Detroit effort puts priority on ending homelessness

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is launching a first-of-its-kind effort to address chronic homelessness in the wake of a "tent city" encampment on east Jefferson this winter that took months to disband.

James Carey, left, works for the nonprofit that has helped former tent city campers like Kevin Calvin settle in two Midtown complexes. “I appreciate every day. I’m part of society again,” said Calvin, 46.

Tent city residents hunkered down in sub-zero temperatures, lending an urgency to the new initiative that officials say will focus on improving coordination and permanent supportive housing opportunities for the chronically homeless.

Homeless advocates involved in the partnership hope it results in a stronger emphasis on providing housing first and supportive services later, as needed.

At the same time, grant funding is being earmarked for two service agencies to reach out to homeless people in the neighborhoods, not just Detroit's downtown.

"We're hoping that together we'll come up with a plan, metrics and goals that we're all standing behind later this year," said Arthur Jemison, director of the city's Housing and Revitalization Department.

Mayor Mike Duggan tapped Jemison to pull together the working group of aid agencies. The member organizations are slated to deliver findings and recommendations to Duggan in June.

Justin Petrusak works for the Neighborhood Service Organization. Such aid groups say they appreciate the city’s focus on the homeless.

City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, who spearheaded a task force on homelessness in Detroit, said it's critical that the city addresses the issue and works to align with federal recommendations for housing the homeless.

"They (the homeless) are people who have been through tough things; they lost jobs, had struggles. Any of us can be in that situation," Sheffield said.

With help from the Neighborhood Service Organization, a nonprofit human services agency focused on outreach, most former tent city campers have settled in at two apartment complexes in Midtown.

Kevin Calvin is one of those campers. He says he's spent every morning for the last two months in tears, still marveling at having a place to call his own after spending years on the streets.

"To actually have your own (home) again, it's like fresh air. I still wake up and cry," said Calvin, 46, who said being in the "wrong situation" led him to homelessness and years of panhandling to get by. "I appreciate every day. I'm part of society again."

Groups that provide services to the homeless in Detroit say they appreciate the city's renewed emphasis on the issue.

"We haven't had that political will in the past, so it's very exciting now to see the City Council and the mayor himself talking about homelessness," said Tasha Gray, executive director for The Homeless Action Network of Detroit. "(Duggan's) very interested in the issue. That's not something that we've seen in the past."

HAND manages about $26 million in annual state and federal funding applications for homeless programming among 28 Detroit-based agencies.

Gray said there's been more emphasis on permanent housing in recent years. In the 2014 fiscal year, just over half — or $14.3 million — was invested in permanent supportive housing efforts.

The plan will be to focus even more dollars toward that effort.

Officials hope the strategies will help build on successes in recent years. Since 2012, the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park has declined by 20 percent.

"We want to maintain that progress and try to increase it," Gray said.

In 2014, there were 3,300 people experiencing chronic homelessness and 2,223 people were assisted by permanent supportive housing, according to a community database managed by HAND.

Of those helped, 92 percent were retained or exited to other permanent housing, HAND said.

Chronic homelessness is regarded as people who are experiencing either repeated episodes of homelessness or continuous, long-term homelessness of five years or more, and typically with more barriers.

Gray said the tent city on Jefferson shed new light on coordination challenges among agencies and the fact that many of the city's homeless want a permanent solution, not to spend time in a shelter.

"We have to have different housing options available to people if we are truly going to get them off the streets," she added.

Justin Petrusak, a program manager for NSO's homeless recovery services, works with the team that coordinated the placement for the tent city inhabitants.

Apartment resident Brittney Schuholz, 26, talks with NSO case manager James Carey. The tent city shed new light on aid challenges in Detroit.

The work group commissioned by Duggan's team will help determine strengths and weaknesses in the practices of the city's aid groups, he said.

"The mayor brought experts in the field together because he's looking for evidence-based strategies and practices. He's not looking for a magic wand," Petrusak said. "That's what the report is going to include: strategies that work."

The tent city encampment served as a pilot of sorts for the "housing first" approach, he said.

Petrusak noted that for the first time, grant funding will be allocated for citywide street outreach. The Road Home, a three-person NSO team, and others with Cass Community Social Services, are expected to carry it out.

Historically, street outreach has been primarily confined to the greater downtown.

"We need to go out into the neighborhoods because people are living in houses not meant for human habitation, and they are doing so at a rate that we have no concept of right now," Petrusak said.

Rodney Ransome, 46, is a tent city dweller still working with NSO to overcome barriers in obtaining housing. In the meantime, he's staying in an apartment with another individual who lived in the encampment.

Ransome, who formerly abused drugs, said he'd been panhandling on the streets for more than a decade. He said living at the tent city actually helped him in the long run.

"I'm glad I ended up there, because it was a means to an end," he said.