Traverse City News and Events

What Are The Biggest Misconceptions About Local Homelessness?

By Craig Manning | Feb. 25, 2024

Homelessness is in the spotlight in Traverse City.

Between talks about extending Safe Harbor operations and increased visibility of The Pines – the name given to a homeless encampment off Eleventh Street – Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, director of the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness, says the local community has never been so engaged in the conversation around homelessness.

But while that engagement is helping move the needle for the Coalition’s efforts, Halladay-Schmandt tells The Ticker it’s corresponded with a flare-up of anti-homeless rhetoric.

“The narratives have amplified over the past 2-3 years,” she explains. “Homelessness, in general, is something that's really hidden – especially in rural communities. But we found ourselves in a whirlwind last summer when the Pines got clear cut.  Homelessness quite literally became more visible.”

Since then, Halladay-Schmandt says she’s seen an uptick in fear responses and stereotypes around the local unhoused population, whether in public meetings or online comments sections.

“It's hard for people to understand why people are homeless and why people can't get out of homelessness,” she reasons. “It’s one of those complex issues that people bring their own personal thoughts and feelings into. It’s hard to create a good understanding with people who have never experienced it or haven't known someone who's experienced it.”

In that spirit, The Ticker asked Halladay-Schmandt to debunk what she sees as some of the biggest misconceptions around local homelessness.

Myth 1: Offering more homelessness support services exacerbates the problem, drawing more unhoused individuals to the community from elsewhere.

According to Halladay-Schmandt, there are approximately 260 people experiencing homelessness in the five-county region, which includes Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie, Leelanau, and Kalkaska. 97 percent of those are locals whose last permanent address was in the five-county region.

While expansions and contractions of local homelessness numbers do happen, Halladay-Schmandt says any growth is typically coming from within the community rather than outside of it. In fact, she notes, every month, an average of 22 people from throughout the region “enter homelessness for the first time.”

Myth 2: Homelessness would be solved if every unhoused person would simply “get a job.”

Of the approximately 260 people experiencing homelessness in the region, Halladay-Schmandt says over 45 percent have “at least one source of income,” and around 17 percent are employed. That 45 percent encompasses income streams like social security or disability payments, while the 17 percent covers both full-time and part-time work.

While Halladay-Schmandt says those numbers are bigger than most people would assume, she also stresses that it is “almost impossible to maintain a job while you're experiencing homelessness.” Even the employed share of the local unhoused population skews toward those “who are new to homelessness.”

“The situation, in those cases, is usually: They have employment, they just aren't making enough to rent somewhere or get housing,” Halladay-Schmandt explains. More chronically homeless populations, meanwhile, are “not really able [to work] because of disabling conditions and the length of time they've been on the streets. Employment is probably something that, if it does become reality, will happen after housing, and after they've established some sense of stability in their life.”

Myth 3: Homelessness is rare among kids and teens.

Halladay-Schmandt says there are currently 30 families experiencing homelessness in northern Michigan. But that number only accounts for a strict definition of homelessness – as in, families “staying in an emergency shelter or living on the streets.”

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) takes a broader view, by way the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. That federal law supports enrollment and education of students “who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” A McKinney-Vento count includes not just literal on-the-street homelessness, but also kids living in hotels or motels, sharing housing with friends or family due to economic hardship, or other housing instability.

According to Ginger Smith, executive director of marketing and communications for TCAPS, the district is the regional consortium coordinator for McKinney-Vento and keeps close tabs on student homelessness and housing instability throughout the five counties. Last year, the region hit 937 for its total McKinney-Vento count – 420 of whom were TCAPS students. The current McKinney-Vento count at TCAPS is 298.

TCAPS also serves approximately 1,200 students annually through the Student Support Network, which provides clothing, shoes, school supplies, backpacks, personal hygiene products, and other supports to students facing “obstacles that may create barriers to learning.”

Myth 4: People are homeless because of mental health or substance abuse issues.

Public intoxication or out-in-the-open drug use. Loud, profane outbursts or other episodes of belligerent behavior. Halladay-Schmandt acknowledges that these types of incidents are the main touchpoints many locals have with homelessness.

Such occurrences are also a significant source of law enforcement calls. At a February 12 city commission study session, Traverse City Police Department (TCPD) Chief Matthew Richmond shared that, in 2023, his department responded to 195 calls for service at the Pines, 181 at Safe Harbor, 159 at Traverse Area District Library, 141 involving the 1200 block of South Division, and 97 on Hannah Street. Those calls, many of which involved members of the unhoused population, represented about 5.5 percent of TCPD’s total 14,000-call volume for 2023.

Halladay-Schmandt thinks law enforcement numbers around homelessness often prompt the wrong takeaways. Specifically, she says many people point to mental illness or substance abuse as causes of homelessness when they are more likely to be effects.

“Substance use is a coping mechanism,” Halladay-Schmandt explains. “For any of us, if you’re having a bad day, the likelihood that you're going to try to use a coping mechanism goes up. It's the same for people experiencing homelessness. But the difference is that their lives are really, really horrible while they're on the streets, and so mental health issues get worse – and then often, so does substance abuse.”

There are efforts underway to address these issues. At the February 12 meeting, Jennifer Holm – a police social worker coordinator for TCPD – told commissioners about the Quick Response Team (QRT), a consortium of 20-plus community service providers working “to support the vulnerable individuals in our community.” Since organizing, Holm said the QRT has received 247 referrals, 181 of whom met eligibility requirements – in that they live within the city limits and are “experiencing at least two out of three crises related to mental health, substance use, and/or homelessness.” 88 percent, Holm shared, were “experiencing crises related to homelessness,” and over 50 percent have either engaged in treatment for substance use or mental health, or have been placed into housing.

Those efforts seem to be working: Per Holm, 91 percent of individuals the QRT helped house in 2023 have remained housed, 41 percent that received treatment for mental health or substance abuse have “remained engaged in services,” and “almost 50 percent” of individuals referred to the QRT “have had no repeat calls for law enforcement.”

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