State, HUD dispute Michigan homeless numbers

Steve Pardo
The Detroit News

Either way it’s measured, the homeless situation in Michigan is troublesome.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said Thursday the state had one of the highest one-year increases in cases in the nation from 2013 to 2014, up 700 from 11,527 to 12,227.

However, state officials say the number is nearly eight times as high, with a total of 92,341 — slightly down from the previous year of 93,619.

Even with the discrepancy, federal and state officials say improvements are being made in significantly reducing the numbers locally and nationwide.

Initiatives involving finding rapid housing options for the homeless are proving successful and efforts to further reduce numbers continue.

HUD reported Thursday Michigan saw a 6.1 percent one-year increase in the number of homeless while nationwide the number dropped by 2.3 percent in 2014. It comes at a time when the state is pulling out of a long-term recession and the jobless rate is inching down.

The state hike, federal officials say in its annual report to Congress, is a reverse of the downward trend in the state over the past seven years.

Michigan’s homeless population fell by 59.3 percent between 2007 and 2013, falling by 16,768 people to 11,527.

During that time, Michigan had the greatest percentage decline in its homeless population as the state’s overall population also fell.

To come up with its numbers, HUD used “point in time” counts measuring the homeless on one night in late January.

Eric Hufnagel, executive director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, said the federal government’s “point in time” one-day counts vastly undercounts the number of homeless.

For 2013, the latest year available, the coalition pegged the number at 92,341 — slightly down from the previous year of 93,619.

His organization uses a statewide database that he said allows for a more consistent collection of data.

“The value of the (point-in-time) count is communities can use it as a measurement from year to year,” Hufnagel said. “It’s more about looking for trends but it’s not good for using the overall estimation of the number of people homeless through the year.”

Nationwide, 578,424 people were homeless, a drop of 2 percent between 2013 and 2014 and 11 percent since 2007.

Most — 69 percent — were in programs for the homeless: emergency shelters, transitional housing programs or safe havens.

The remaining 31 percent were in unsheltered locations. Those are places not meant for habitation — parks, abandoned buildings or sidewalks.

Officials said progress is being made, especially in cities concentrating on “providing housing first.”

HUD Secretary Julian Castro said a focus on housing the homeless and then dealing with other challenges they have ends up saving lives and saving money “because folks are no longer caught in the cycle of shelters and emergency rooms.”

Castro said on a media conference call that the latest nationwide numbers show people should be optimistic on the continuing reduction of the homeless population.

“These statistics represent more than numbers on a page,” he said. “They represent folks getting a fresh start and a chance to build a better future.”

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