Grand Rapids' Homelessness Problem

Last week, the Coalition to End Homelessness released the results of its annual Point in Time count and the numbers reflected a significant (15%) increase in the number of homeless individuals in our community on January 28th of this year, when the count was conducted. This was a disappointing – but not completely unexpected – result.

The Coalition to End Homelessness, our community's Continuum of Care (CoC) is responsible for conducting the count each year during the last week of January and reporting to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides millions of dollars of funding annually to support housing solutions for low-income individuals and families facing a housing crisis in Kent County.

Grand Rapids Community Foundation has also invested millions of dollars, over the years, to support solutions to homelessness, primarily permanent housing and support for planning and infrastructure related to the homeless system. In Kent County, many nonprofit organizations partner with local, state and national government to provide services and solutions to homelessness.

Many in the community would argue that the solution to housing is simple - provide homes!  Churches and nonprofits provide emergency shelter and meals to our community's homeless on a daily basis. Over the years, Kent County has benefited from millions of dollars in HUD funding, Section 8 rent subsidies, and public and private housing development.

So how do we have an increase in homelessness? The economy has improved, unemployment is at record low levels, and home values have increased to pre-recession levels.

Are we really just counting more accurately?

Perhaps - but that’s no excuse.

The fact is, there are no easy solutions. In this country, homelessness was not an issue until the 1980's when the mental health system was de-institutionalized. Today, the mental health system works very hard to be part of the solution, but the fact is, many of the chronically homeless individuals that represent the most visible, troubling, and costly portion of the homeless population, struggle with mental health challenges, substance abuse issues, or both. Reaching and housing this population requires intention, time, and resources. However, successful intervention with this population is the most visible and represents the greatest economic value to the system.

Family homelessness is also increasing. As our community has recovered from the recession, Income inequity has grown.  Institutional racism, educational inequality, and a decline in jobs that pay a living wage contribute to family homelessness. In fact, that problem may be much worse than the numbers reflect, due to the "hidden homeless" population – those families that are doubled-up, with family or friends.

Add to this, the increased cost of housing. A result of the foreclosure crisis was an increase in demand for rental properties. A surplus of low-cost homes that went into foreclosure purchased by landlords and families that could no longer afford to buy a home tightened the local rental market. Rental vacancy rates in Kent County stand at less than 2.5 percent, and demand for rental housing has made it difficult even for those with a rent subsidy to find an affordable unit.

One this is certain – there isn’t one easy solution. So what can be done?

  • We need to be intentional about change and open to working together to achieve it. That means thinking about the consumer first, not the agency delivering the service.
  • We need to be open and transparent about our results and share them openly with the community. That includes sharing our failures, as well as our successes.
  • We need to make the very best use of very limited resources. We know we don’t have enough to go around, so we have to prioritize appropriate and effective interventions.

Finally, we have to act with urgency. We don’t have the luxury of time to solve this.