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Report: MI Child Homelessness Rate Is Higher Than Official State Count

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WKAR File Photo
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A report from the Michigan League For Public Policy and the University of Michigan finds more than 75 percent of homeless children live in Michigan's urban counties, though children living in rural areas are twice as likely to experience homelessness.

A new report finds more than 15,000 children in Michigan are homeless.  A study by the Michigan League for Public Policy and the University of Michigan indicates the number of homeless kids under age four is almost three times higher than what’s reported by Michigan’s shelter system.

 

WKAR’s Kevin Lavery spoke with Sarah Ostyn with the Michigan League for Public Policy.  She says the lower count is based on criteria from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

 

SARAH OSTYN:

That definition captures people who are living in a shelter, transitional living, receiving case management, maybe living in a place that’s not meant to be slept in such as a vehicle or a park.  The Department of Education definition is much broader, and it looks at families who may be doubled up, living with another family, couch surfing; so, bouncing around from place to place or living in a hotel or motel.    

 

KEVIN LAVERY:

Do we know why there’s two different definitions?

 

OSTYN:

There’s historical issues with it.  The HUD definition, I believe, came first.  So, as we’ve learned more about homelessness, we’ve been able to broaden that definition, but it’s not become uniform across agencies yet.     

 

LAVERY:

What’s been the result of using this broader definition in terms of tracking the number of homeless kids in Michigan…especially those from birth to four years old?

 

OSTYN:

From birth to four; it means we just don’t have good data.  This number in this report, the 15,565 (children) is an estimate based on the public school data we have available.  Not all children between birth and four are involved in an agency that collects data regarding your homeless status.  So, we really don’t have a good picture of, and are able to really serve the children who are getting all the impacts of homelessness but don’t meet that more stringent definition.

 

LAVERY:

One interesting thing about this report is that more than 75 percent of these young children in this age group live in urban counties.  However, the report also says kids are about twice as likely to experience homelessness if they live in a rural or mid-sized county.  How does that occur?

 

OSTYN:

That was interesting to me as well.  So, we’ve got urban areas where there’s more concentrated amounts of young children, but only about 2.4 percent (homelessness) is the average in our urban communities.   In our mid-sized communities, we see a little over five percent and in our rural counties, we see 5.7 percent.  So, there are fewer children but the percentage of the total is greater in our mid-sized and rural counties.

 

LAVERY:

So, what’s going on there?  Is that a lack of funding for services?  Is it geographic distance between people and the help they need?  What’s happening in the outlying parts of our state? 

 

OSTYN:

From my professional experience in Head Start, I think there are misconceptions of homelessness in rural communities.  I think when people  think about homelessness, they’re thinking more about people living in shelters in the urban community.  In the rural community, there are fewer supports.  People are more spread out, there may be fewer resources, but there also may be fewer familial connections or just not the capacity to be able to work together to create the housing that’s necessary for those children and families.

 

LAVERY:

This report offers a series of recommendations, and one of those is to end housing discrimination in Michigan.  How is that playing out?

 

OSTYN:

A lot of people are familiar with the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which a lot of people in families and individuals can access in order to support their housing.  But, landlords are not required to accept housing choice vouchers.  So, a landlord who chooses not to accept a voucher is doing what we call source of income discrimination.  This does not allow them to move into areas with better career opportunities, schools that they would like to send their children to and that creates an issue that further perpetuates this homeless issue as well as other things we see down the line for children.

We have some cities in Michigan that have taken a stance against source of income discrimination: Ann Arbor, Lansing, East Lansing, Grand Rapids and Jackson all have things in place to support families and also individuals who are receiving choice vouchers.  So, we can advocate for this at a state level, but we can also advocate for it at our local level as well.

 

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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