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Homelessness seems straightforward on the surface: A person cannot afford a place to live, has nowhere livable to stay, so therefore they are homeless.
While, yes, that line of thinking is true to a degree, it doesn’t capture the entire picture.
When most people imagine homelessness, they picture one person standing along a road, or asleep in a park. But housing instability doesn’t just affect single people, it impacts families everywhere.
In the United States, 1.5 million children experienced homelessness during the 2017-18 school year -- and that count only includes those enrolled in public schools. Imagine what that figure would be if infants, toddlers and those not enrolled in school were factored into the equation.
Then throw a pandemic into the mix, which experts say only exacerbated the problem.
Surely, children are not at fault for being homeless, and one can’t just tell a child to “get a job” in order to afford a home. They are children, and the issue is more complicated than that.
“Homeless” and “homelessness” are defined in a number of different ways, depending on the agency or the reason.
In its very simplest definition: People who do not have anywhere livable to stay are considered homeless. This includes people who have unstable housing conditions that frequently change, or are subject to change on short notice.
In a more technical sense, homelessness is defined by the government in several parts, which help determine who is eligible for certain government programs and services based on their specific situation.
According to today’s homelessness expert Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate for Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, the two most utilized definitions come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a piece of legislation called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
HUD, a Cabinet department responsible for public housing, community planning and more, splits the definition of homeless into four categories: literally homeless, imminent risk of homelessness, homeless under other federal statutes and fleeing/attempting to flee domestic violence.
Those categories are broken down even further and are used as criteria to determine if someone is eligible to receive government assistance, and what kind. You can read more about HUD’s specific categories here.
The McKinney-Vento Act, which was passed by Congress in 1987, focuses more on youths. The legislation specifically addresses the education of homeless children, who are unable to access schooling like their peers can due to their living conditions -- an important issue, as many children struggle with homelessness, expert Erb-Downward says.
The act defines homeless children as those who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Children meet this definition if they are living in motels or hotels, cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, shelters and more.
The research associate says that when considering homelessness, “people tend to think about a single man living on the street with a substance use problem or a mental or physical disability.
“We have to address this, but that is not the majority of people who are homeless,” she said. “Many more children are experiencing homelessness than single adult men.”
“People view homelessness as a very distant thing, not as something they know, not as something happening in their community,” Erb-Downward said. “It’s always ‘the person on the street with a drug problem.’ It’s actually the child sitting two desks away from your child in class.”
So just how prevalent is homelessness in our state?
Homelessness in Michigan
Erb-Downward says that one in every 10 Michigan students has experienced homelessness at some point by the time they graduate from high school -- and this statistic only includes students enrolled in school, and those whose housing instability is documented. The numbers are likely higher than that.
In Michigan, for every 100,000 residents, about 86 people are experiencing homelessness. In January 2020, an estimated 8,638 people were experiencing homelessness on any given day, according to data from the Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH).
“Public school data reported to the U.S. Department of Education during the 2017-18 school year shows that an estimated 35,193 public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the year,” a USICH report reads. “Of that total, 611 students were unsheltered, 5,150 were in shelters, 2,394 were in hotels/motels, and 27,038 were doubled up.”
According to Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, the state ranked sixth in the U.S. for having the most homeless students during the 2015-16 school year. Of Michigan’s 540 school districts, 94% “reported students struggling with homelessness and housing instability in their area,” the group says.
And despite popular belief, homelessness does not solely impact those living in urban areas -- though those regions are more densely populated and therefore typically have higher rates of homelessness. The issue stretches across the entire country, even into rural communities.
The map below, from Poverty Solutions, shows the rate of homeless students per Michigan school district during the 2015-16 school year. Darkly-shaded districts reported higher rates of homelessness among students compared to lightly-shaded districts.
As shown in the map above, higher numbers of homeless students were reported in more rural areas of Michigan -- specifically the northern and southwestern regions of the Lower Peninsula, and throughout the Upper Peninsula.
