Count of homeless Americans hits Detroit streets

January 28th, 2016
Detroit Central City volunteers Stacy Brackins, left, and Rachel Mundus help Benjamin Shimp, 55, during the 2016 Point in Time Count Wednesday night in Detroit. Shimp has been a homeless for more than a year. (Photo: Salwan Georges, Detroit Free Press)

Southwest Solutions joined partner agencies and volunteers to identify the homeless in our area for the national Point In Time Count. While work remains in the fight against homelessness, Detroit is close to the national target of a functional zero for homelessness among military veterans.

Count of homeless Americans hits Detroit streets

by Bill Laitner
January 28, 2016
Detroit Free Press

Some are on the move all night long, lugging bags of belongings, awaiting dawn and a handout meal — while others hunker down on church steps or near heated office buildings, sleeping under old blankets, carpeting or cardboard.

They’re the homeless who won’t come in from the cold.

“Some, they just don’t want to come inside — they want their freedom,” said Stacy Brackins, a case manager with Detroit Central City, a mental-health agency in Detroit.

On Wednesday night, Brackins and two outreach assistants cruised Detroit’s Midtown area in a van loaded with gloves, hats, sleeping bags, sandwiches and hygiene kits. Their goal? To count homeless people while handing them gifts, trying to entice them to accept shelter.

They joined hundreds of other volunteers in Detroit, hundreds more in Oakland and Macomb counties, and tens of thousands across the nation, all taking part in the Point in Time Count — a one-night effort to track down and count homeless Americans.

“That’s Benjamin!” shouted outreach specialist Rachel Mundus, wheeling the van toward a stringy-haired man trudging up Woodward north of the Fox Theatre. Mundus had met the man when he came to Detroit Central City for aid last year. Yet, like many homeless people, he accepted help only for a time, then went back to the streets, she said.

On this windy January night, however, Benjamin Shimp was cold. Brackins gave him a hat. He quickly yanked it on. Soon, he was sitting in the van, warming up and ready for a ride to overnight shelter at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, a few blocks away. Minutes later, the troupe of Brackins, Mundus and outreach specialist Ruona Onosode bid him goodbye, and the van rolled on.

Seeing men striding in the cold, they pulled over and called out, offering gloves, hats and more. Half the time, the men said no, shook their heads, strode on. That’s because some fear authority while others “think we’re going to get them in trouble,” Brackins said.

On Canfield, across from the Shinola factory, the story is different: Two men cross the street to the van after Mundus calls out.

“I’ll take some gloves,” said the tall one, flashing a smile despite the bitter wind. “I’m Joe. We’re both Joe,” he said, laughing and eyeing his companion, whose faced was half-covered by a scarf. The outreach workers leaned out of the van, handing them bags packed with survival gifts. But that was all the two men wanted; they turned down offers of shelter.

So the van rolled on, then parks. The aid workers get out to check the steps of a big church, known for hosting outdoor visitors.

“I think they feel safer at a church,” Brackins said. There were none there but, minutes later, a Detroit police sergeant called about another church. At St. Paul’s on Woodward at Warren, a figure wrapped in a black sleeping bag lay on steps facing a side entrance. While Police Officer Gary Abair points a flashlight, the aid workers approached and spoke softly.

“Are you looking to go to a shelter tonight? Be in a warm place? You’re Nathan? How old are you, Nathan?”

Again, their object of concern won’t budge. They tell him about their agency how they can help, if only he’ll stop by in the morning. He promises.

Stepping away, Officer Abair tells the aid workers of more places they could look.

“If you go to Greektown, under the viaduct there at Monroe, there’s 4 or 5 people there. And there’s a guy over there with a kid. He’s probably 12. They’re out there begging together. But every time we circle back to try to get the kid, he’s gone. We’d like to take him to Protective Services,” Abair said.

“His father has trained him well,” Brackins replies. “That’s out of our area tonight, but we’ll go over there and look for him as soon as we can,” she said.

Climbing back into the van, it’s almost midnight and the group totes up their total of homeless people counted so far — 10. Two more hours of counting to go.

“Sometimes they’re pretty good at hiding,” including in cemeteries where “some people try to live in a mausoleum,” said Elizabeth Kelly, who runs the Hope Hospitality and Warming Center, a homeless shelter in Pontiac. To guide teams of social workers and other volunteers, the effort enlisted formerly homeless folks to ride in the search vans, Kelly said.

“We have two people from our shelter going out to be, sort of, mentors — to tell the drivers where to look,” she said before the count began In Oakland County, more than 200 volunteers in teams of four or five people “will be deployed at 8 p.m.” and search until midnight, said Leah McCall of the Alliance for Housing of Oakland County — a nonprofit coordinating agency for all homeless programs in the county.

South of 8 Mile, more than 100 volunteers will focus just on Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck, said Tasha Gray, executive director of HAND — the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. They’ll be out from 10 p.m. tonight until 2 a.m. Thursday, Gray said.

Last year, she oversaw a count that found 2,748 homeless people, most in shelters but 151 sleeping outside or roaming the streets. This year’s goal is to reduce the overall count by 400 – a challenging 15% drop, she said.

If the HAND meets the goal, she said she’ll credit several new tactics: first, the strong push by the Obama Administration for the last five years to end homelessness, starting with military veterans; and the extra assistance for the last year provided by the city of Detroit, which paid for two extra teams of year-round searchers to find homeless folks on the street and entice them to receive mental-health care, drug-abuse counseling and housing placement assistance. The city’s fresh commitment followed the dispersal last winter of a “tent city” of homeless people on East Jefferson near the downtown, and followed a pledge by Mayor Mike Duggan to reduce the number of people wandering in the city with nowhere to go.

HAND and other agencies have seen a steady increase allocated in Washington by HUD to provide monthly rent vouchers, homeless agency officials said. HUD has set goals that were unthinkable a decade ago, said Steve Palackdharry, communications director for Southwest Solutions, a major Detroit homeless assistance agency that fielded five teams of volunteers to join the count in Detroit.

Across the city and the nation, “We’re getting close to a functional zero” for homelessness among military veterans, Palackdharry said.

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