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Do Good: And they all lived together in a little crooked house*

The statistics are sobering and can't even begin to convey the tragedy's desperation and scope: Between 2007 and 2011, 25.5% of Grand Rapids' 188,000 residents lived below the poverty level. Source.

Rapid Growth Media's own Tommy Allen said it best: Do Good's mission is to "shine a light on individuals and organizations who are working for the underserved populations in our city." Source. We've shared with you the stories of several individuals, such as Marge Palmerlee, Ruth Kelly, Chad Dupin, Zoe Carmichael -- and their families -- who give back to our community; as well as many local agencies and organizations that strive to combat homelessness, hunger, and medical needs -- Guiding Light Mission, Degage Ministries, Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Heartside Ministry, Kids Food Basket, Catherine's Health Center, and Access of West Michigan to name a few. Clearly, we have an abundance of generous souls among us.

Even clearer is the seemingly insurmountable task of eradicating poverty and homelessness in Grand Rapids. There are innovative solutions to homelessness out there in the ether, and although some may not be happening in our city (yet), Do Good will nonetheless shine light on these ideas in future sections. 

What is homelessness, what are its causes, and who does it affect? In the first part of a series, Victoria Mullen takes a look at the history of homelessness in the United States and gives some sobering statistics on how this national issue affects our local population. 
First, some basics and some background:

What is homelessness?
There are four categories of people who qualify as legally homeless: 1. Current homelessness; 2. Imminent homelessness; 3. Youth/family home instability caused by hardship; and 4. Home instability caused by domestic violence. For an in-depth description of the categories, go here.

On any given night in Kent County, 700-800 people will sleep in emergency shelters or transitional housing facilities. Many more will sleep in cars, under bridges, or in doorways and undeveloped park-like settings throughout the county. Throughout the year, thousands of people will experience homelessness in temporary shelters or in places unfit for human habitation. Thousands more individuals and families are on the verge of homelessness, living doubled and tripled up in units meant for one individual or one family. Still thousands more endure substandard housing as their only option to avert homelessness. Source.

The faces of the homeless have changed over the decades, but their plight remains the same. Thirty years ago, indigent single men made up the vast majority of people who were homeless. Today, in Kent County, women and children comprise 65% of those who are sheltered and homeless. Children are the single largest group of people who are homeless (36%). Nearly 30% of all homeless adults have paying jobs. Source.

What causes homelessness?
The societal and institutional causes are too intricate and numerous to discuss in-depth here. On a personal level, causes of homelessness include: 1. Untreated mental illness and disability that keeps one from working a job, paying bills, or keeping supportive social relationships; 2. Substance abuse; 3. Fleeing domestic violence; 4. Institutional release from prison, foster care, or mental hospitals; 5. Racism; 6. Natural disasters; 7. Unexpected emergencies, such as job layoffs, losing a residence to accidental fire, serious injuries, medical bills, loss of family member(s); and 8. Lack of affordable housing.

"Taking affordability into account helps broaden the scope of how the homeless system serves our community -- from managing homelessness to housing people." It's clear our approach is shortsighted and limited: We "place households in crisis at a local shelter, in a short-term program, or provide one-time financial assistance." Source. All of these responses are ineffective in the long term.

According to a report on Housing & Transportation Affordability in Grand Rapids published by the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, a key finding indicates that at many income levels, not enough affordable units of housing are available. Obtain the report here.

"For housing to be considered affordable by national standards, its cost should not be more than 30% of a household's income. For a family of four in Kent County making 50% of the area median income, or $31,050 … housing costs should not exceed $776 per month." Source. Affording a two-bedroom Kent County unit at Fair Market Rent (FMR) requires a $14.40-per-hour wage. That means minimum wage earners need 1.9 full-time jobs, or 78 hours per week to afford fair market rent. At this cost, 44% of renters in Kent County can't afford a typical two-bedroom apartment. Source.

When did homelessness begin?
There are five distinct periods of homelessness in America: 1. Colonial Period; 2. Urbanization; 3. Industrialization; 4. The Great Depression; and 5. Contemporary Period. Source. Homelessness in America was first documented in the mid-1600s, and it was considered a character flaw. Source.

Colonists settling in North America brought their English traditions, Puritan culture, and work ethic with them, and people believed that good Christians, under God's grace, would naturally have their needs met. Those who were "worthy" -- i.e., the elderly, widows, children, and the disabled -- were not held responsible for their lot in life and aid was rendered, when it was available. People outside that grace -- e.g., drunk, criminal, or lazy -- deserved to suffer. Source. "Wandering beggars and rogues are a plague to civil society," said William Perkins (1558-1602), an influential English cleric and Cambridge theologian. "They should be taken as enemies of this ordinance of God."

To their credit, some colonists believed that the community should intervene to reduce homelessness, and they established community poorhouses or workhouses, where the homeless and people unable to care for themselves could live. "Poorhouse residents were put to work doing hard or unpleasant tasks, the hope being that such labor would reform the shiftless, and they would be eager to find other employment that would sustain them." Source. But poorhouses didn't reduce homelessness; they only increased the misery.

The Industrial Revolution
The completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1800s symbolized the advance of the Industrial Revolution and made it far easier for farm workers to migrate to cities in search of employment. Railroads and the telegraph system introduced pervasive societal changes, and mills, mines, and dock work offered employment but low job security. Business cycles were anything but dependable. (A History of Homelessness in America, by Steve Carlson, Psy.D., Director of Supportive Housing, Spectrum Community Mental Health, Minneapolis, MN). With so many people walking the streets in the bigger cities, the country's first panhandling ordinances came into being, and city jails became de facto shelter systems. Vagrancy laws were strict. Source.

In an unregulated capitalist economy, industrial jobs were demeaning and dangerous. Mishaps with machinery caused death and major injuries. There was no such thing as Workers' Compensation. Widows and the disabled -- many with dependent children -- had nowhere to turn and no way to subsist. The 1850s brought the first documented cases of homeless youth, many of whom were kicked to the curb because their families could no longer afford to raise them. Source.

*English nursery rhyme circa 1842

Next week, Part II examines homelessness from the Civil War Era to the present.

Get involved:
- Educate yourself about homelessness. Here's a good source to get you started.
- Donate to organizations like Degage Ministries, Kids Food Basket, Catherine's Health Center, Mel Trotter Ministries, Guiding Light Mission, Feeding America West Michigan, Dwelling Place, In The Image, or your favorite charity.

Photographs by Adam Bird
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