By Leslie Ballard
The word homeless often conjures up images of panhandlers begging on city street corners or people huddled under overpasses or sleeping in store doorways. It may also evoke images of the tent cities in San Francisco or Los Angeles recently seen on TV.
People don’t think of homelessness as a rural issue, something that happens in our own small towns and communities in southwest Michigan because it’s not visible, not obvious. Unfortunately, it does. Here in Allegan County.
How many are homeless in Allegan County? It is difficult to get an accurate assessment for a number of reasons. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mandates a Point In Time (PIT) count to document individuals and families experiencing homelessness on a single day during the last 10 days in January each year. This number provides a snapshot for counties to assess how many individuals are sheltered (emergency shelter or transitional housing) and unsheltered (street count).
The PIT count for January 27, 2022 revealed 40 homeless individuals in Allegan County, but Katrina Pelfrey, Local Planning Body Coordinator, asserts “At any given time, there could be more or fewer than this number.” One of the challenges with the 2022 PIT was the limited number of volunteers available to conduct the count as Covid rates spiked in January. Another challenge comes as “some unhoused people want to remain anonymous and not be counted,” note Pelfrey. “Our volunteers are aware that some of the unsheltered people they will encounter prefer not to interact with them or remain anonymous and this can make it challenging to obtain an accurate count.”
The 2020 PIT count showed 69 sheltered or unsheltered homeless people, and that number dropped to 31 in 2021. Pelfrey explained that the emergency funding from the government to individuals and the moratorium on evictions were believed to be responsible for that drop. Now that those programs are ending, she expects the figures to return to the pre-Covid numbers.
Allegan County data for Category 1 (not meant for human habitation such as living in campgrounds or forests in tents, campers, or cars) and Category 2 (precariously housed meaning housing will be lost within 14 days and the individual or family has no resources to find other housing) have dropped from 247 in 2019 to 109 in 2021. Again, that decline was due to the funding and eviction moratorium mentioned previously.
The Allegan County Local Planning Body (LBP) is a coalition of over 20 Allegan County agencies working together to provide access to housing and services for people precariously housed or those experiencing homelessness. Their goal is to ensure that homelessness in Allegan County is rare, brief and one time. These agencies provide housing and housing services, some of which provide wrap around services which include food, clothing, temporary shelter, education, etc.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort,” Pelfrey noted. “We have a great group of agencies, and we are evolving our collaboration.”
They are a committee of the Michigan Balance of State Continuum of Care, which represents 61 of Michigan’s most rural counties to HUD. The Allegan County LBP works with various state agencies and partners who make up a homeless response system.
On Point (formerly known as Allegan County Community Mental Health) manages the Housing Assessment & Resources Agency (HARA) and the Housing Assessment Program (HAP), which provide eligibility screening, housing assessment, information and referral services and case management.
Part of the challenge of rural homelessness is that it is not as visible as in urban areas, so PIT numbers don’t always reflect the extent of the problem. Rural areas also have more limited resources than their urban counterparts. Pelfrey is proud of “How much we can do with limited resources.”
In Allegan County some current challenges to ending homelessness include a lack of affordable housing and the lack of immediate and safe shelter options for Category 1 individuals and families.
According to the April 7, 2021 Rural Monitor, in largely rural areas, of all unsheltered people “39% are families with children, and of individual homeless, 33% are somewhat more likely to be women.”
A 2018 report from the University of Chicago Chapin Institute “found that rural youth homelessness was equal to that in urban areas. However, in rural areas the problem was much more likely to be hidden due to activities like couch surfing (staying overnight with friends). Additionally, rural youth experiencing homelessness faced more challenges in accessing social service, jobs, and education.”
If you know of homeless individuals or families in either Category 1 or 2, please call the HAP line as 269-686-4703 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Next week: A look at the local agencies who play a role in addressing Allegan County’s homelessness problem.