Counting Macomb County’s homeless

By: Nico Rubello | C&G Newspapers | Published February 1, 2013

 Amy Conniff, a housing resource community coordinator for the Community Housing Network, was among representatives from roughly 30 local aid organizations that were providing information about their programs at the event.

Amy Conniff, a housing resource community coordinator for the Community Housing Network, was among representatives from roughly 30 local aid organizations that were providing information about their programs at the event.

Photo by Deb Jacques

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Most of the rest of the world was asleep, but in the early morning hours of Jan. 23, Cheryl Becigneul braved single-digit temperatures to search a frozen field behind a commercial building, looking with a flashlight for people who had spent the night outdoors.

Based on her experiences running a homeless shelter, she knows sometimes the homeless will sleep here during the summer. When it’s this cold, she said, most will have found a place indoors to spend the night.

“Everybody hears about the homeless in Detroit, and in Pontiac and Flint, because the numbers are so great there,” said Becigneul, who last year founded Erin’s Feeding the Need shelter in Roseville. “They don’t realize that the numbers are great here in Macomb County, too. In Macomb County, it’s just that they hide better.” 

Many of the places homeless individuals stay — under overpasses, in grassy fields behind big-box stores or in cars parked in the business parking lots — aren’t immediately noticeable.

As part of the Point in Time count, a one-day count of homelessness required nationwide by the federal government, volunteers like Becigneul were dispatched around the county between 4 and 7 a.m. on Jan. 23 to seek out folks with no place to call home.

Per the federal requirement, the Macomb Homeless Coalition carries out the complete street and shelter counts every two years, always at the end of January. A count of just the homeless at local shelters is conducted every year.

The total numbers are then reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. While a separate nonprofit, the coalition is the umbrella organization tasked with addressing homelessness in Macomb County.

Though the results of the one-day count won’t be tallied for weeks, the total number of unsheltered homeless individuals counted that morning by volunteers totaled more than 70, which is lower than previous years because of the cold weather, said Macomb Homeless Coalition Director Chuck O’Brien.

But O’Brien said that number probably isn’t close to the actual total, which will certainly go up in coming weeks as the Macomb Homeless Coalition accounts for the number of homeless lodged that day at walk-in shelters, emergency rooms, churches and even the Macomb County jail — essentially, any place someone will go for a warm night’s sleep.

Ultimately the snapshot count will go to help the government determine things like how to best allocate funding for aid programs.

On Jan. 23, 10 three-person teams were sent out, driving around several designated territories. The early morning hours were selected because many homeless are awake and moving, seeking warmth by 5:30 a.m.

“We get one day — one shot,” O’Brien said. “We probably could have used two to three times as many volunteers to really do a good job.”

A few minutes after trudging around the field, Becigneul climbed back into the warm car occupied by her two teammates. After just three minutes out, her cheeks are stinging from the cold.

“How can they survive?” her teammate Dottie Robinson wondered aloud. The team covered portions of Roseville, Eastpointe, Fraser and Clinton Township.

“They’re going to do whatever they can to get off the streets,” Becigneul said.

Becigneul said most of homeless she sees are the kind of people who used to live right next door, working in places like tool and die shops and lower-tier automotive companies. In the last few years, they’ve lost their job, then their unemployment payments, then their house, she said.

“Now they find themselves on the streets. And not just by themselves — the whole families,” she said. And finding a job can be tough when you have no permanent address or phone number, she said.

O’Brien said a significant number of single mothers with children have gone homeless during the last year.

Between September 2011 and September 2012, 83 percent of all households seeking housing assistance in Macomb County were reportedly single women with children; of that number, roughly half were seeking help for the first time, he said.

One man the Count team encountered that morning in a McDonald’s told her he spent the night in a field behind a restaurant. Traffic woke him by 5 a.m. and he walked to a McDonald’s, where they found him around 6 a.m. he said.

Another man they ran in to warming in a deli at a local big-box store graciously accepted gloves and a blanket.

Driving by a local motel, bikes chained to poles outside are a sign that several might have banded together and scrounged up enough cash to buy a motel room for the night.

Others may have holed up inside commercial factory buildings, or someone let them sleep in their basement. Less fortunate find dry places out of the wind, like underneath a car, in a cubbyhole on the side of a building and, as a last resort, near a Dumpster.

To each of the homeless people they met, the volunteers approached them, explained what they were doing and took an informal survey, collecting information about their living situation. Like Becigneul, most of the volunteers who participated in the count work with the homeless on a regular basis, which added a certain degree of familiarity.

They also passed out blankets, gloves, relief kits of toiletries and fliers telling about the Community Connection Day, a resource fair going on later that day.

The roughly 200 people who came to the Community Connection Day, held at the Salvation Army Corps center on Mound Road in Warren, found referrals and information about resources on a number of different services, including foreclosure prevention, utility assistance, food assistance and other programs. They also received a free meal and, if desired, free clothes, a haircut, dental screening and flu shot, too. More than 30 different agencies were represented.

Of those walking in, those who are homeless were added to the count.

The last Point in Time Count two years ago reported 1,100 homeless individuals in Macomb County, O’Brien said.