Erb-Downward says homelessness in rural areas has been a growing issue across the country, as reflected in the Michigan map above. The map also highlights the under-identification of homeless students occurring in many urban areas of the state, where resources are stretched too thin. In some cases, it can be easier to identify homeless children in rural areas where populations are less dense and people are more likely to be aware of their neighbors’ circumstances.
Still, Erb-Downward says it’s vital to recognize that homelessness impacts people everywhere.
“For every person who has a child, I can guarantee there is someone in their classroom who has experienced or is experiencing homelessness,” she said.
What causes homelessness?
Erb-Downward says that, “Fundamentally, homelessness is caused by poverty” -- which is exactly what most people would expect. Having few resources surely makes it difficult to buy or rent a space to live.
But homelessness is not simply caused by a lack of desire to work and earn a wage. The reality is that a huge portion of people in the U.S. are living on the edge of homelessness, one paycheck away from not being able to pay their rent or mortgage, according to Erb-Downward.
Experts say that to understand the causes of homelessness, one must look at the causes of poverty. And the factors that lead to a person or a family having few resources are more involved than some may think.
“When examining the cause of poverty, we have to talk about the fact that the job market is unstable,” Erb-Downward said. “Nothing really demonstrates that more than what we’ve seen in the last year and a half.”
The researcher says that low wages are a significant factor in enabling poverty in Michigan. And with wages already low, a global pandemic that forced many businesses to close certainly didn’t help people already struggling with their bills.
But even before the pandemic, there have been a number of factors causing people to lose their jobs -- especially those near the poverty line.
For example, a parent already struggling with the cost of child care may have to pick up their child early because they got sick. But that parent relies on child care so that they can go to work and earn money. That parent may then miss work, and could lose their job.
The same goes for someone who can’t afford a reliable mode of transportation. If their car breaks down on their way to work, they could lose their job for not showing up, or for showing up late.
An unanticipated medical event could also trigger someone to lose their job. Erb-Downward says medical expenses alone could be enough to tip someone into homelessness.
People with more resources would be able to address these issues -- find someone else to watch their child, acquire a reliable vehicle, pay off medical bills -- without the risk of losing their jobs. But for those with already few resources, a seemingly short-term problem can have long-term consequences.
And even for those with a job, many still face difficult circumstances like domestic violence, causing them to flee their homes. Others are struggling with a lack of affordability in the housing market, which became even worse during the pandemic.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the federal government’s investment in housing shrank significantly in the 1970s and 1980s, and was only made worse by the 2008 financial crisis. Millions of homes were foreclosed on then, disrupting the lives of millions of families.
Erb-Downward says homelessness throughout the U.S. has been rising since the 2000s, and the 2008 market crash had a huge impact. Detroit, specifically, saw a lot of foreclosures, and still does to this day. The expert says many Detroiters have even lost their homes to property tax foreclosure due to misevaluated property taxes, but they won’t get their homes back.
And what about those who are already homeless? Why can’t they just “get a job” and improve their situation?
People experiencing housing instability reportedly face a number of barriers that prevent them from finding and applying for employment.
For instance, people who are homeless lack access to technology required to seek and apply for jobs or create a resume. Those experiencing homelessness do not have a permanent address and most likely don’t have access to reliable transportation, a phone number, hygiene products, money for work clothes or uniforms and the like.
And, depending on what HUD criteria a person does or does not meet, they may not be eligible for resources or programs that can help increase access to materials necessary to improve their condition. For those who do qualify for assistance, it is often very specific and can be limiting -- i.e. programs rarely provide flexible cash, which Erb-Downward says is essential.
Erb-Downward says substance abuse also contributes to housing instability for families, though it is not the most common factor.
Unfortunately for those teetering on the brink of homelessness, more worry looms.
Eviction moratorium ends
The federal government put an eviction and foreclosure moratorium in place amid the pandemic to help keep people in their homes, as many lost their jobs and faced the risk of homelessness.
According to a survey published by the U.S. Census Bureau in June, 4.2 million Americans said they were likely or somewhat likely to be evicted or foreclosed upon in the next two months. And millions more were behind on rent payments at the end of March, according to HUD.
So what can be done to prevent a wave of homelessness from hitting America’s most vulnerable?
