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.
Is there ever a good day to be homeless?
April 1st, 2010I'm sure it was the warm sunny weather or a pre-April Fool's Day idea of a joke but a tweet on Twitter caught my attention yesterday. Actually it wasn't from someone I know or follow - it was in the parlance of Twitter a "retweet" or a post that someone reposts. Nonetheless it read: "Today would be a great day to be homeless."
It was retweeted by more than one person so I can only assume it was found to be humorous. Now for those who know me even slightly know that I have a good sense of humor and I can say that unabashedly. I find humor in many things and situations. I find that many times humor helps to soften the harshness of a message, break the ice in a tense situation and may allow people to just simply laugh.
However, I find no humor in this tweet whatsoever. Even with the sun shining and warm temperatures thawing our winter weary souls, there is never a great day to be homeless.
The Foundation has for many years been steeped in efforts addressing the problems surrounding homelessness, affordable housing and all things relating to providing needed services to those most in need. Laurie Craft, a program director at the Foundation, is currently chairing the Coalition to End Homelessness which is led by Janay Brower who is steadfast in her "vision" to create the community conditions to eliminate or at least reduce the incidence of homelessness.
Now I have to confess that when the Vision to End Homelessness was initiated many years ago, the predecessor effort to the Coalition, I thought that ending homelessness was a pipe dream rather like "alleviating poverty" as the issue is so very complex. The GRCF staff boldly ignored my nay saying and become quite involved in this and we funded much of the planning that went into the Vision which has now morphed into the Coalition.
I'm pleased to say that the GRCF staff were right and I was just plain wrong. They were exercising excellent community leadership skills! Janay will be announcing some impressive statistics soon. Suffice it to say the Coalition along with the timely infusion of funding through the Essential Needs Task Force Fund created by a group of 17 foundations last year has made some significant inroads in addressing the complex issue of homelessness.
As an example in calendar year 2009, 5,118 persons experienced homelessness in Kent County. This represents a 15% decrease from the 6,022 persons reported in 2008. Not a trend quite yet but frankly I'll take it! And there is much more strong impact news on the horizon.
My message is simply this - regardless of the weather, there is never a good day to be homeless.