COVID-19 rental relief dollars can be spent to help people who have become homeless or stayed unhoused because of the pandemic. But an Outlier investigation has found that fewer than 100 people statewide have so far been able to access that relief.
The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) changed their policy this summer to allow Michiganders experiencing homelessness access to the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program, according to the state official in charge of the program. But the local agencies that screen applications have not been approving those applications or in some cases even acknowledging the resources exist.
Multiple people who currently don’t have a permanent home and have used Outlier’s text messaging information service have called local agencies and been turned down for assistance. Others were told there was no help available.
Bahjanique Stamps has been looking for a place for more than eight months since she and her two young children were forced out of the house she was renting in Detroit by a landlord who changed the locks. Things were hard for a while—she lost a number of possessions in the eviction, didn’t have steady income and suffered from postpartum depression. She currently lives with her aunt.
“Now I’m homeless with my kids,” she said. “They ask, ‘When are we going home?’”
Stamps reached out to CAM Detroit, where all homeless people can go to get into shelters and eventually housing. In this process known as coordinated entry, CAM determines whether a person needs more intensive case management or should be referred to a different housing agency that can get them rental assistance.
Stamps said she was denied assistance because she lived at a Detroit home owned by a relative at the time and wasn’t technically homeless. CAM said it had no record of Stamps reaching out for service through its hotline.
But even if it did have a record, it’s not clear she would have gotten rental assistance.
The organization that oversees CAM—the Homeless Action Network of Detroit (HAND)—is one agency responsible for disbursing CERA funds in Detroit.
After hearing about Stamps’s situation, HAND executive director Tasha Gray said that she likely wouldn’t be able to get assistance. Because she’s not living in her car or a shelter, “she’s not technically homeless in the eyes of HUD,” making her ineligible CAM’s case management services.
And Gray said that HAND requires that people have a signed lease in their own name to access CERA funds, a stance apparently at odds with the more flexible approach the state is advising.
“I can’t think of a scenario where she would be eligible,” Gray said.
Gray said she doesn’t know precisely how many homeless individuals have received CERA funds from HAND. The agency’s own statistics put the number of people experiencing homeless in Detroit alone at 7,811 in 2020.
Stamps also reached out to Wayne Metro Community Action Agency, another local agency responsible for disbursing CERA funds in Wayne County, where she was again told that she wasn’t eligible because she wasn’t a current leaseholder. Wayne Metro declined to confirm whether Stamps had tried to make contact, saying it doesn’t release client information to third parties.
Wayne Metro said that through the CERA program, it’s helped 56 households experiencing homelessness. A spokesperson for Wayne Metro said that the “vast majority” are currently in hotels and working with a case manager to secure more permanent housing. All are eligible for future rental assistance.
Michael Centi, department director of integration at Wayne Metro, told Outlier by email that the policy regarding spending CERA funds on homeless individuals is “relatively new and it is up to each Continuum of Care to determine how to implement this guidance.”
The State of Michigan has received $622 million in CERA funds since December 2020 from a $46.55 billion pot of federal funds. As of Oct. 19, the state has disbursed over $308 million to 48,078 households, according to MSHDA.
Depending on income, eligible tenants can get up to 12 months of back rent paid, at least three months of rent going forward and a stipend for utilities.
MSHDA gets those funds from the federal government and determines how much to release to local housing agencies. It also sets policy for how those local agencies should spend it.
Kelly Rose, chief housing solutions officer at MSHDA, told Outlier that MSHDA issued a change in policy near the beginning of August to allow non-leaseholders and homeless individuals who were evicted due to a pandemic hardship to access CERA funds.
“We think CERA is a good fit for those who have very recently been evicted or lost their house,” Rose said.
But that change in policy is not being implemented by local agencies. Rose said she “doesn’t have exact numbers” for how many homeless individuals have received CERA, but that fewer than 100 applicants were issued letters from the state to a landlord guaranteeing future rent payments for at least three months.
“This program is not being widely used to house homeless individuals,” Rose admitted.
Housing agencies also have access to Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG), which have been a traditional funding source for homelessness services and saw $4 billion in additional funding in the CARES Act of 2020. Local agencies say they have by and large been expending ESG funds before tapping into CERA funds, especially if the recipient’s income is below 50% of the area median income.
Gray, the HAND executive director, denied that there was a disagreement with MSHDA. But Rose of MSHDA told Outlier multiple times that people without leases should be eligible for CERA, too.
“In general, they should have access to the CERA program,” she said. “People who have been bouncing around between friends and family could be assisted.”
Obstacles to relief
If MSHDA can’t rely on local agencies to get relief dollars to people who are homeless, it is not particularly well set up for people to apply for relief on their own. MSHDA has not updated its portal to allow for people without a current address to apply for CERA. Rose said they hope to have it ready in “a couple weeks.” Applicants without an address right now have to fill out a paper form and deliver it to a housing agency.
That’s a problem for Kenise Lorraine Heath, 54, who’s been living in her car in Pontiac after being laid off from her job at a call center with United Wholesale Mortgage at the start of the pandemic.
“It’s been hard, but I don’t let it show,” Heath said. “I just take it one day at a time and that’s all you can do.”
Heath said she is about to start a job at a Samsung automotive battery plant in Auburn Hills that starts at $16.50 an hour. She’s been trying to get a place before her first day so she can be well rested and clean, as opposed to spending a second winter living out of her car.
In August, she put in an application for a Housing Choice Voucher, which would pay a percentage of her monthly rent. She was also told to call the Community Housing Network (CHN), a homelessness prevention nonprofit with an office in Oakland County. She said she called multiple times and left voicemails but never got a response.
CHN declined to say whether Heath had made an inquiry for assistance.
After Outlier contacted CHN, a representative reached out to Heath and said she’d be put on a priority list for a Housing Choice Voucher. But as of publication, Heath hasn’t been provided temporary housing, which is allowed through CERA. She said a shelter in Pontiac, HOPE Warming Center, told her this week there weren’t any beds available.
The Alliance for Housing, an Oakland County agency responsible for disbursing CERA funds to organizations like CHN, has barely used any on homeless individuals. While it’s spent nearly $38 million of its $47 million allotment, just one homeless family has been assisted with CERA funds.
Leah McCall, executive director of the Alliance for Housing, said that Oakland County, like Wayne County, is using traditional homeless services before tapping into CERA funds.
“But if those other options aren’t available because of income requirements and if they have a COVID-related housing issue, we’d then look at CERA to assist for hoteling or rent in a new unit,” McCall said.
Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-District 12), co-chair of the Poverty and Homelessness Caucus, is also hesitant to spend CERA funds to help homeless individuals.
“This program was created for prevention as opposed to curing,” she said. “It’s intended to keep people from getting evicted. And because it’s a federal program, there’s only so many things we can do to make it resolve other problems. Homeless people generally have deeper issues than not being able to pay their bills.”
To address one issue facing low-income people looking for housing, Bayer is sponsoring a Senate bill to eliminate discrimination based on sources of income, like child support or housing assistance.
The bill has yet to get a hearing. But even so, that would be cold comfort for Stamps and Heath, who just need a little assistance to get on their feet.
“My baby wants to go to school this year, but I don’t have an address to put down,” Stamps said. “I just need to prove that I can pay my rent.”
Reach AARON MONDRY at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-403-7221.