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'This city needs to wake up': The fight for affordable housing in Grand Rapids

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Herman Lee


“Grand Rapids,” Herman Lee remembers reading out loud from a wrinkled piece of paper moments after scribbling East Lansing, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids on three separate sheets and placing these into a hat. With what may seem an unusual method, Lee pushed himself to buy a one-way bus ticket to the Michigan city known for its furniture industry. Plagued by the question, “Will I make it on my own?” Lee took one last glance at his hometown of Detroit and jumped on the next bus to Grand Rapids. The 12 months that followed his arrival at the downtown bus terminal in April of 2015 would be unforgettable.

Growing up in Detroit for Lee and his two brothers was not always easy. Raised in a single parent household, Lee recalls seeing his mother work day and night to make sure the family had enough food on the table and a roof over their heads. As the oldest of the three, he always dreamed he would one day become a police officer or join the armed forces and make enough money to help support his mother.

When he came to Grand Rapids, the man known by everyone in the southeast neighborhood as Lee did not know anyone in town with whom he could stay. So, he headed to Mel Trotter Ministries to find a place to sleep for the night. For Lee, Grand Rapids exemplified the promise of a new life loaded with potential opportunities.  After a stint in prison, Lee swore he would never return to the lifestyle that led him to incarceration in Detroit.

“I got out of Detroit to make a new start for myself,” says Lee. 

Because he had a stable income, Lee thought finding permanent and stable housing in town would be easier, but after spending a couple of months submitting housing applications and receiving countless rejection letters, Lee soon found himself living what he describes as his worst nightmare.

“I would fill out the applications, and a couple of days later the paper would come back with a denial, with the marked check box, ‘due to misconduct with the police,’” explains Lee.

Herman Lee riding his bike in the southeast neighborhood of Grand RapidsLee is far from alone when it comes to facing homelessness in our community. According to data from the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness,  9,842 people experienced homeless in 2015. Of these individuals, 52 percent were black Americans, including Lee. In Kent County alone, black residents experience unemployment at the highest rate of any demographic, making this group the most vulnerable to experiencing homelessness.

Unemployment is not the only factor contributing to an individual becoming homeless; in many cases, families in poverty who are employed are still unable to cover the rising costs of housing.

According to a 2015 report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, unemployment has decreased by 1 percent, but the burden of housing costs for families in poverty has increased by 25 percent since 2007.

As rents rise — dramatically in some cases — and rental vacancy rates plummet, advocates in Grand Rapids are banding together to address a lack of affordable housing that is forcing longtime residents from their homes and preventing others, like Lee, from getting a home in the first place. The Grand Rapids Coalition to End Homelessness is a group of 60 organizations collaborating to address the housing crisis affecting residents of Grand Rapids. Jessica Vail, program manager for The Grand Coalition to End Homelessness, explains the group’s efforts are focused on the community’s most vulnerable by serving people who are homeless.

Tami VandenBerg“We prioritize families and individuals who are staying in a shelter or on the streets,” states Vail.

In 2016 alone, Kent County received $5,511,453 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to the advocacy group, the money will be used to launch rapid rehousing projects to help end family and youth homelessness by 2020.

“The goal is to make homelessness rare, brief and one time,” says Vail.

The group will also focus its efforts to end homelessness for people with a disability who have been homeless for a year or more by 2017. Additionally, the Kent County Housing Commission received $69,480 from the $5.5 million to partner with the  Battle Creek VA Medical Center and the Wyoming VA Health Care Center in ending veteran homelessness in the county.

By employing a “Housing First” philosophy, Vail explains the solution to homelessness lies in access to affordable housing.

“As a community, we need to keep having conversations around affordable housing issues. The best way to build up our communities is to help folks with poor credit history or with criminal backgrounds have stable housing. If we refuse to rent to people because of their past, they will have a harder time improving their future, and that hurts all of us in the long run,” says Vail.

After months of going from organization to organization in an effort to receive any help obtaining stable housing,  Lee was met positively by the team from StreetReach. The StreetReach program is funded through Network 180 and operated through Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Servicesand it provides case management to individuals experiencing homelessness. Those at StreetReach helped him fill out and fax an application for housing at Well House. Well House is a nonprofit organization located in the southeast community of Grand Rapids. Through the Housing First model, the organization provides affordable housing with no strings attached. Tenants are not required to abide by a schedule or any sort of required training to live at Well House. In addition, the group prioritizes applications from individuals who have criminal backgrounds or are substance dependent. 

“When everybody else was rejecting me; I found Well House and they didn’t reject me,” Lee says.

Currently, Well House provides housing to 60 tenants, the majority of whom are people of color with criminal backgrounds and a physical or mental disability, according to Tami VandenBerg, executive director of the organization.

“We prioritize the group of people who are the most stigmatized and most marginalized. This includes people with a history of addiction and law enforcement,” VandenBerg says.

Based on her years of experience working in direct care with individuals experiencing homelessness, VandenBerg argues the solution to homelessness can be found in changing policies at the city and state level. In the state of Michigan, applicants who do not pass a criminal background are not eligible to receive a section 8 voucher, which provides housing assistance for low-income residents.  With 1,500 vacant homes available in Grand Rapids, according to VandenBerg, she believes the city of Grand Rapids needs to provide a way for people to gain access to those homes through various incentive programs. Additionally,  VandenBerg stresses that city officials could enact other measures to address barriers to housing in Grand Rapids.

“We have a whole lot of different lots that are not buildable because they don’t meet the required size to build a house on,” VandenBerg ays. “That’s the reason we can’t do tiny homes in the cities. In this city, we have the ordinance that [there can be] no more than four unrelated people per house—no matter how big the house. There are a lot of policies in place that drive up the cost of housing, which result in people not having housing.”

For Lee, having a place to sleep at night without the weight of expectations brings him a sense of safety and belonging he didn’t have when he was out in the streets of Grand Rapids.

“Lee has been an incredible asset to our community. He has been an incredible support to staff and to other tenants. He is really just the guy you can depend on,” says VandenBerg.

To give back to this neighborhood and community, the 63-year-old Lee spends his day doing maintenance for the organization’s headquarters and walking around the neighborhood mentoring youth in the community through his story. 

“Homelessness can happen to anybody, and this city needs to wake up and look at those who are homeless in the eye,” shares Lee.

In other words, Lee believes the answer to homelessness in Grand Rapids is taking a serious look at those who are experiencing homelessness because one day it could be them.

“It is important for people in the community to recognize that those experiencing homelessness are just people, just like them, but who are in a bad spot. Think of how alarming it would be to most of us to lose everything and have nowhere to go—it would be a life-changing crisis. From there, what is it we would want most of all in that situation? A home,” Vail says.

When Lee arrived in Grand Rapids, he did not know he would find a community to belong to in the southeast of Grand Rapids, but finding stable housing through Well House has empowered him to become a sustaining resident of this neighborhood.

Herman Lee stands outside of Well House
“This community means a lot to me. They accept me. They see me,” shares Lee.

To support individuals experiencing homelessness, consider making a donation to organizations helping people into homes. Community Rebuilders, Grand Rapids Urban League, and Inner City Christian Federation all have programs for short-term rental assistance that help get people back on their feet and back in the workforce if they aren’t already. Donations can also be made directly to Well House and to any of the 60 organizations involved with the Grand Rapids Coalition to End Homelessness.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.

Photography by Dreams by Bella.

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