Community Rebuilders solidifies strategies to fight homelessness with last year's $5 million grant

Forever etched in Shontaze “Taz” Jones’ memory are her days of uncertainty as a homeless veteran.

The former Army E-4 Specialist was forced out of her Benton Harbor rental after an inspection by the American Electric Power utility declared the home a fire hazard due to defective wiring and a faulty fuse box. 

Thus began Jones’ two-month struggle to stay warm and fed while trying to get to work on time.

“I walked everywhere,” Jones recalls, who now lives in Grand Rapids. “I walked 20 minutes to get to work in the rain and sleet. I ate at McDonald’s and ordered on the $1 menu … I slept on a friend’s couch or stayed at Motel 6 in Benton Harbor.”

Veterans like Jones are not rare, and as we commemorate Veterans Day this November, it’s fitting to remember the veterans in Kent County and nearly 9,000 others who are without a fixed address.

A Grand Rapids-based nonprofit is working to fundamentally impact homelessness. A $5 million grant it received from the founder of Amazon in November 2018 has boosted that worthy goal. Since 1993, Community Rebuilders has worked to change the trajectory of the homeless population in Kent County, including but not limited to veterans who have served their country.

The $5 million grant it received last year from the Day 1 Families Fund that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos founded has enabled it to unleash an aggressive approach to fighting family homelessness throughout Kent County.

Since receiving the grant a year ago, Community Resources has been formalizing its plan and strategy.

“We believe that no individual or organization can tackle these important issues alone,” says Vera Beech, Community Rebuilders executive director. “Our strategy with Day One Family Funds is to create and promote coordination across agencies and sectors, aligning funding sources and policy initiatives and building support to achieve affordable housing goals and related objectives for families experiencing homelessness.”

Veteran homelessness 

Veterans are a prime example of why it’s important to focus on ending homelessness instead of simply managing it, according to Jeffrey King, Community Rebuilders’ director of advancement and communication. 

Jeffrey King“There are some unique risk factors that contribute to a veteran becoming homeless,” King says. “It’s often undiagnosed or untreated PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) while they’re trying to navigate through multiple systems to get the help that they need.”

Due to the recent funding that has enabled Community Rebuilders to expand its aggressive approach to fighting homelessness in Kent County, progress is on the rise. In 2018, there were 398 homeless veterans, according to the Grand Rapids/Wyoming/Kent County Continuum of Care’s Homeless Management Information System. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31 of this year, the nonprofit has been able to decrease that number to 42 sheltered homeless veterans, 36 of whom have been connected with a resource for housing.

“As part of our successful community-wide effort to make veteran homelessness, rare, brief and one time, the Continuum of Care and Community Rebuilders now track data in our Homeless Management Information System system using the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness Functional Zero Process to track and connect Veterans to Housing Resources,” Beech says.

“Six veterans currently remain in an emergency shelter in our community with outreach teams working to reach them and help them secure permanent housing,” Beech adds. “On average, 11 new veterans are entering the homeless system each month and our community has the resources to house these veterans.”

The risk factors for veterans — other than extreme poverty that plagues nearly all homeless people — are substance-use disorders and mental illness, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In particular, psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and alcohol and drug use are associated with homelessness. This is consistent with research on homelessness in the general population, where schizophrenia and bipolar disorders are the greatest contributors, followed by substance abuse.

By better understanding the needs of veterans and connecting them with other local partners, “We’ve taken a real targeted approach by streamlining the process so veterans can get in. By making those services [easily accessible], we were able to create a system ... to significantly reduce our inflow and increase our outflow, meaning we don’t have homeless veterans languishing on lists,” King says. 

It’s those services that helped Jones find a home for herself and her son. The Veterans Administration in Battle Creek connected Jones to Community Rebuilders that first placed her in transitional housing in 2016.

“Community Rebuilders basically helped me from A to Z,” Jones says, who now works as an advocate with the Disability Advocates of Kent County and volunteers with Beyond26, a nonprofit in Grand Rapids that helps those with disabilities who’ve aged out of educational system find employment. “[Community Rebuilders] has given me a sense of purpose, to be able to help others,” she says.

