Changing how we think of homelessness

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.