private donations and constant fundraising. It also is supported by local residents. Faith-based organizations provide food and other support to the homeless.
Bullis is concerned that many people will not be able to cover higher utility bills in the upcoming winter season
"Some people can't pay utility rates when they rent and become homeless," she said.
Saodat Asanova-Taylor writes for Michigan State University's Capital News Service.