On April 28, a news conference was held in the parking lot of Project Helping Hands (PHH) located in the heart of the Cass Corridor to announce the closing of the PHH homeless outreach program due to a 67 percent budget cut by the Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency (WCCMHA).

This eliminates the unique and lifesaving mobile interactive team that traveled the city in vans searching for homeless individuals living on the streets and after an initial evaluation transported them to an appropriate place or facility based on their various needs to receive medical attention, housing, food, clothing and other support and services.

As a consequence of these devastating budget cuts the Neighborhood Services Organization (NSO) and the City of Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion’s Bureau of Substance Abuse, Prevention and Treatment and Recovery (which works in conjunction with PHH) will be compelled to lay off 14 Project Helping Hands employees and close its portion of the program.

“Project Helping Hands does not just pick homeless people up off the streets,” said Sheilah Clay, NSO president and CEO, to a gathering of over 100 staff, government officials and media representatives. “But we also employ them. This program that has served the homeless population is the front door and the link. (Homeless) consumers are not required to come to our building; we take these vans you see here in the parking lot and we go out in the community under the freeway viaducts, we go to Hart Plaza, we go to wherever we need to go to get them and bring them in to treatment. And it doesn’t matter how many times we have to go. Our mission is to try to get homelessness out of their lives.”

According to data derived from “The 100,000 Home Campaign Detroit Fact Sheet” for the period of January 2009 to March 2010, Detroit homeless people stay on the street an average of five years. 88 percent of them suffer from mental illness and/or addictive disorders; 50 percent are in danger of dying on the street — a 9 percent increase above the national average; 71 percent of Detroit’s homeless population has spent time in jail; and 49 percent have no health insurance.

“If you cut this program, health care costs are going to rise,” Clay said. “Because these individuals don’t have insurance and they’re going to populate our hospital emergency rooms.”

Moreover, in the midst of these cuts there are increased demands for social services for the poor, the indigent and the homeless. Nevertheless, there are more potential cuts of social and human services in the form of a Michigan State Senate proposal that would slice close to $60 million more from the budget and Detroit-Wayne County would again be forced to shoulder over half of that cut.

“There were over 1,000 people who were homeless in the city of Detroit in 2009,” said Clay. “And our economy has not gotten any better. So with over 24 thousand homeless in 2009, how many do you think are homeless in 2010?  We have become complacent and allowed Lansing to roll Mack trucks over us. We need to have pride. This is Detroit and the people in Detroit matter, and the people that are homeless matter, so we ask for your continued advocacy to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. And I’m putting a call out to the public and private sector that we cannot deal with this issue of government funding alone. There has to be a collaborative approach with public and private dollars.”

On a positive note, the City of Detroit Bureau of Substance Abuse that originated the program will continue to have vans on the streets and will still be involved in the life-affirming work of connecting suffering people to housing, mental health and substance abuse services. Yet, because of the budget cuts, these services will be limited to those with the most dire and urgent needs.

“I need to tell you the reason we received a $20.7 million cut,” said Veda Sharp, executive director of the Detroit-Wayne County CMH Agency. “It is because when the state made a decision on implementing the budget reductions they decided that Detroit and Wayne County could absorb 52 perent of a 40 million dollar cut. What they did was to make a choice to pass that cut on to Detroit and Wayne County and not merge smaller regions of CMH that serve fewer people. We need to make people in Lansing understand that when we have to reduce services for programs like PHH, everyone is going to be affected — the business community, the hospitals, the jails, the schools-everyone. And whatever happens here impacts the entire state of Michigan, not just Detroit and Wayne County.”

Steven Malik Shelton is a writer and human rights advocate. He can be reached at

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