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Annual Detroit count shows ‘progress’ on homelessness

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — For the second year in a row, the city has seen fewer people during the annual count of its homeless population.

The city, in new figures provided to federal housing officials this month and to be publicly released Thursday, identified 2,078 individuals during its January count this year. The figures include 1,858 in city shelters and another 220 who were unsheltered.

That’s down 12 percent from the 2,335 sheltered and unsheltered individuals recorded in January 2016, and it’s a 20 percent reduction overall from 2015-17, said Arthur Jemison, director of the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department.

“It shows progress. But it’s not a panacea, it’s not a silver bullet or an ending of everything,” he said. “We’ve still got significant challenges in this area, and we’re not naive about that.”

Jemison said he attributes the improvements to an effort initiated by the city in 2015 to address chronic homelessness. The effort improved the city’s coordination with aid agencies, shifting focus to permanent housing strategies over shelters.

The stepped-up efforts came in the wake of a “tent city” encampment that was on East Jefferson for months before it disbanded in early 2015.

Separately, the city has embarked on a pilot over the last seven months to enlist an outreach team to identify all homeless individuals downtown. The initial search identified about 70 people. Today, about half have been able to find housing opportunities, said Meghan Takashima, a housing officer for Detroit.

Among them, 49-year-old Wardell Jones who said he had been homeless for about five years after the place he’d been staying at burned down.

Jones moved into an apartment on East Outer Drive near the end of April with help from Southwest Solutions, one of about a dozen aid agencies providing permanent housing services to homeless in Detroit. He’s able to stay in the one-bedroom apartment for at least one year without rent, he said.

“It’s wonderful. I don’t have to sleep outside. I don’t have to keep waking up wondering if someone is going to knock me in the head and take something I don’t have,” he said.

Until recently, Jones received food and clothing from a downtown church where he slept outside on the front steps. He also slept in parks, restaurant doorways and on the sidewalk.

“I was so exhausted. I just fell asleep,” recalled Jones, adding the assistance he’s received is “a blessing.”

Not all of the new data is good news, Takashima said.

Unlike the overall count numbers, the number of unsheltered individuals has gone up. The total during the 2017 count was up to 220 from 193 recorded in 2016. To address that, she said, outreach teams are working to reach out to more people.

Until last year, the “point in time” count, facilitated by the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, or HAND, had been done every other year. But Mayor Mike Duggan mandated it take place annually.

Tasha Gray, executive director of HAND, said in past years, the count and figures remained steady, which was “perplexing” to the organization as additional federal dollars for housing came in.

The network manages $25 million in annual state and federal funding applications for homeless programming among Detroit-based agencies.

HAND began tracking new permanent housing units in 2005. A total of 1,046 have been created since. About half were developed in the 2014 fiscal year and thereafter, Gray said, as numbers have improved.

“We are going to continue to move in that direction and see what other strategic changes we can make to bring that number down,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”