ESCANABA - The Escanaba Council will consider appointing a task force to address homelessness in the city when it meets for its regular session on Thursday.
The agenda item was the result of a request from a group of concerned citizens and agency representatives seeking designation of a transitional housing district for the city's homeless. Petitions containing 90 signatures support the concern.
The social action committee of the Unitarian Universalist Bay de Noc Fellowship, in cooperation with the Delta County Coalition Against Homelessness, approached the city manager with the zoning issue, asking the matter to be placed on Thursday's council agenda.
Because the city has an "E-2" district where transitional housing could be allowed, another request could require a zoning appeals process. City Manager Jim O'Toole suggested the creation of a task force to research issues of homelessness in the city and recommend how the city and community could work together to address concerns.
Members of the concerned group, who met with the Daily Press on Monday, said they are encouraged by council's consideration of the task force when it meets later this week.
"This will involve more community members and bring enlightenment to the public to take care of the needs of the homeless," said Jim Rettig, a member of the Unitarian Universalist social action committee.
While the group is encouraged, they are also concerned about where transitional housing would potentially be allowed in the city. They would like to see housing for homeless be available in a variety of locations.
Transitional housing within multi-family districts would encourage people to become involved in their communities and grow from their neighbors, said Nisha Coolman, coordinator for the Delta County Coalition Against Homelessness.
The city's "E-2" district, which could allow transitional housing if zoning standards are met, is a single location. It includes a nine-block area of property along South Lincoln Road between 5th Avenue South and 14th Avenue South. Bellin Health Family Medical Center and Marquette General Doctor's Park as well as single-family homes are in this area.
Bobbie Stacey, member of both the social action committee and the coalition, said, "With transitional housing, we want a happy medium with housing and professional space," meaning office space for agencies which assist the homeless.
Stacey added, the task force could look into the formation of a team of city and agency representatives to apply for competitive funding available in the region. Another suggestion is for Escanaba to create a "Homeless Bill of Rights," she added.
According to Beth Graham, chair of the Delta County Coalition Against Homelessness, about 1,260 homeless individuals lived in Delta County in 2011, most of them residents or former residents. An estimated 70 percent were adults and children in a family, she said.
During a count conducted one one day in January last year, 54 homeless individuals lived in the county, said Graham. This number represents those who sought assistant from an agency; it does not include those who may have found shelter at a friend's or relative's home, she said.
Currently, only 41 beds are available through the agencies which provide housing for the homeless, noted Graham.
Coolman said it is discouraging not to have a place for a homeless individual or family to stay. Being homeless can be due to different reasons such as divorce, an abusive relationship, a medical issue, being out of jail, a change in a family's makeup, or a change in employment.
Rettig commented, "Homeless are too often stigmatized as hobos... We don't think the homeless should bear the Scarlet H."