Economic Development, Human Resources, and Nonprofits

Local homelessness programs reap federal funds

May 13, 2016
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Those working to solve the problem of homelessness in Michigan just got a big scoop of federal funding to do it.

Earlier this month, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro announced $13,948,230 had been awarded to 59 local homeless housing and service programs throughout the state. The grant is part of the “Continuum of Care” that supports the Obama administration’s efforts to end homelessness.

“We know how to end homelessness, and these grants support local programs that are proven to prevent and end homelessness as we’ve come to know it,” Castro said. “As we continue to make progress toward ending homelessness in this country, HUD is challenging communities to use more cost-effective solutions to help those experiencing homelessness.”

In Kent County, nearly $5.4 million went to nine different groups, said Jesica Vail, program manager at Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness. Those groups consisted of nonprofits and government entities, she said, adding the funding will support Kent County-based, homeless-focused projects that will start between July and December. That money will support these projects for a year and will have the strongest impact in 2017, she said.

To be eligible for the money, groups must be part of the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness.

“The Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness is the name of the entity that functions as Kent County’s Continuum of Care. We apply for HUD funding annually in the community,” Vail said.

“There’s about a dozen agencies in our community that get funding through HUD, but in order to apply for that, they have to go through submitting this joint application. We get awarded as a joint community and as individual projects.”

The Kent County recipients include:

  • Salvation Army, three projects, $478,978
  • Community Rebuilders, five projects, $2,406,466
  • Kent County, two projects, $1,324,620
  • Genesis Nonprofit Housing Corp., two projects, $65,950
  • Grand Rapids Housing Commission, $159,663
  • Heartside Non-Profit Housing Corp., three projects, $287,304
  • Inner City Christian Federation, two projects, $119,123
  • YWCA, $399,368
  • Heart of West Michigan United Way, $151,751

“These grants will build upon existing efforts to end homelessness, assisting individuals, youth and families when they need it most,” said HUD Midwest Regional Administrator Antonio Riley. “It will go a long way to put them on the path toward dignity and independence.”

Vail said solving homelessness is an evolving process, but for the last year or two, the Grand Rapids coalition has been working on its strategic plan, part of which was updating its digital presence.

“We’re launching a website now,” she said, adding it was scheduled to be operational May 13.

The new vision came of out the collation’s Vision to End Homelessness, a 10-year plan launched in 2004. At the time, HUD was requiring a written plan, which turned out to be a good tool to help not only Kent County but also the whole country shift focus on the issue of homelessness, Vail said.

“Before it was a focus on if ‘someone’s homeless and they get in a shelter’ — end of story. But HUD really pushed to create a 10-year plan … to say it doesn’t end by creating a crisis response for the day someone becomes homeless. It ends the day they become permanently housed,” she said. “It helped keep us up to higher standards. But obviously, it’s going to take a little longer than that.”

The coalition’s goals for the next four years include:

  • End veteran homelessness by the end of 2017.
  • End chronic homelessness by the end of 2017.
  • End youth and family homelessness by the end of 2020.
  • Create the pathway to end all homelessness in Kent County by 2020.

“Yes, I do think it’s realistic,” Vail said. “(We’re) not saying that no veteran will ever become homeless by the end of this year, but we will have the resources this year so that more veterans will find that operational zero, that any veteran that does become homeless will have a resource to end their homelessness right away,” she said.

“Homelessness (should be) rare, brief and one time. We don’t have as many people returning to homeless, and we don’t have as many people going homeless.”

Vail said poverty leaves people unable to afford housing.

“We’re seeing a large enough segment of our community where their income isn’t enough to support housing. If that happens for a long enough time, you run out of people to help you,” she said. “I think it’s making sure people are able to make a living or a ‘housing’ wage, as it’s referred to in some places. It’s making sure housing is within reach of people.”

One group that wants to aid in that process is Well House, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that recently hit a major milestone in moving 100 people off the streets and into permanent housing.

Tami VandenBerg, executive director of Well House, said she’d like to get in the next round of HUD funding.

“The majority of those funds are renewals. Whoever got the funds the year before gets them again. So pretty much, if you’re in, you’re in,” she said. “It’s challenging. If someone new breaks in, that means someone else doesn’t get it.”

Well House is eligible to apply if it meets HUD guidelines and requirements of that particular grant year, Vail said.

About 25 percent of Well House’s budget comes from earned income, 25 percent is donor/individual business donor, and 50 percent comes from local foundation funding.

The federal funding would come in handy, VandenBerg said.

“This year for 2016 our budget is just over $600,000. Our budget in 2012 was $60,000. With that rate of growth … I mean, I don’t think we’ll be at $6 million in 2020, but it’d be nice. The goal is to continue getting another two to three houses unless we can land some public funds,” she said.

“In order to exponentially scale up, we’ll need some public funds, which I think we will get. There’s just a lot of politics around public funds, and it takes a while to move through that labyrinth.”

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