Detroit to see if efforts to help homeless paying off

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — New efforts to reduce homelessness are underway in the city and officials hope a Wednesday count to measure the homeless population will help prove they’re working.

The city began working on expanding coordination between Detroit’s aid agencies and providing housing first and supportive services later. The push came in the wake of a “tent city” encampment on East Jefferson last winter that took months to disband. The campers hunkered down in subzero temperatures, prompting Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration to pull together a working group with city aid agencies.

The city and member organizations carved out a set of recommendations. Among them, plans to curb homelessness for the city’s unsheltered and veteran populations, and reduce the number of families living in shelters.

“We have to be as rigorous about streetlights as we are about the way we are responding to homeless individuals and families because they are all part of the Detroit that we are trying to lift up,” said Arthur Jemison, director of the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department, who organized the work group. “It’s about every single Detroiter in every stratum.”

The ambitious goals were drafted in advance of Wednesday’s Point in Time count, which is typically conducted every other year during one night in January to get a snapshot of the city’s homeless population.

Until this year, an assessment had been done every other year. But Duggan has mandated it take place annually to get a better handle on progress, Jemison said.

In 2015, the count identified 2,748 homeless individuals. The figures take into account 151 unsheltered individuals contacted on the street and another 2,579 in city shelters. Detroit has a reduction plan this year that sets a target goal of 2,348 — a reduction of 400 individuals — for the January 2016 count. They will know how close they came to meeting the goal when the full report is completed by spring.

More than 100 social workers, medical students and volunteers will take part in the count, which takes place over the course of several days.

It begins Wednesday night and continues with follow-up surveys at soup kitchens and other drop-in programs in the days afterward.

Unsheltered individuals include those living on the streets, in cars or abandoned buildings. Figures for sheltered individuals are also tallied for the overall count and represent those in federally funded transitional housing programs or residing in shelters.

Last year’s unsheltered count was down from the 282 individuals counted in 2013, says Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, or HAND, which facilitates the count.

“I can’t underscore how crucial it’s been to have the city come to the table,” said Gray, noting the city is chipping in a portion of the $14,000 cost of conducting the survey. “Not only come to the table, but actually leading some of the effort.”

Gray added that setting a goal for the count and holding it more frequently will give organizations a better handle on what progress they are making, or the lack thereof.

“It gives us better guidance on what do we need to do, change and improve upon to best end homelessness,” she said.

In the last year, the city has gained ground in its efforts targeting homelessness.

Separately, City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield spearheaded a task force to tackle homelessness in Detroit. The effort involves one of the first known partnerships between the legislative body, mayor’s office and area service agencies. Sheffield is among those participating in this year’s homeless count and the task force is sponsoring an open house from 3-8 p.m. Wednesday for the homeless at the Coleman Young Recreation Center.

In addition, Duggan signed on to the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama. The move has helped the city to improve information sharing and led to the creation of a master list that identifies the city’s homeless veterans.

Earlier last year, the city didn’t have a handle on how many homeless veterans were in the city, said Meghan Takashima, executive manager for public-private partnerships in the city’s housing office.

“We just didn’t know what to track and we weren’t tracking anything for homeless veterans,” she said.

The city has also been working with providers to move the veterans out of the transitional spaces within 70 days. Takashima said there are currently about 250 veterans in Detroit who are homeless.

Two other strategies — an effort to get unsheltered individuals off the streets and families out of shelters — are still a work-in-progress and will be ramped up this year, Gray said.

“It’s not enough to care about something and allocate money to it. It’s got to be measurable,” Jemison said. “Otherwise, you keep investing in things that may or may not work.”