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HUD grants $73 million to combat homelessness in Michigan

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — This year, Michigan-based organizations that help the homeless will get $73 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants.

Nearly $25 million will go to Detroit organizations, HUD announced Thursday morning.

The funds are part of $2.2 billion the federal agency is giving to homeless assistance programs in America.

Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, described the $1.23 million, two-year grant from the Bezos family as an opportunity to identify what works. HAND will use the funds to test and research novel approaches to ending homelessness, and to make new hires, she said.

HUD's Midwest regional administrator, Joseph Galvan, joined Detroit city hall's Arthur Jemison and Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, on Thursday to announce the Michigan grants.

"We have confidence you're going to work to end homelessness," Galvan said to a room full of people representing homeless care organizations as the grants were announced. "You have made a sacred commitment to end homelessness as we know it. We believe any homeless person in America is one too many."

That $73 million will go to 274 organizations on what HUD calls the Continuum of Care. The continuum is a "broad array of interventions designed to assist individuals and families experiencing homelessness," according to a statement from HUD.

The Homeless Action Network of Detroit, or HAND, was created in 1996, Gray said, as the lead agency for Detroit's continuum of care. 

"We were formed specifically for this role," Gray said of HAND. "In 1995, HUD made a decision where they wanted more local input on who should be receiving funding for around homeless programs. I think there was a recognition by the federal government that (it is) far removed from the communities. And yes, it can fund a lot of different programs. But if it doesn't know what local communities need, it's just throwing money at a cause that may or may not be impactful."

HUD identifies in each community a lead organization that can apply for homelessness funding. It applies on behalf of the groups seeking grants. HAND is that organization for Detroit. It administers no direct care or shelter, Gray said. 

"There was a point where every agency was kind of doing their own thing," Gray said. "No one was looking at it collectively to say, hey, collectively, what do we need? And what can you as an agency and your expertise kind of bring to the table?"

Among the groups and projects HUD will fund with $24,313,241 in Detroit:

 --$5.7 million for Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Service

--$1.3 million for the Neighborhood Service Organization

--$249,000 to Mariners Inn for permanent housing 

--$390,000 for the Homeless Management Information System, which stores data on the city's homeless population and shelter resources.

Beyond Detroit, others receiving funds include Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Westland ($4.65 million), St. Clair Shores and Warren ($1.47 million), Pontiac and Royal Oak ($6 million), Grand Rapids ($6.5 million), and Washtenaw County ($5.8 million).

Midway through the event, Dennis Davis, 54, spoke up, challenging the semi-celebratory occasion, which ended with a group photo starring an oversized check.

Mariners Inn, a 24-hour residential, substance abuse treatment facility, will receive $249,000 as part of $73 million in federal grants to fight homelessness in Michigan.

Davis has used a wheelchair for years after he was shot, he said. He's been homeless for at least the last five years. 

"What are you doing to solidify my chances of becoming a homeowner?" Davis asked. 

After the press conference, a woman from one of the homeless care groups took down his information and promised to follow up.

"They all say they'll call," Davis said. "And they never do. That big check is nice, but I won't see none of that money." 

Davis arrived at the meeting with Kevin Pelto, 65, a cowboy hat-wearing chef-turned-pastor who is founder of a street outreach church called Jesus Loves Detroit, which "feeds one soul at a time," and had fed 3,700 of them as of Thursday morning.

"There's a lot of mental health issues among people on the street," Pelto said. "People need a cheerleader and a mentor they need a relationship.  Without that, it's just coldness and shuffling paper. We've been kicked out almost every agency in Detroit."

According to HUD's 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, homelessness is down one-third in Michigan since 2010.

Roughly 8.6 out of every 10,000 people in Michigan were found to be homeless during a point-in-time count that year, or 8,575 people. Of those, 92% had shelter of some sort, but not the stability of knowing where they would next lay their head.

The 2018 annual report of Michigan's Campaign to End Homelessness found that 65,104 people had experienced homelessness at some point that year. More than a quarter of them lived in Metro Detroit.

But that number is likely an overcount, the report says, as duplication is possible if a person was counted as being homeless in more than one of Michigan's 10 regions. 

The homeless are not only physically vulnerable in Detroit, exposed to the elements in a city where five months a year have an average temperature below 40 degrees, but they suffer physical disabilities at a greater rate than the general population, 44% vs 14%, according to a 2016 survey of the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, 67% have a mental disability and 28% have a substance use disorder. 

Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, who is also president pro tem, convened a task force on homelessness in 2015, which is still active. During that time Detroit has shifted toward a "housing-first" model, she said. 

"We want to spend our time putting individuals in housing first," Sheffield said. "And then after that, we can address other issues, such as substance abuse and mental health. So the city has really flipped from transitional housing to permanent solutions."

In 2018, 10,744 people experienced homelessness in Detroit at some point in the year, according to HAND's State of Homelessness Annual Report. That's down from 14,117 in 2016, and, Gray added, 20,000-plus in 2009.

"We have come a long way," Gray said. 

Sheffield said there's still headway to make. One change that would help decrease numbers further is to end the state law that caps stays in homeless shelters at 90 days. Another: Work with the Detroit Land Bank to allow homeless people to help rehab houses and then live in those homes.

"We would like to partner with the Detroit Land Bank to find ways in which homeless individuals can rehab or companies create some type of program to provide housing for homeless individuals where they are essentially put to work, and then transitioned into living in those homes," Sheffield said.

With big check in hand, winter boots on, and winter coat fully fastened, Gray was set to leave the Northeast Guidance Center on Conner, which hosted the press conference, when Davis approached to tell his story.

She listened intently and took down his information. He said he was hungry and she referred him to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, up the street on Conner. 

"That ain't nothing," Davis said with a wave of the hand, expressing displeasure over the soup kitchen's menu offerings.

Afterward, she praised Davis for his willingness to speak up.

"I was glad that Mr. Davis was there to really put the issue in front of us. Sometimes, you get behind this desk or behind these job titles and you can forget who you're working for," Gray said. "He was really a reminder that this is why we're doing this, to help real people."


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