According to a new report by the Lansing-based Michigan League for Public Policy, almost 16,000 children younger than 4 are homeless around the state, with three rural communities in Northern Michigan suffering the highest rates of child homelessness.
Alicia Guevara Warren, the project director for MLPP’s Kids Count study, said that child homelessness could pose not only an immediate problem for those suffering, but an even bigger one down the road.
“Crucial brain development takes place between birth and age four, and kids who experience the trauma of homelessness face obstacles to their own physical and emotional growth,” Guevara Warren said in a statement. “These kids are so little, and we should be doing everything we can to help them and their families to thrive.”
The group used the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of homelessness in its research, which includes “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” By that standard, the MLPP report finds that the number of homeless children in Michigan is more than 2.5 times the number reported by the state.
Bob Wheaton and Katie Bach, spokespeople for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Michigan State Housing Development Authority, respectively, told the Advance that their agencies have to use a separate federal definition of “homelessness” due to federal standards.
Still, they say the MLPP method of looking at homeless data proves useful.
“The data sharing that the Michigan League references is one good way to help engage and coordinate sectors like education, child care and pediatric health to better understand the scope and impact of homelessness, as well as to have a greater involvement in identifying resources for homeless families and referring them to those resources,” Wheaton wrote in an email.
Rural communities struggling
The MLPP produced a report earlier this year that showed the state ranking in the bottom half in the nation in numerous other child welfare measures.
Their new report found that in Michigan’s rural counties on average 5.7% of children between the ages of 0 and 5 are currently experiencing homelessness, compared to 5.1% in midsize counties and 2.4% in urban counties.
It shows that the three counties with the highest percentages of homeless children in the state are the rural Alger (11.1%), Lake (12%), and Arenac (13.3%) counties.
Sarah Ostyn, who authored the new MLPP report, told the Advance on Tuesday that she hopes lawmakers around the state will take heed of the lack of services available to rural areas of the state.
“We don’t have a great picture of what homelessness in this age group and especially in rural communities looks like,” Ostyn said.
“So having a system that’s looking at data collection, and knowing who is experiencing homelessness in those communities, is important if we’re going to be able to allocate resources and then coordinate services amongst [not only] who is providing services for homelessness, but also services for food, education and job training.”
The report notes a few positive examples of regional and inter-agency collaboration. Ostyn pointed to the Students in Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) in Traverse City, a grant-funded initiative that aims to connect homeless youth with resources that can connect them with school-based and extracurricular resources.
Michigan had the sixth most homeless public school students in the nation during the 2015-16 school year, according to a 2018 University of Michigan report.
Ostyn said it’s important to remember that local initiatives like STEP can often be more immediately impactful than waiting for state lawmakers to take up the charge.
“We can push for statewide policy changes,” Ostyn said. “But there are things we can do in our communities that can really support families and children.”