Rapid Blog: The solution to homelessness is housing, and we can solve this crisis

What is needed to help those who are homeless in Grand Rapids? Safe, affordable housing, writes Tami VandenBerg, the Director of Well House.
This op-ed is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Tami VandenBerg, who owns The Meanwhile Bar on Wealthy Street and The Pyramid Scheme Bar in Heartside with her brother, Jeff VandenBerg. She is also Director of Well House, a nonprofit organization that uses the Housing First Model to move people out of homelessness and into permanent housing. She lives in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids with her family.

Recently I have been inundated with questions about homelessness in Grand Rapids. Some of these questions have come in response to the lively and colorful discussions about the state of the historic Heartside neighborhood. I've been alarmed at some of the misinformation I've seen spread around on social media and through some media outlets. I decided I needed to take action.  

Something I've heard repeated in various spheres is that Grand Rapids has become a 'destination for homeless people.’ I'm not sure what data/research/evidence supports this as I've never seen any cited.  Absolutely it is true that our city has people coming now for all kinds of reasons. We also have many people leaving and looking for cheaper housing and more opportunity elsewhere. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] Point in Time Homelessness Count, our county experienced a 12 percent decrease from 2015 to 2016 in the number of people staying in emergency shelters and on the streets.

Another commonly repeated statement is that the majority of people who experience homelessness are mentally ill or are addicted to illegal drugs or alcohol. Dennis Culhane, a leading researcher on the issue of homelessness in the United States, states the following: “In my own research, I have calculated that the rate of severe mental illness among the homeless (including families and children) is 13 to 15 percent. Among the much smaller group of single adults who are chronically homeless, however, the rate reaches 30 to 40 percent.” So while this is an important piece of the conversation, there is simply no research to back up the idea that most homeless people have severe mental illness.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, one in five people on the street on any given night struggle with addiction. It can be both a cause and a consequence of homelessness, but it is often vastly overstated in discussions around homelessness.

Some claim that there are many people living on the street who do not want housing. I can tell you that in the last 20 years I have encountered very few people who turned down safe, low-cost, dignified, permanent housing.  Those who did were often extremely traumatized, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or did not want to be separated from a pet or a community that had been established on the street or in an encampment.

I strongly believe that good data is essential to solving any social problem, and I applaud our community for taking big steps to improve our data.

Each January Kent County is required to submit a 'Point in Time' Count to HUD. This count includes people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing units and on the streets. Eight-hundred people were included in this count on January 27, 2016. This count provides a 'snapshot' of the issue, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates there are five times that number in any given city who are 'doubled up,’ living temporarily with friends or family. While the homeless population in Heartside are the most visible, 189 of those counted on January 2016 were children.  

Another key data point in the HUD homelessness study is 368 of the 800 people counted identify as Black/African American.  That is, 46 percent in a county that, according to the 2010 census, is 9.7 percent Black/African American. As our city and county grapple with our very serious lack of racial equity (see this Forbes article from January 2015), our discussions need to include this alarming disparity in homelessness.

There is a solution to homelessness, and the solution is housing.

The reasons people lose their housing are varied, and no two stories are exactly alike. But the solution is always the same: housing. This can be achieved through rent subsidies, single room occupancy projects, and rehabilitating our stock of vacant/boarded up houses (19,000 in the county according to the 2010 census).

The Housing First Model, developed by Sam Tsemberis in New York City in the early 2000s, has been widely implemented in states such as Utah and cities such as Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada. Utah has since reduced chronic homelessess by 91%.  Medicine Hat provided housing to 885 people, virtually ending homelessness in that city, and saving money in the process.

The Housing First Model is based on the concept that a homeless individual or household's first and primary need is to obtain stable housing, and that other issues that may affect the household can and should be addressed once housing is obtained.  

"If you can get somebody off the street, it saves the emergency room visits, it saves the police, it saves the justice system — and so when you add up all those extra costs ... you can buy a lot of housing for that amount of money," Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston has stated.

Alberta's Ministry of Human Services said that supports for chronically homeless people can cost more than $100,000 per year (in Canada), taking into account justice, health and emergency services. Housing First costs less than $35,000 a year, the ministry reports.

Central Florida found that residents pay $31,065 per chronically homeless person every year they live on the streets. A study from 2014 found that it would cost taxpayers just $10,051 per homeless person to give them a permanent place to live and services like job training and health care in the same region.
So what are we waiting for, Grand Rapids?  I think we really all want the same thing. We want safe, clean, successful business districts, and we want dignified housing for all of our residents. Business owners, faith leaders, community activists and most of all, our homeless neighbors all want homelessness to end in Grand Rapids and Kent County.
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