Summer is no vacation for homeless families
In a room set aside for families at Volunteers of America Michigan, toddlers take turns playing on a donated rocking horse. As they chase each other around the room, the New Hope Day Center echoes with the laughter of children.
It’s a joyous sound. But it belies the struggles and desperation their parents are facing as they sit nearby, making phone calls about jobs and housing. At a time when many families are making plans for summer vacation, these families are more concerned with bigger issues: Where are they going to live?
There’s nothing new about family homelessness – roughly half the homeless population in Lansing consists of men, women and children in families – but what is new is an alarming increase as summer months arrive. Volunteers of America Michigan (VOAMI) has seen growing numbers of families in its shelter and Hotel Lodging and Emergency Program (HELP). Thirteen new families, including 20 children, entered the system in the first two weeks of June.
This situation is typical when schools close for summer vacation, said Julie Shaltry, VOAMI Social Services clinical director. During the school year, many families rely on relatives or friends to provide a spare room or couch, a stable place to live. Once summer starts, families who may have worn out their welcomes are left to find housing. When schools close, connections with school social workers and other personnel are lost, too.
According to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, of the 9,316 homeless individuals counted on a single night in Michigan, 3,513 were people in families. As many as 10 times that many face homelessness over the course of a year.
The most common factors in family homelessness are evictions and unpaid utility bills.
Typically, utility assistance for low-income families is available only during colder weather. When utilities are shut off, it results in a “red tag,” marking a home as uninhabitable.
By the time summer arrives, said VOAMI Shelter Manager Magok Riak-Dud, the community often faces “a crisis of red-tags and evictions.”
According to the Out of Reach Report 2017: The High Cost of Housing, distributed by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Fair Market Rent (FMR) for Ingham County is $815. The group calculates the hourly wage needed to rent a two-bedroom home or apartment at $15.67 – an annual income of $32,600. Working at minimum wage of $8.90 per hour, someone would need to work 1.8 jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
In a community like Lansing, where the Census Bureau most recently estimated the poverty rate at just under 30 percent, many families are in a precarious position – one car repair away from homelessness.
Leslie Sosa, VOAMI community service case coordinator, sees many families in her work visiting different agencies and shelters in the community. Often, she said, families became homeless after facing the impossible decision of paying rent or paying bills.
“A lot of parents are working; they’re not getting cash assistance or free insurance. They have to pay for it,” Sosa said. “People get behind because they have other stuff to pay.”
Tiarra and her 1-year-old, Carrion, turned to the VOAMI family shelter when she lost her job and was unable to afford rent. She had been staying with family and friends, but wanted a safer environment for her son. Tiarra said she is grateful the VOA family shelter was available.
“It’s a nice comfortable place to sleep,” Tiarra said. However, with a 3-year-old daughter staying with family and another baby on the way, she knows the shelter is not a permanent solution. She will meet with staff to discuss her housing options, and she starts another job in a few days.
Looking for an affordable place to live, however, often becomes its own part-time job.
One single father with three children was staying in the Hotel Emergency Lodging Program – VOAMI’s short-term overflow option when family shelters in the community are full. His search for steady employment got put on hold as he desperately searched for housing. The clock was ticking, because the HELP program typically only can lodge families for three nights.
“I’m trying to see what I can do,” he said.
A few days later, he had found an option for his family. But as a safety net program, HELP is under significant strain with the seasonal influx of family homelessness.
“You can’t turn away a family and kids who are sleeping at a bus stop,” said HELP Case Manager Lucy Stevenson. “That’s why we’re here.”
HELP clients are required to call shelters each morning to see if there is an opening. Stevenson updates the local family shelters with a list of clients waiting for shelter space available.
In addition to its space for 22 single men and 22 veterans, Volunteers of America Michigan typically has shelter capacity for four mothers accompanied by children, and 18 single women. During times of increased demand, the shelter can accommodate as many as six families in the women’s dorm and another family in overflow space.
Other shelters in the Lansing community serve families, but often are full. The City Rescue Mission Women’s and Children’s Shelter takes women and children and Hannah’s House houses expecting mothers and children. E.V.E. (End Violent Encounters) and MSU Safe Place takes victims of domestic violence. Most shelter restrictions do not allow older male children to stay with women, or men and women to stay together. Haven House is the only shelter that keeps families together.
Last year, Volunteers of America Michigan reconfigured its shelter to accommodate more women with children.
In emergency situations, VOAMI also has sheltered families in the room that typically serves as overflow during winter months. At one point, the space has used by one family with five children, 2 of whom were teen boys. Due to HELP program being full and other family shelters not being able to take teenage boys, VOAMI housed the family until another solution arrived.
Volunteers of America’s housing staff have been working diligently to get families housed as quickly as possible. As the agency designated to provide coordinated entry for homeless cases in Ingham County, Volunteers of America provides as a one-stop shop for those in need of housing. Staff helps with first month’s rent and utilities, housing opportunities, connections to other agencies and preventative help with evictions.
Families, however, are more difficult to place into housing than single people.
Staff use an assessment questionnaire, called the VI-SPDAT (The Vulnerability Index - Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool), which tests the vulnerability of an individual and determines what type of resources are needed.
When the score is determined, CEA staff will help them with eviction prevention, rapid rehousing or refer them out to different agencies. Agencies that help in the community are Advent House Ministries, Lansing Housing Commission and Capital Area Community Services.
Working together with community partners, with the support of donors and volunteers, VOAMI is able to persist in its mission of helping our most vulnerable neighbors.
Kelly Morris, community services housing resource specialist, explained it this way: “We’re here to help all the families we can.”