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Annual Snapshot of Homeless Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

April 13, 2015

by Joe Mortensen

The “point in time” count of homeless persons taken at the end of every January yields a snapshot of the situation, but it isn’t the whole picture, according to Amanda Johnson, housing resource specialist at Midland Area Homes.

The recent count reported more than 300 individuals either living in shelters such as Midland’s Open Door and Shelterhouse, or doubled up with friends or family, “couch-surfing”, living in an automobile, or facing eviction.

The numbers have declined over the past three or four years, but they aren’t the whole story. They are the “tip of the iceberg,” according to Johnson.

Midland Area Homes serves as the Housing Assistance and Resource Agency (HARA) for Midland County. It’s where individuals and families seek help when they are without shelter or at risk of homelessness.

In Johnson’s five years on the job not a day has gone by without someone seeking her help with housing. In January she processed 94 inquiries and did 24 intakes. In February there were 95 inquiries and 31 intakes.

Those who turn to the HARA often telephone first. A brief intake determines whether help may be available. An appointment with Johnson includes a full assessment, showing proof of income, and whether there’s an eviction pending. “We try our hardest to figure out something,” she says, “to keep people where they are or try to relocate them.”

A typical need which she encounters is people, both single and families, who face eviction for not paying rent, often owing a landlord $2,000 or more.

To resolve a given situation Johnson finds out what resources those in need have used, what’s affordable, and whether it’s better to move or stay put. She asks whether there’s any income tax refund coming that might help. Will the landlord wait? Will the landlord agree to a plan to work out back payment?

A diminishing affordable housing supply means people tend to stay put for lack of alternatives. According to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) fair market rent for the Midland area is $585 per month for a one bedroom unit. With utilities added annual housing costs come to $9,000 a year, well out of reach for many people.

Especially big barriers to finding housing face those who’ve committed a felony, are registered sex-offenders, have bad credit, or can’t meet the minimum income requirement.

Not everyone can be helped. Where there are lots of back bills – especially utilities, not enough community resources, unwilling, uncooperative landlords, or back rent in excess of $5,000, what then? “We keep trying to help,” Johnson says.

Midland Area Homes, located at 825 Bay City Rd, in Midland, telephone (989) 496-9550, is one of more more than 20 non-profit, governmental, and faith-based organizations working through Midland County Continuum of Care to prevent homelessness by providing housing-related services to those who are homeless or living in substandard housing.

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