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Nobody should die on the street in our community

Thirteen. That’s how many people died on the streets of our community during the past year. It’s not the most recorded in a single year, or the fewest, but any number is too many.

The people who died were mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, daughters and sons. Each death was preceded by a life. Successes. Failures.

Each was someone’s somebody. Each was homeless.

And each symbolizes one of our society’s most excruciating failures — our inability to protect the most vulnerable among us.

How, in the most wealthy nation in the world, could someone freeze to death because they don’t have a warm place to stay?

We often hear pundits and commenters parrot lines about personal responsibility and decisions that lead someone to live on the street. Yet, none of those people, and few of the rest of us, recognize how close many of us lives to tripping across the line that precipitates such a fall.

One lost job. One injury. One bout of mental illness. One struggle with addiction.

The fact is, even in prosperous years, an overwhelming portion of Michiganders, and many of our neighbors, live one paycheck away from losing their home. In 2020, many more slipped toward that edge.

Many who struggle with homelessness are the same people who fall through the notches in our imperfect health care system, a system that time and again fails people who suffer from mental illnesses.

Numbers released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimate at least 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness suffer from some form of severe mental illness and more than 45 percent struggled with any mental illness.

Oftentimes, the quickest path to helping the folks around us who struggle with homelessness is to provide them the stability of a place to stay, a long-term home. From that stable foundation, experts say, efforts to help someone find the care they need — be it for chronic health conditions, mental illness, addiction or a combination of all three — are far more successful.

In Traverse City, the ever-tightening housing market provides a constant weight against advocates who work toward lifting those who struggle most.

Tony Lentych, Traverse City Housing Commission executive director, astutely pointed out that when it comes to efforts to curb homelessness in Traverse City we’re simply working against a system that’s “just broken.”

He’s right. It’s a system that allowed a woman to die alone on a freezing April night in the woods with an unusable housing voucher in her pocket. She wasn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last.

And at this moment, as we close another year when more than a dozen of our neighbors died on our streets, it’s time for our community to un-break that system. It’s time to make real progress toward fixing systemic inadequacies that every year cost lives of some of our community’s most vulnerable residents.

Thirteen is too many. One is too many.

Each was someone to somebody.

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