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Detroit leaders credit "housing first" strategy with reducing homelessness

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Detroit’s homeless population is trending downward for the third year in a row—in part, officials say, because of an emphasis on finding people homes.

Detroit’s annual “point in time count” of people living on the street or in shelters tallied up 1,769 people when it was conducted on January 31st of this year. That’s a 15% drop from 2017.

Tasha Gray, Executive Director of the Detroit Homeless Action Network, says that’s the lowest count they’ve seen “in a number of years.”

“We’re excited to see the trends going down,” Gray said. “Veterans homelessness, chronic homelessness, even adults and families…people who are experiencing homelessness, all of the numbers are going down.”

Some homeless advocates and city officials credit a strategic change for much of that decline. Homeless service providers have adopted a “housing first” approach, with an emphasis on placements in permanent supportive housing.

“These are folks who are very vulnerable, but we’re seeing that if we place them in housing, we give them the support that they need, they’re actually remaining in housing,” Gray said.

“With permanent supportive housing, they actually have somewhere where they can stabilize. It’s the hardest thing to do when folks are living on the streets or somewhere in a temporary place, to try and address some of their other barriers.”

Detroit’s actual homeless population is much larger than the point in time survey suggests. Gray pegs it somewhere around 14,000 people. And that doesn't include most people experiencing periods of homelessness due to evictions or other forms of housing instability.

Even so, the need far exceeds the number of designated supportive housing units available, but city officials say more are in the works. Detroit housing director Arthur Jemison says a city plan calls for 300 more permanent supportive units over the next five years.

“We think we can bring these numbers even further down,” Jemison said.

One project already in the pipeline is a renovation of the abandoned St. Rita apartment complex along Detroit’s central Woodward Avenue corridor. Contractors are in the midst of restoring the historic 1910 building into 26 one-bedroom units.

Curtis Smith of Detroit’s Central City Integrated Housing says rents will be income-based, and will have an in-house staff person to “provide services to the individuals that live here.” It’s scheduled to open in the fall.

The "housing first" strategy has not been without controversy in Detroit.

A recent city review, led by Jemison, found no merit to accusationsthat Detroit Continuum of Care and other providers were misappropriating money for homeless services. However,Jemison recommended changing the funding process to avoid possible conflicts of interest, and better coordination among various agencies.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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