Over the past two years, 130 public and private sector, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations have come together to examine Kent County’s homelessness crisis. They launched Housing Kent to increase access to affordable housing and decrease homelessness — and intentionally focus on eliminating racial disparities in housing. Kent County’s Black and Latinx children and families are disproportionately homeless.
“Systemic racism is a part of every major system from health care, education and criminal justice to housing, which is a big one,” says Salvador Lopez, Housing Kent’s interim president. “In 2019, one in six African American children were part of the homeless system compared to one out of 130 white children. About 12% of the Kent County population is African American but 72% of the homeless sector is composed of African American people.”
The average child experiencing homelessness in Kent County is in the first grade.
"We have enough research, data and lived experience to know that if a child doesn’t have a stable roof over their head, a stable home, they're going to struggle in almost every other area of their life,” Lopez says. “When you see a school bus that holds about 50 seats, one out of those 50 seats is a child experiencing homelessness. That's what we have in Kent County.”
To address the racial disparities among people experiencing homelessness in Kent County, Housing Kent will partner with organizations like the Urban League of Western Michigan and the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan.
“Kent County has the fourth worst Black and white homeownership gaps in the country,” Lopez says. “People of color are disproportionately affected by the challenges that we have within the housing sector.”
Housing Kent has developed an action for seven categories on the housing spectrum. At the low end of the spectrum, Kent County residents with no housing should be secured with an immediate place to stay. People who are temporarily housed should be ensured permanent housing. Those who will soon lose their housing should be helped to save their housing or obtain new housing. Those at-risk of losing housing need to be stabilized. The insecurely housed should be helped to address health, safety and finances impacting that security. At the upper end of the spectrum, the stably housed are defined as living in quality housing they can afford — and finally, the housed by choice, who have the ability to live where they choose. To be defined as stably housed or housed by choice, people are spending no more than 30% of their income on housing.
“A lot of families are in what we call the prevention space. They have a roof over their head but they're paying a lot more than 30% of the household income towards that home,” Lopez says. “They really are one financial misstep away from falling into what we call the red space, the no housing space.”
According to Housing Kent data reported in its community plan,”Redefining the Path Home,” 63,000 Kent County households spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
“The minimum wage required to support the monthly rent for a newly constructed, basic two-bedroom apartment in Kent County is $25 an hour or $32,000 a year. The minimum wage required to support the cost of the average newly constructed home in Kent County is $36.50 per hour or $76,000 per year,” Lopez says. “A lot of our families in Kent County are not making enough to keep up with the cost of renting or owning a home.”
In its work to decrease homelessness in Kent County, Housing Kent will follow the common agenda and roadmap to address systemic issues in housing stability as well as the Kconnect collective impact initiative. By aligning other existing efforts to address homelessness within the county, Housing Kent hopes to develop a comprehensive housing system that reduces the number of Kent County residents experiencing homelessness by more than one-third.
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Images courtesy Housing Kent