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Burton Heights/Garfield Park

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'How much more can this person take?' Residents & community groups fight for access to everyday life

Mindy Ysasi

Paul Haan

Many residents in the city of Grand Rapids are not afforded the opportunity to meet basic needs, such as housing and employment, without first diving deep into bureaucratic roadblocks created to benefit only those in power and with privilege. In the community of Burton Heights, citizens are having to go above and beyond to meet these needs, only to find themselves requiring further advocacy from local organizations and leaders. 
“I am the only support for my kids, and I am all the support that my kids have,” Tyneka Coates says. Her voice cracks as she describes some of the ways she has been trying to overcome certain life obstacles. Apart from working tirelessly to ensure the basic needs of her seven children are met, Coates invests much of her time caring for her six-month-old child, Kehelvin, who has special needs. Because Kehelvin requires one-on-one support and attention at all hours of the day, Coates is unable to sustain a full time job. To alleviate some of the financial burden, Coates receives rental assistance with a Section 8 voucher. 

"Before I was approved, we were all living with my mom and we didn't have enough room for all of us," explains Coates. Once she received the approval notice, Coates spent several weeks contacting landlords and advocating for her family in hopes that one of them would accept her voucher. In February of this year her family was able to secure stable housing and moved into a place at the corner of Burton and Union. 

After moving in to her new home, Coates began noticing her children were experiencing asthma and allergy flare-ups brought on by the mold in her new space. Refusing to ignore her children’s health concerns, Coates contacted Jennifer Spiller at the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit, to address the issues in her home with her landlord.
 
“The landlord says I can move or we can break the lease, but I have Section 8 and I have to be here for at least a year,” Coates explains, referring to the federal program that provides rent assistance for low-income households.

To continue receiving rental assistance, she is required by law to abide by the lease for the remainder of the year, and moving out of her home was not a solution with which she was afforded. Self advocacy for Coates and her family has meant navigating often confusing and complicated process to ensure her landlord, Sarah Hampton, is held accountable. 

"In April of this year the city came to inspect the home, and we removed all of the carpeting with mold," explains Hampton, who told Rapid Growth that she has addressed all of the issues Coates has raised regarding the home. 

The issues in Coates' home were resolved after arduous work from Coates and her advocate, Spiller, who guided Coates in conversations with the landlord, and ultimately helped her file complaints with the city and ensured inspections were scheduled accordingly.

For residents in the community of Burton Heights, this narrative is a familiar one. And it’s a narrative that offers a mere glimpse at the overwhelming roadblocks many in the neighborhood are expected to deal with everyday.
 
“The obstacles are pervasive for many in this community,” explains Paul Haan, Executive Director of the Healthy Homes Coalition, which works to improve children’s health by eliminating harmful and dangerous housing conditions throughout West Michigan.
 
In addition to a litany of issues, including mold, water leaks and more, residents in the Burton Heights area face lead poisoning at higher levels than much of the city.
 
According to 2015 data obtained from the Healthy Homes Coalition, people residing in the 49507 zip code, which includes residents of Burton Heights, 14 percent of the children tested positive for lead poisoning, compared to the 3.3 percent of children tested in Flint. This means 49507 zip code has the highest number of children testing positive for lead poisoning in the city of Grand Rapids, and the area had the second highest number of reported lead poisoning cases in the entire state in 2014, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The data demonstrates that more than 90 percent of lead poisoning in the city of Grand Rapids is a result of the deteriorating lead-based paint and lead dust found in the home. All homes built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned from being used in the United States, are likely to have some dust remainders from the lead paint.  Lead poisoning is particularly harmful to children who can have long-term negative effects from being exposed to small amounts of lead. According to the Center for Disease Control, exposure to lead in children can have long term brain damage, behavioral problems, and poor physical growth and development.  
 
Despite these high numbers, Haan explains change becomes very difficult because there is no clear enemy. “Who do we get angry at?” he asks.

