Do we have the will to end homelessness in Kent County?

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Homelessness is increasing around the country and in West Michigan. The truth is that homelessness has been increasing for many years. In 2019, 10,538 individuals experienced homelessness in Kent County, and of that number 3,512 were children. These are the known numbers.

The real numbers are higher, and the numbers for 2020 likely will be significantly higher yet. There are several factors contributing to this rise, but the good news is that we can do something. If any community can turn the trend around and significantly reduce — if not end – homelessness, it is West Michigan. We have the resources we need. The question is: Do we have the will?

For decades, homelessness in West Michigan was hidden and thus seemingly manageable. Yet today, one need only drive around the area or try to open our business fronts and individuals experiencing homelessness will be seen in massive waves not seen prior. COVID-19 has impacted homelessness, but the warnings sign were present well before the pandemic. The impending eviction moratorium is further proof. Without question, it will impact those living paycheck-to-paycheck — individuals earning less than a living wage who will potentially lose their job and income altogether.

One the greatest strengths of our community is our growth and development. The growth, however, comes with unintended consequences and therefore added responsibility. When I started at Mel Trotter nine years ago, a guest could find a job and afford a modest apartment along the bus line and move forward out of homelessness. Today, the rent for that same apartment has in some cases doubled. Yet wages have not doubled. We now have guests working full time and living at Mel Trotter because they cannot afford an apartment on the bus line. To stay employed they must stay homeless. 

Our community has done a good job creating affordable housing. Without going into great numeric detail, many of the people experiencing homelessness are too low income to qualify for low-income housing. As strange as this may seem, it is a reality. As a community we must come together and find housing solutions that not only target the “missing middle” and those working, but also find solutions for our most vulnerable. We also must come together to address wages and have an honest conversation about what the true living wage is in our community.

As we do this, we must learn from well-intentioned mistakes of the past. We must refrain from ideas that would seek to build modern-day versions of the “projects” of old where we find land and build housing for the poor among us, yet away from us. This approach neither helps those needing housing and stability nor does it help the neighborhoods these units are placed in. Instead, we must work together to build strong, diverse, multi-income communities. Mel Trotter has been providing next step housing in homes we own around the city. Guests in these units pay rent and utilities, integrate with the community and walk out of homelessness forever. We have plans to continue, partnering with those more experienced to build more communities. The question is, will our community come together around similar solutions? The answer to homelessness does not lie with the government, it will not come from the private sector alone, and it cannot be the sole responsibility of the nonprofits. Rather, we will create significant impact when we all work together: nonprofits, government, businesses, churches, schools and neighbors all working toward the same goal.

Millions of dollars have been given to fight homelessness and yet we have more homelessness now than ever. Why is this? Have we failed? No, we haven’t. But neither have we been all-in to solve this problem. We are blessed to have many of the country’s best nonprofits in our community. Together, we are all helping more people find housing and stay housed than ever before. But we must go further. We need to create truly affordable housing, and people need to be paid enough to keep up with rising rent. We need to talk about mental health and the resources needed. We need to talk about the role systemic injustice plays in homelessness. Only 11% of Kent County is African American, yet 55% of individuals we serve and 81% of families are African American.

Homelessness is a major challenge. To make a significant difference, we will need to dare as a community to discuss uncomfortable things and possibly change things we hold dear. We need to be open to new ideas and paradigms. Jesus once said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Some have told me this means we will never end homelessness. But Jesus was actually quoting from a passage in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy it says, “The poor you will always have with you, therefore I command you to open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and poor in your land.” We have all the resources we need to solve homelessness in West Michigan. The question is, do we have the will?

Dennis Van Kampen is president and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids.

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