Guest Post: Changing how we think of homelessness
June 6th, 2012
Guest post from Laurie Craft,Community Foundation Program Director
At Grand Rapids Community Foundation, we work to create a community that has all of the great qualities that West Michigan has—and to make it better. As an optimist, this is a great place to be. We have the opportunity and the resources to see change happen. But change does not happen overnight, and it is not without its casualties.
Consider the issue of homelessness – yes, it’s a big one. Relative to larger cities, Grand Rapids does not have a large and visible population of individuals “living on the street”. But the economic downturn has taken its toll across the country and though our regional economy is improving, those who are closest to the edge are impacted first and hardest, and those numbers are growing.
The Salvation Army’s Housing Assessment Program completed 8,815 intake assessments from people experiencing a housing crisis in 2011–a 21% increase over 2010. Most of those assessed (94%) reported that they made less than 40% of Area Median Income (or less than $24,120 for a family of four).
What does this mean?
It means that changing a system doesn’t happen overnight. Since 2004, our community has been working to end homelessness by changing the way we respond to it.
We try to prevent homelessness by providing short-term rent supports for people in crisis, allowing them to stay in their home while they get back on their feet. Housing a family of four in emergency shelter costs $3,000 a month; the same $3,000 could supplement a family’s rent payments for six months.
If people do become homeless, we provide resources (when available) so they can move back to permanent housing as quickly as possible. And we provide the systems and supports (like the data referred to above) to make sure that we can support and track the change, making course corrections as needed.
But change is not easy. We had many systems in place to support the homeless and they need to be reconfigured. Resources must be reallocated and people must change the way they think about homelessness – we no longer have the resources available to provide the levels of support we once did. None of this change happens overnight or without pain.
We are making progress. But in this time of recovery, when we need it most, government resources are declining, as needs are increasing.
In order to pay for housing, one needs a job and transportation to get there. Housing that is safe, affordable and energy efficient enables families to stay housed. Food benefits supplement a family’s income making housing payments possible for low-income families that have difficult decisions to make.
All of these resources are at risk.
All of these systems need to change – to work better together, to identify and track indicators of success, and to advocate for policy change and resources at local, state and federal levels.
Change requires leadership and adaptability. Sometimes we don’t realize that until it’s too late.
Change happens here – just not as quickly as we would like.
When GRCF says no but I want to say yes!
October 7th, 2010The frustrating thing about the many voices and minds involved in making grant decisions for our great local nonprofit organizations is that I'm often overruled! However, it's the inclusive process that also adds to the thoughtfulness and value of the decisions.
Sigh . . . recently I learned that a favorite organization of mine didn't pass our initial step in the grantmaking process. I knew why but wanted more information. It has to do with our funding priorities that are broad-based AND emphasize our commitment to long-term, sustainable change in our system and orientation to key problems.
A prime example of our view was demonstrated in the successful collaboration of 17 area foundations that banded together in the fall of 2008 to create a resource that amounted to more than $2M to address critical essential needs that were glaringly apparent then and frankly still are. Some of the funds were funneled to organizations that were about the business of addressing homelessness - not just treating it but preventing it in the future. And now we are focusing on the food system to organize for long term solutions on the quantity and quality of food products as well as the distribution to isolated and/or vulnerable people.
It's not easy to say no. It really isn't but when we make grant decisions using the precious resources of the Foundation, we want to make sure as much as humanly possible, that long-term change is going to occur.
However, that won't stop me from making my own personal contributions to various organizations trying hard to keep up with the demands that emerge due to economic times or other factors out of the control of people in need.
Yes it is difficult when the Grand Rapids Community Foundation denies a funding request and I want to say yes! We do try hard to work with all nonprofit organizations to succeed in their endeavors as they are so critical to the vibrancy of our community.
This is how we roll in our community!
June 17th, 2009Here's a sneak preview of my article for our Summer issue of Current - GRCF's quarterly journal:
Our community is known for its collaborative nature, public/private partnerships, "we can do this" spirit and compassion. Grand Rapids Community Foundation does not shy away from key issues. We use our influence and funds to take action.
In 1992 the Community Foundation convened a task force, Perspective 21, to define community priorities for the 21st century. The 200 people at a community forum we hosted identified Kent County's high child abuse and neglect rates as their biggest concern.
For eight months, a 34-member community task force met weekly to gather data from the community and reach consensus on 16 broad-based recommendations. The Perspective 21 process marked a significant step in opening Kent County's child welfare system to community involvement.
The key recommendation was to provide services to at-risk families before parents abused or neglected their children.
What has happened because of Perspective 21?
What emerged from that convening is a great example of how this community works together to respond to and anticipate problems. Before 1992, free services to relieve parenting stress were not available for families. The Department of Social Services (now called Department of Human Services), nonprofit child welfare agencies, other county departments and private funders crafted a system of prevention services.
A key component of this effort is the nationally recognized Early Impact program, which provides voluntary prevention services to families at-risk for child abuse and neglect. These prevention services include individual and family counseling, housing assistance, parenting skills and substance abuse counseling. Currently the program is offered at Arbor Circle, Bethany Christian Services, Catholic Charities West Michigan, Family Outreach Center, and Lutheran Child and Family Services of Michigan. This carefully developed system involves constant cooperation of agencies, the county government and others to assure that families can receive services voluntarily.
Grand Rapids Community Foundation, along with United Way, Steelcase Foundation, Sebastian Foundation and many others, has invested more than $2 million to provide these services. A few years ago, the Kent County Board of Commissioners decided to allocate nearly $2 million a year for prevention services, besides what was already being spent.
We know this system works for families
In other counties, government entities directly provide family services. Kent County is unusual in its close cooperation with local nonprofit agencies. The Department of Human Services (DHS), network 180 (our county's mental health authority) and the county Health Department are key funders, and they issue contracts to local nonprofit service providers. Private sources previously noted also provide funds.
Kent County Family and Children's Coordinating Council helps to keep this prevention system working and reports to the county commission. Agencies are working together and talking with one another. Kent County commissioned an evaluation study three years ago to measure prevention services effectiveness. Not only did the evaluation show accountability, it also showed the services are working for families who choose to receive them.
The issue at hand
Michigan's Department of Human Services (DHS) recently agreed to a settlement agreement with a children's rights organization that sued the State over mishandled cases that ended tragically for some children. None of those cases was in Kent County. Yet the agreement recommendations affect five urban counties, including ours. This means that precious County resources need to be expended to ramp up training for State caseworkers and to hire 800 new State staff.
Presently, we find ourselves dealing with the potential dismantling of the effective child abuse prevention services described above. This isn't just the typical "you need to tighten your belt" scenario. A series of missteps created this situation, and contracts with local private child welfare agencies are being terminated.
We've had many emergency meetings with our county commissioners, area legislators and State leaders of DHS. We are working on ways to remedy this situation. I hope that by the time you read this, we see brighter days ahead for continuing our community's prevention services.
Leading significant social change is a key strategic goal for Grand Rapids Community Foundation. We are at the forefront of influencing change and encouraging collaboration. I hope the next chapter in this saga includes that we successfully influence the State to let us continue our successful program and to use Kent County prevention efforts as THE model for other counties across Michigan. The lives and well-being of our children depend on it.