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Poverty Solutions finds undercount of homeless kids in Detroit, across Michigan

New referral system between Detroit shelters, schools aims to better serve homeless students

Contact: Lauren Slagter,

DETROIT — It’s below freezing outside on a gray November morning in Detroit, but the heat is turned up in the Southwest Solutions Housing Resource Center’s reception area. A toddler plays on a colorful alphabet rug in the corner while a half-dozen women wait to learn more about their options for finding a place to stay.

The center is one of three access points in Detroit where people facing homelessness go as their first point of entry to the shelter system and other housing resources. Staff members meet with people one-on-one to run through an assessment of their current living situations, enter the clients’ responses in a Homeless Management Information System, and determine the best course of action to help them find shelter.

Jennifer Erb-Downward

Jennifer Erb-Downward

Thanks to a new automatic referral system, that assessment now alerts school staff when one of their students enters a homeless shelter. 

It’s a small step in an effort to answer a large question: Are children facing homelessness in Detroit and across Michigan getting the support they need? 

“If we’re not identifying people, we’re never going to have the services available because there won’t be a real sense of the need in the state,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative. 

Invisible needs

Erb-Downward’s research on child homelessness underscores the need for accurate data as the first step to improving services for people who are homeless. In the 2016-17 school year, 7.6% of Michigan children had experienced homelessness by the time they reached fifth grade, according to the most recent data from Michigan Education Data Center, and Erb-Downward believes the number is actually higher. 

Schools in Detroit, especially, seem to be undercounting homeless students, she said, based on the number of their students whose families have low incomes. 

Guidelines from the Michigan Department of Education indicate a potential undercount should be investigated if fewer than 10% of low-income students are identified as homeless. And yet, Erb-Downward found 96% of Detroit schools—including traditional public schools and charter schools—identified fewer than 10% of their low-income students as homeless. 

It’s not just school-aged homeless children who are undercounted. 

Working with the Michigan League for Public Policy, Erb-Downward contributed to a report published in June that estimated 15,565 Michigan children from birth through age 4 are homeless—more than 2.5 times higher than the count reported by the state’s shelter system. 

The difference in count of young children who are homeless is related to differing definitions of homelessness used by the shelter system and public schools. 

In her work with Detroit agencies addressing homelessness, Erb-Downward has encouraged the use of a broad definition of homelessness as a way to find common ground among different sectors trying to serve the same families who need a stable place to live. 

“When people are working in very different worlds, sometimes it can be hard to get everybody to come to the same table,” Erb-Downward said, noting the role of the Skillman and McGregor foundations in bringing together a variety of stakeholders engaged in homelessness work. 

Related: Missing School, Missing A Home: The Link Between Chronic Absenteeism, Economic Instability, and Homelessness in Michigan

Collaborative approach

One result from the homelessness working groups in Detroit is the new automatic referral system between the shelter system and local schools. 

When intake center staff notes a family with school-aged children will be staying at a homeless shelter, Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency automatically receives an alert and coordinates with the homeless liaison at the children’s schools to connect the family with the support services they’re entitled to under the federal McKinney-Vento Act. 

“I think there’s been historically just a disconnect between school systems and shelter providers, and (Wayne Metro) is able to help with that as a regional organization, along with the initiatives through Poverty Solutions and McGregor and Skillman foundations,” said Julie Ratekin, homeless youth education specialist at Wayne Metro. “They’re helping to push some pilots through and really look at that data piece and how we can make sure all students who are eligible for services are able to receive services.” 

The new referral system launched in September, and as of the end of October, homeless liaisons at Detroit schools were alerted to 60 families entering the shelter system, said Catherine Distelrath, manager of Southwest Solutions’ Coordinated Assessment Model for responding to homelessness in Detroit. 

“This is probably a better system than we’ve ever had, but we still don’t know for sure how many people are actually getting connected to resources,” Distelrath said, noting the need for more school staff to respond to the needs of students who don’t have a stable place to live. 

“Having a standardized referral system and data will show we’ve referred X households, X number have gotten resources, and X number haven’t,” she added. “Just showing the unmet need, I think, will help us to advocate for more resources within the public schools.”

If Detroit’s automatic referral system between shelters and schools proves successful, Erb-Downward would like to see it replicated across the state. She also sees opportunities to refer people to homeless services through eviction courts, hospitals, and when people apply for public benefits.

“I think any point in time you would be identifying someone who’s experiencing housing instability and has kids, you would want to make sure they’re connected to those resources and make sure they have access to their educational rights,” she said. 

Action at the state level

The Michigan Department of Education also has responded to the call for better tracking of homeless children with a new taskforce convened in August to improve the state’s success rate in identifying homeless children from birth to age 5 and address the cohesiveness and collaboration of services for homeless children and families. 

Those are the key needs highlighted in the MLPP report on early childhood homelessness, and the MDE invited Erb-Downward to participate in the taskforce. 

Birth to age 5 is a critical time in a child’s development,” Erb-Downward said. “It is also when a child is most at risk for experiencing homelessness and housing instability. The taskforce’s recognition of this and commitment to identifying ways to increase supports for families with young children who are homeless is a crucial step forward by the state.”