Erb-Downward says the rollout of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) is already poised to help offset some of the damage caused by the ending of the moratoriums, but it depends how those funds are rolled out.
How child tax credit can fight homelessness
Earlier this month, expanded child tax credit payments were disbursed to millions of American families as part of federal COVID relief funding.
Erb-Downward says the new monthly payments, which will average out to about $423 per family, will not only help struggling families, but could have a huge impact on housing instability. She says that if the credit was made permanent in the U.S., it would dramatically reduce homelessness and could reduce child poverty by 40-45%.
“Making the expanded child tax credit permanent would level the playing field,” she said. “It would put people who are extremely low-income on the same continuum of support as people who have much higher incomes, and recognizes that it’s just really expensive to have kids.”
The expanded credit amounts to monthly payments of $300 for each child 5 years old and younger, and $250 for each child between the ages of 5 and 17. The child tax credit payments are only scheduled to last one year, but Biden is pushing to extend them through 2025, at least. Other lawmakers have also pushed to make the payments permanent.
Our expert says that children are most likely to experience homelessness when they are less than one year old. She says child care is the most expensive at that age, and the most unrealistic for those with few resources.
Erb-Downward says governments should prioritize affordable child care if they want to address poverty and homelessness in their communities. Several government programs and services already exist, but she says they should be more localized.
A collective effort for change
Expert Erb-Downward believes that state and local governments have an opportunity to truly help their communities thanks to an unprecedented amount of COVID relief funds provided by the federal government.
States are establishing new budgets and plans with the one-time rescue funds in mind.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has focused significantly on ramping up spending for child care, K-12 education and early childhood education. Some states are using funds in other ways, Erb-Downward says, like working with landlords and tenants to help pay back rent lost amid the pandemic.
If states assess and work to meet the specific needs of their residents, experts say it could have a significant impact on the fallout from the pandemic.
Erb-Downward says that if states can roll out ARP assistance quickly enough, they may be able to prevent large-scale evictions. However, with the national eviction and foreclosure moratoriums supposed to end this month, the deadline is daunting -- she believes that many people will be at risk of losing their homes since those programs aren’t fully operational yet.
In metro areas, like Detroit, Erb-Downward says that the focus needs to be on providing housing that is affordable.
“What’s called ‘affordable housing’ is often based on the median income of the area, which, in Detroit, might include the suburbs of Detroit, which is actually driving up the costs,” Erb-Downward said.
“There is a misperception in Detroit, and in many places, that there is housing -- but if that’s actually the case, why is it that 16% of families have been evicted and forced to leave their homes? And why has rent gone up?” she added. “Detroit has a shortage of livable housing units.”
And Erb-Downward says many cities across the country are experiencing the same issue.
While cities like Detroit face limited housing options and aging infrastructure, organizations have stepped in to help provide shelter and resources to the most vulnerable populations.
Nonprofit organizations like the Coalition on Temporary Shelters and Cass Community Social Services are working with families and individuals in Detroit to provide shelter and support to help them become self-sufficient. And they’re only two of many organizations across the state working to help people in poverty to regain independence.
But, for those who aren’t a fan of government programs and intervention, Erb-Downward says individual communities can step in to help one another, instead. She says that communities can establish their own “hubs” to help determine what resources people and families need to help them exit homelessness.
“It doesn’t help any community to have lots of families with kids living in unstable situations,” Erb-Downward said. “Having children and families thrive is in everyone’s best interest.”
According to the expert, it’s necessary to assess each individual’s situation to determine what they need to help them find solid footing. For some communities, it may make sense for schools to step in and offer certain programs for children. In others, it may make more sense to hold clothing drives, or to prioritize networking and facilitating job interviews.
Erb-Downward says that the first hurdle everyone must overcome is recognizing that homelessness is, indeed, present in their community.
“I don’t care where you are in Michigan, people are experiencing homelessness. Children are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “Homelessness happens everywhere and is impacted by national and state policy, but it is a very local issue.”
For those of you interested in donating resources or time to Detroit-area organizations helping people experiencing poverty or homelessness, click here to browse through a list of more than 200 nonprofits and their needs.