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Traverse City — Tina Allen has noticed that social issues like homelessness, poverty and addiction seem to suffer a disconnect from local policy.

Allen, a coordinator of Northwest Michigan Continuum of Care and former planning commissioner, sees the relationship from both sides. Local officials don’t see how their decisions affect homelessness, and social service workers don’t realize that they can educate local government to impact those decisions, she said.

“You have to tell people very specifically what you want from them,” Allen said.

But a checklist that spells it out for all involved is one possible solution.

Allen is among several nonprofit and local officials that joined Networks Northwest in creating a health, safety and welfare guide that aligns local policies with the social issues they impact.

“The purpose of local governments by the law is to protect public health, safety and welfare,” said Networks Northwest Community Development Director Sarah Lucas. “They do have a responsibility to engage in these questions.”

Addiction, homelessness and poverty all fall into that category, she said, but their relationship to local policy isn’t always obvious.

“The links between public policy and social issues aren’t always clear,” Lucas said. “One of the biggest barriers is just understanding what those links are.”

For example, local governments can press developers and nonprofits to create more low-income housing for homeless populations, but zoning laws also may need review, as restrictions on addiction treatment centers can force people to go without treatment or jeopardize their recovery progress, Lucas said.

“We know there’s a huge shortage of affordable housing in northern Michigan, but we don’t hear about the vulnerable families who’ve gone through addiction and are forced into risky situations because they can’t find affordable housing.”

The guide works both ways — it gives local officials a checklist of what they can do to improve policy and best practices for social service agencies working to change them, Lucas said.

Networks Northwest is slated to release it in June as the latest chapter of Framework for Our Future, its regional prosperity plan for northwest Michigan. Lucas is optimistic about its potential to change public policy after a similar chapter in the plan on housing saw success, she said.

The trick will be getting the guide into the hands that need them, she said.

An estimated 1,800 local officials in Networks Northwest’s 10-county region, combined with the job’s high turnover rate, makes tracking changes difficult, she said.

“We have to continually stay in front of these issues to make sure they know what’s available and what resources they can access,” Lucas said.

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