Homeless families reach ‘tipping point’
Leaders point to lack of affordable housing as reason for depleted emergency shelter funds.
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The affordable housing issue in Grand Rapids is worse than some realized.
That proved true when the depletion of state emergency overflow housing funds in October displaced dozens of Grand Rapids families, many with young children.
The families were being temporarily housed in motels with support from the state Emergency Shelter Program, as the family shelters were full.
At about $75 per night, the $65,000 from the state for the 2019 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, dwindled away in about two weeks, leaving roughly 60 families without housing.
A task force comprised of several organizations launched to locate housing immediately and work on a long-term plan to address the larger issue: an increasing number of homeless families due to unavailability of affordable housing.
For several years, the community has had a bigger need for housing and shelter than was available, according to Cheryl Schuch, executive director of Family Promise of Grand Rapids, a nonprofit leading the emergency effort. At any given time, she said there are well over 100 families on a waitlist.
“We kind of hit a tipping point this fall,” Schuch said because the need was so high.
Reacting to the emergency
Through a state contract, the Kent County Salvation Army acts as the central intake point for the area’s emergency housing system.
For the 2018 fiscal year, the state awarded the Salvation Army’s request for $30,000 in motel funds, later granting additional assistance throughout the year when that amount ran out, totaling more than $130,000, according to an email from Lynn Sutfin, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Nancy Oliver, executive director of social services for Kent County Salvation Army, said there were about 7,000 motel bed nights at about $75 per night that year, which totals $525,000 in expenses.
Oliver said the Salvation Army emptied its own coffers last year to meet the need.
Upon learning of the quick depletion of funds this fiscal year on Oct. 16, Sutfin stated the state “immediately stepped in to offer additional assistance” and is “evaluating what additional resources it can provide to support the ongoing need.”
Sutfin stated: “MDHHS continues to be concerned about the ongoing number of homeless families in greater Grand Rapids and the lack of family shelter and permanent housing resources to help these families find stable, safe places to live.”
Schuch said the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness immediately began working with municipalities and the state to brainstorm solutions.
The latest win was approval to lease Holland Home’s former assisted living center, Fulton Manor, at 1450 E. Fulton St., for 2019. Holland Home already had been moving residents from the building to other locations in its plan to close and potentially sell the center, according to Mina Breuker, the organization’s president and CEO.
Schuch said the agreement was approved for 116 rooms, which could house up to about 100 families though she said they likely will use about 80 rooms.
About 70 percent of those in the building will be children, mostly ages 6 and younger.
She said the project should cost between $700,000 and $1 million, and the United Way is leading efforts to finance the project. Foundations are stepping in to fund the project, as well as some corporate partners.
Multiple organizations have stepped in to help, including ICCF, Mel Trotter Ministries and Kids’ Food Basket.
The extent of services to the families, such as whether they provide meals, will be determined based on how much is funded.
Sutfin said the state will continue to provide funding, while the community recognizes the need cannot be covered by one funder.
“MDHHS is encouraged by how the community has come together to develop solutions to address an immediate need for emergency shelter for families such as the recent effort to create additional family shelter at Fulton Manor,” Sutfin said.
Schuch said the plan is to begin using the facility sometime in late January.
Severity of the issue
Oliver said many people in the community do not understand the severity of the issue, and when families have been put on waitlists and left to fend for themselves, that keeps the issue quiet.
“What's lacking is a consistent knowledge and understanding of what the need is and then how to meet that need on a consistent basis,” Oliver said, adding the homeless advocates plan to do more to spread the word.
Schuch said while the Salvation Army has “taken a lot of heat” about the emergency, she believes the organization did the right thing by using its own resources and speaking out about the issue.
Nonprofit leaders had approached KConnect in May to complete a study on homelessness in Kent County. Through a yearlong process that started in November, the organization is gathering and analyzing numbers and community voices.
Pamela Parriott, KConnect president, said initial data points clearly demonstrate an equity issue in Kent County.
Based on information from the Coalition to End Homelessness, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of homeless people between 2015 and 2017, said Mark Woltman, KConnect associate director.
He said black people make up about 53 percent of those who are exposed to the homeless system, while Kent County’s population is just 10 percent black people.
The data also show about 2,500 Kent ISD students are homeless, about 2.3 percent of the intermediate school district’s population. Nearly half of all homeless students are chronically absent, he said.
Schuch said leaders haven’t had a way to address the ongoing issue, which is working in a system created to combat issues from nearly a decade ago.
“The resources that were allotted and aligned don't match the reality of what's happening on the ground now,” she said.
“The overflow shelter we were providing with hotels has not been adequate. It still left people out on the street, and it still left people on a waiting list.”
While Oliver said she believes a shelter or two should always be available for those who need it in between housing, she agrees with Schuch that housing is the ultimate goal, but it’s just not available, and what is coming is too expensive for many people.
She said some people have government vouchers but still cannot find housing they can afford.
Schuch wants to make it clear that many of the families are working and have not missed payments or done anything wrong.
She said a major issue is many of the units and houses they are renting are being purchased by new owners at higher prices, who then significantly raise rent, sometimes doubling it overnight, she said. Many of the families have no savings and suddenly are faced with a 30-day housing search, and they can't find anything that works.
HUD resources are only available to those who have lived on the street for a year or more, which is not the situation these families are in.
In some cases, Schuch said families have enough income to be excluded from a lot of the affordable properties but not enough to actually pay the market rate in Grand Rapids, especially because they need more than just a one-bedroom apartment.
There’s also a concern regarding safe neighborhoods and lead-free houses.
She said the area nonprofits are collectively working on the issue, including deciding how the recent $5-million gift from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos to Community Rebuilders should be prioritized.
The new continuum of care process that will come as a result of KConnect’s work will probably start in about six months, Oliver said.
She said there are a lot of ways organizations will continue working to better the situation, such as help the landlord community and property management companies understand the importance of investing in affordable housing.
Whatever steps the group decides to make next, Schuch said the goal is to find families a place to live and keep them there.
“The conversation ultimately shouldn't be about shelter,” Schuch said. “The goal is to have a plan for housing, and enough housing, that the families can sustain — not just get into but sustain.”