According to Haan, the issue of lead in these homes is systemic. The landlords often don’t have the necessary support or resources to remove the lead paint, and many of the residents are unaware of its effects or face barriers, such as previous evictions, that threaten their ability to find housing in the area.
 
“Residents in the 49507 zip code are living in substandard homes and face barriers such as bad credit, past evictions, or unstable employment, all of which prevent them from self advocating or accessing other types of housing,” explains Haan.
 
Haan calls the relationships between landlords and residents codependent because the resident needs housing, and the landlord knows they can take advantage of their situation. In the relationship between Coates and the landlord, Coates expresses feeling little control over the conditions of her home, as she does not have other housing opportunities to fall back on. 
 
“Life is messy with barriers to employment, and a job is not going to be the sole solution,” states Mindy Ysasi, Executive Director of The Source, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit organization that works with employees to keep their jobs, receive coaching and training to improve their place of employment, and advance into better positions or other companies.
 
In the last twenty months, Ysasi has been working hard to disrupt the system through supportive relationships and education. For Ysasi, disruption of a system involves utilizing her advocacy to bring to light some of the barriers those in her community are faced. When speaking about what she describes as the “cliff-effect barriers” many in the community are faced with, her eyes quickly fill up with tears, saying, “How much more can this person take?”
 
The cliff-effect barriers Ysasi refers to is the loss of eligibility for tax credits, childcare subsidies, health care coverage, and food stamps as a family's income increases slightly but not enough to reach financial security.  

"Public assistance for the working poor isn’t designed to allow women the opportunity to incrementally increase their wages to work toward self-sufficiency" explains Ysasi. 

It is living paycheck to paycheck, and having to depend on full-time employment, reliable transportation, affordable childcare, and health care resources to be successful. To ensure livability, all of these must exist, and one falling out of place threatens the stability of the rest.
 
Through a partnership model, The Source tackles these cliff-effect barriers by building relationships with the employer and the employee. The model addresses employee retention by ensuring the employee has the necessary support and access to services and help to minimize barriers to get to and be at work. One of the ways they do this is by providing onsite DHS case managers to help employees apply for state and federal benefits. Each of these case workers have significantly smaller case loads than those at the DHS headquarters, and are able to provide personalized attention to every single person in their case load.
 
The Source offers support to employees and employers of 16 member companies throughout West Michigan, many of which are manufacturing and employ numerous individuals experiencing poverty and lack of access to resources.
 
According to data obtained from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, the southeast end community of Grand Rapids, which includes the Burton Heights and Garfield Park neighborhoods, 47 percent of housing units are renter occupied and have a median household income of $27,016 dollars, while the Eastown neighborhood consists of 38 percent renter occupied units and has a median household income of $46,998. Such a comparison serves to further exemplify that many of the residents in Burton Heights and Garfield Park neighborhood are accessing less economic capital and are thus less likely to secure stable housing through homeownership than their neighbors on the east side of town.
 
“People in this community are working full-time jobs, and what they are making may not account for the three times rent amount required to apply for certain homes,” says Ysasi, in reference to the individual’s proof of income amounting to at least three months’ rent that some landlords require upon a signing a new lease.
 
Both Haan and Ysasi agree that part of the solution is educating and organizing at the grassroots and policy level.
 
“To bring sustainable solutions, we challenge the critical mass of people and bring those voices together and build community leadership and skills—all of which takes time” explains Haan.
 
Coates and her neighbors should not have to face these roadblocks on their own, and Ysasi stresses that, "Advocacy means asking, 'Who makes the choice? Who lives where and when? What have we changed? How are we resolving these systems?'" 

On The Ground GR
 
On The Ground GR is a new Rapid Growth series. This series highlights and celebrates the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods. You can read all the On The Ground articles published to date here
 
On The Ground GR journalists have been knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We are diving deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area.
 
Follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter using the hashtag #OnTheGroundGRFacebook 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 Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Steelcase, organizations that believe democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 
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