ESCANABA - Homelessness continues to be a problem across the state of Michigan; just last year more than 94,000 Michigan residents were homeless. In Delta County homelessness has also been a major issue.
The Salvation Army is the first point of contact for those with a housing crisis locally, according to Nisha Coolman, homeless advocate with the Salvation Army in Escanaba. Salvation Army numbers indicate from January to October 2012, there were 385 unduplicated homeless people in need of shelter in Delta County. Of this number, 108 homeless were children. However, Coolman said the Salvation Army estimates the 385 people accounts for only 40 percent of the population in Delta County, and there are likely many more whose homeless status is unknown.
More than half of those who are homeless are adults and children in families, according to statistics from Michigan's Campaign to End Homelessness - a public-private partnership seeking an end to homelessness. Two-thirds of these families are headed by single women, and the average age of a homeless child in the state is just 7 years old.
Nearly 30 percent of homeless families are the working poor, most with incomes of less than $500 a month.
"Some families have become homeless because of a lost job, an illness, or a $7.50-an-hour paycheck that can't keep up with an adjustable mortgage or other costs, and the impact on children can be especially devastating," said Coolman.
Homeless children are more likely to have asthma or other illnesses, emotional trauma, behavioral problems and academic delays. Each school district has a homeless education liaison responsible for identifying homeless students and ensuring they get the services they need, she said. A local agency called Voices for Youth also assists homeless school age children.
Coolman attributes the struggling economy as the main reason homelessness affects as many people as it does.
"The economy is still not very good," said Coolman. "On a whole, I think the economy is getting much better for some people and much worse for other people. Before there were three classes and there seems to be two (now). The middle class is disappearing. They're either going one way or another."
She noted the Salvation Army sees many people who haven't needed help in the past or don't know what to do or who to turn to for help.
Coolman also said the Salvation Army has seen an increase in the number of homeless people they serve with severe mental health needs or severe substance abuse issues.
"Part of surviving is just trying to get through the day and when you're tired and when you have to wonder how you're going to survive every single day, sometimes you turn to things you otherwise wouldn't," she said. "When you're that broken, sometimes it grabs you pretty fast, so I don't think necessarily that substance abuse leads to homelessness. I think sometimes it's just a coping mechanism that people fall into."
The Delta County Coalition Against Homelessness is a group of agencies working together to serve those who are homeless. Coolman said in the future the group wants to grow to include a broader base.
"We meet monthly to see what every agency has available, what we're able to do for people, and kind of do a wraparound approach," she explained.
One thing agencies are trying to do is make sure they cover a specific service instead of having every agency doing the same thing.
"That's a lot of coordination, so as a community, we have a coordinator and their sole role is ... to make sure that we are aware of all services, that if there is a gap in services and we have dual services, we can kind of see who's flexible enough to fill this gap, and to make sure that we are always putting the people first and not our agencies or ourselves," she said.
According to Coolman, there will be more community awareness and involvement regarding homelessness in the future than there has been in the past.
"It has to be just more than the people who serve them, because as a community we all serve them," she said.
If you are in need of housing assistance, contact the Escanaba Salvation Army at 786-0590 or visit them at 3001 5th Ave. South in Escanaba.
For more information about Michigan's Campaign to End Homelessness, visit www.TheCampaignToEndHomelessness.org.