Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen looks at an issue that Rapid Growth and area individuals and groups are beginning to discuss in greater depth in the hopes of finding real answers.
We are a region of promises, of pledges and ultimately of bequests when our life has ended, as measured and documented in the recently published Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy’s "Estimate of Charitable Giving in Kent County, Michigan for 2011" report. We are most generous with our dollars, often besting the nation in charitable donation percentages.
A charitable heart is really our calling card for many around the world who track such data. But this number does fluctuate with the times as well. One year we are number two in the nation and then, a year later, in the mid-30s.
On another balance sheet I have to wonder, in the arena of dialogue, if our uncivil discourse is an indication of a contradiction. Just one visit to the local public comment section and it becomes abundantly clear we have some real discrepancies in the area of compassion when sized up against our contributions, whether by check writing or simply tossing coins in a bucket.
Earlier this fall, the roadside homeless, with an ever-changing variety of cardboard slogans, seemed to vanish into thin air only to return a few days after the big tourist event left town for the year. I asked one gentleman at the corner where he went and he just shrugged his shoulders and pointed to South 131.
Then on Veteran’s Day, locals -- and later the world via YouTube -- watched a local homeless vet be transformed from scruff to buff in just a few minutes through hairstylist’s cut-and-a-color and a new suit by way of stopmotion photography.
My sharing here is not to say it was wrong or what was done could be handled differently. As a student of life as well of the arts, I know all too well that no two paths are alike. One visit to any page -- from MLive to anyone’s personal Facebook wall -- shows that not only did the video spark intense comments but also that this issue really touched a lot of people, fueling emotions to real new heights.
Even with the missteps of the video (as pointed out by area folks who work with this community), it was a teachable moment for our entire community. We must begin to engage the number of viewers who “liked” the video and to reconcile our region's propensity for philanthropy with its sometimes lackluster capacity to be compassionate.
Simply put, the video helped more of us see the need right in front of us. Next, as our numbers begin to rise, we need to begin to do the hard work.
Right before the holiday, a new fence was erected under the Wealthy Street overpass at Ionia. Under the guise of solving an unsightly litter problem, this new fence pretty much ensured that a population of a few homeless folks would no longer be able to seek shelter there, with some people apparently arguing that a public nuisance had been created or that this camp was bad for the new Downtown Market. And again, conversations ensued both on- and off-line about the complex issues of homelessness, gentrification, and the role of the community in keeping our city safe, clean, and compassionate for all.
The complex reactions to this recent string of homelessness stories and panhandling anecdotes reveal our societal clashes and indicate we as a community have a lot to discuss and consider. Compassion, honest dialogue, trust, and generous hearts have to be in the equation going forward.
It is not my beat this week to head too far down this path. There are many others with better degrees and experience in this area. But I will say in the coming weeks we will have three great opportunities to insert ourselves in the system to create change concerning the homeless.
For starters, Well House
’s Executive Director Tami VandenBerg, whose organization has just launched an impressive project called the 19:1 Campaign, believes it is hard to imagine a group that has less political and economic power than those who are experiencing homelessness.
Kent County’s supply of housing is not the issue. "We have 19 vacant housing units for every one person who is homeless,” says VandenBerg. “Therefore, what is the issue? Why do we, as a community, allow this to continue?”
VandenBerg and many others see this as a multi-layered issue, including the low wages of this region as a major economic factor that have placed families at risk or forced them to work multiple jobs to keep up with the cost of living. She also points to the mass incarceration of a lot of black and brown folks for non-violent crimes. For those imprisoned, when they are released with a felony on their record (and many for a simple possession charge), they are then excluded from most subsidized housing and most employment opportunities.
Moving forward, we have to address more of the factors contributing to homelessness instead of focusing on just the immediate needs of homelessness, which make for great ad campaigns full of emotion but rarely dive to the root causes.
And there is hope here for Grand Rapids, given last year’s historic vote in the city of Grand Rapids (and the subsequent hand slapping attempt by the county’s district attorney) as we decriminalized simple possession of marijuana. In this affirmative vote as a community we bucked the trend and have, in a way, begun the journey to ensure we are a community defined by our smart policies. Other solutions are beginning to emerge and the community has shown the capacity to make the shift from 'what is good for me' to those policies and ideas that will benefit all. This is community taking care of its community and building the future city -- not around brick and mortar but through policies that simply look at the whole, not the few or elite.
While the 19:1 Campaign is bringing the community into the solution in exciting ways, we will also have a chance for the community to come together with a panel discussion at the next The Salon: An Urbanist Meetup on Thursday, Dec. 19. The Salon is inviting their membership to attend and listen to area leaders charged with the mission to care for this homeless population. (Join their Facebook Group here at The Salon
The meeting is also a chance for their membership to reach out to another vocal population (often referred to as armchair quarterbacks) to enter into the conversation. I hope they will courageously invite even the most passionate cynical voices to step away from their computers to be a part of the dialogue. I hope we can have a chance to actively collaborate with one another while listening to those serving in the field and facing the challenges. I hope it will be a place where we can begin to all share in the process, no matter our perspective.
“Above all, we need a strategy. The community came together statewide and by the end of October 2006 we had a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness,” says VandenBerg. “Now let's see what worked, what didn't work, and make the plan better, and build in some accountability.”
It won't just be Well House or The Salon. Our publication, Rapid Growth, consistently uses our Do Good section to shine a light on individuals and organizations who are working for the underserved populations in our city, and we will enter into this dialogue, no doubt, in the coming year as well.
The issue of homelessness, or any “big” topic, might appear on the surface to be too daunting for us to take on. And yet, at the same time, we thrive on the celebration of those who engage in the cultural transformation via an idea in our region. Let’s make good on that faith others have in us in the months ahead.
Kent County continues to make headlines as a pinnacle of philanthropy because we have long understood that it is not healthy to be seen as the type of community that continually places the bandage over the injury. It is not how we are wired or who we want to be if we are serious about creating a culture where innovation can flourish to usher in a real systemic change.
Right now, we have the opportunity to collaborate, innovate, engineer, and create a solution that ensures all our residents have a roof over their heads at night. As we move into the coldest, darkest part of the year, it's time for our community to use our entrepreneurial spirit to craft new ways of solving old problems and to infuse our philanthropy with a little more compassion.
The last opportunity around this topic is all about you: your willingness not just to be the change, but also to be willing to take the big risks to create the change. Your willingness to go beyond an online debate about a fence or a YouTube comment section. Your commitment to lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. That is how we become the community truly worthy of our city’s first name, Grand.
The Future Needs All of Us.
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All Photography: ©Tommy Allen of Allen + Pfleghaar Studio at Tanglefoot, 2013.