Uncovering challenges for area homeless youth


Northwest Michigan Continuum of Care (NWCOC) is a collaborative group of community organizations and individuals with an interest in homelessness, housing needs, supportive housing and related services that covers ten counties in northwest lower Michigan.

The members of NWCOC serve those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless: your neighbors, families with children, the working poor, veterans, and those living on the streets to name a few. People just like you that may be experiencing a financial or family crisis that is affecting their ability to stay in their homes.

“Homelessness is a complex societal issue. Navigating the system of services is complicated for homeless youth, who are especially vulnerable.
— Tina Allen, NWCOC Coordinator

In keeping with their mission, the NWCOC had applied for a $1.3 Million US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Youth Demonstration Program grant to house homeless youth, from ages 12-24. Youth in northwest lower Michigan are at risk of homelessness in many ways: their families may be experiencing financial hardship, loss of work, insufficient transportation or lack of affordable housing. These are recurring problems in affluent tourism-oriented communities which are bordered by rural areas.

Too young to take work that pays a living wage or sign a lease, these kids often end up couch surfing, dependent on other family, friends or local shelters for temporary housing. Regardless, they are more vulnerable than adults, and require agencies that can respond immediately when an event occurs. 

An inter-agency effort was coordinated from each local community. Leaders from housing agencies, schools, churches, governmental entities, social and religious organizations came together to review the details of the HUD grant and craft a collaborative response. 

Since there were no designers on these committees, we were asked to lend our talents to one specific requirement:

“Build a single-page graphic map of the entire system of supports for both adults and youth throughout the region.

— HUD Grant Description

Original system sketch

Original system sketch



Having assembled a cross-functional group of staff, interns and volunteers, we mapped a hierarchy of housing: from the event that causes homelessness, to temporary and then to stable housing. As a visual code to indicate which resources were available for youth and which for adults, we used color and dotted or solid lines. These translated directly to the final map.

For purposes of classification, there are two types of homeless: 

  • Low acuity, who may be temporarily homeless and can be housed relatively quickly, and
  • High acuity, who for various reasons are frequently homeless andin need of repeated support.

Due to the fact that almost everyone experiences some part of the system differently, we needed to graphically map the pathway and points of diversion for each classification using colored arrows.

It’s important to note that in this region, multiple community resources are available. At points in the process, professional navigators connect homeless individuals to supports outside of the housing system that can help resolve homelessness long-term. These appear in the blue field.

On January 13, 2017 group was awarded a grant of $1.3 million. Out of 130 applications, 10 were chosen: 6 urban and 4 rural communities. As a national demonstration site, the work in the Grand Traverse area will help inform future national policy aimed at ending youth homelessness.


Final System Visualization: read from bottom to top