Kent County’s homeless population

Community Rebuilders’ big tent goal is to end homelessness in Kent County within five years. Doing so is vital to the health and well being of these individuals because a place to live improves their overall well-being, health, education, and employment opportunities, according to King.

“We are primarily focused on identifying the most vulnerable homeless families and individuals in the community and identifying what it is they want and need in order to exit their homeless situation,” King says.

Who are the most susceptible to homelessness? A local study provides needed insights.

In 2018, 8,495 people experienced at least one episode of homelessness in Kent County, according to the Grand Rapids/Wyoming/Kent County Continuum of Care’s Homeless Management Information System, also known as the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness. Average length of time people in Kent County were homeless in 2018 is 60 days.

Of those 8,495:
• 41.4 percent (3,525) were adults 25 and over;
• 7.2 percent (611) were youth ages 18-24:
• 25.3 percent (2,151) were adults in families;
• 32 percent (2,722) were children in families;
• 11.8 percent (1,006) were seniors 55 years and older.

In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness released its plan “Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness,” which included ending chronic homelessness in five years; preventing and ending homeliness among veterans in five years; preventing and ending homelessness for families and youth and children in 10 years; and setting a path to ending all types of homelessness. 

The report helped illustrate the link between veterans and other homeless people.

Homelessness, trauma, and inequity

“It’s important to recognize that [a] young mother experiences the trauma of not knowing where her next meal is going to come from or trying to escape violence creates the same PTSD conditions as it does with veterans,” King says. “We have to treat homelessness like the emergency and crisis it is and get them into stable housing as quickly as possible because housing is a stabilizer whether you’re a veteran or single mother. Housing can even out some of those issues they’re dealing with.”

In addition, issues of equity have historically been a barrier to housing. Entrenched racism coupled with income inequality makes people of color more vulnerable to homelessness.

“We know persons of color experience homelessness at a significantly higher rate in Kent County and a lot of that is indicative of historical inequities around housing, access to healthcare, access to education," King says. “So what we’re really trying to do is, at a broader level, address those inequities through a system that increases access, recognizes risk factors (to becoming homeless) and connects them to services that they maybe wouldn’t be able to connect to because of their housing situation.”

For too long, well-intended initiatives have “managed homelessness” instead of trying to solve it. There’s a marked difference, according to King.

“Managing homelessness is indicative of a system where your exit rates from homeless shelters to permanent housing is very low,” he says. “When there’s a desire to have a sock drive for people who are homeless, that’s an example of managing homelessness because what homeless people need is housing and then they can buy their own socks. They don’t need more socks to make their homelessness more comfortable; we need housing to end their homelessness.

“At one point we were housing one veteran household every eight hours in Kent County because the need was there and we had the response system in place,” King adds. “We think we can do the same thing with families.”

Which is where the $5 million comes in.

A new strategy

In the past year, Community Rebuilders has outlined its “Our Day One” strategy that aims to fight homelessness throughout Kent County.

“’Our Day One’ includes how to shift from an emergency shelter model to a temporary housing model that’s really focused on making those episodes of homelessness really short with the ultimate goal being to enter into your own housing and how to bring an array of cross sector partners to help address the health determinants,” King says.

To date, Community Rebuilders is in the process of developing an online portal that will enable people to access a community resource specialist 24/7.

“The portal will help that household first identify a safe and secure place to stay whether that’s an agency or a family [member] or friend for a short period of time,” King says. “Those individuals will also have access to what we call the grace network, a collaborative of 12 community partners that is a network that will allow us to better track referrals and determine the efficacy of those services and figure out what we need more of and what we need less of.”

Another issue that many consider well-intended but doesn’t bear fruit is what King refers to as, “You get what you get if you don’t throw a fit.”

“What people don’t want to be told is the reason they’re homeless is because there’s something wrong with them and they need to fix that first before we can get them back into housing,” King says. 

“So, one of the things Community Rebuilders has never had a problem with is sitting down with someone and saying ‘Hey, you’re living outdoors, you’re living in a car, you’re living in a tent or on the street, do you want to move into housing?’ The answer is always ‘yes.’ Everyone wants their own place to call home.”

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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