Do Good: GRACEH works to make Vision to End Homelessness a reality

Early morning. Traffic overhead gets busier and noisier, making it impossible to sleep. Not that you got any sleep anyway -- you’ve just spent another cold, damp night under the US-131 overpass. Your bones and joints ache, and you’re hungry. You are not looking forward to another aimless, boring day. But it’s time to get up and gather your stuff before law enforcement finds you here. Your personal belongings aren’t many, but each item is precious. You wear layers of clothing because you don’t have a closet or dresser. The layers come in handy on cold days. On hot days, not so much. You roll up what bedding you have (maybe a large piece of cardboard, newspapers, an old blanket, a tarp) and leave it. It’s too heavy and burdensome to carry with you, and with luck, it will be there when you come back tonight, but increasingly, these areas are being fenced off. You wonder what you’ll do if that happens to your space.

And so, you begin your daily stroll downtown to find a meal, keenly aware of the frowns and stares from more fortunate passersby. Your feeling of hunger and despair grows deeper.
Ten years ago, the city of Grand Rapids and the Kent County Board of Commissioners – with research and input from area agencies, churches, and individuals – created the “Vision to End Homelessness,” with the goal being to end homelessness by the close of 2014. Funded and supported by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Dyer-Ives Foundation, Steelcase Foundation, and HUD, the project is massive and ongoing.
“People still look down on homeless individuals,” says Jesica Vail, program manager at Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness (GRACEH), located at 118 Commerce Ave. SW in the Heart of Michigan United Way building.

“It’s easier to assume someone is homeless because he’s an addict, and to say, ‘But I’m not an addict, so I’m safe.’ It makes the homeless person the ‘other.’ But a downward spiral could happen to anybody: a medical emergency, being downsized out of a job, a broken-down car that causes you to miss work. We are all vulnerable. Everybody should have basic needs and rights met. This is a health issue.”

Getting proper help when you’re homeless can seem insurmountable. First, you have to know what services are available. That may take some time to figure out if you’re new in town or mentally ill, as many homeless folks are. Or perhaps you’ve been homeless for a few years and have given up on “the system,” but for whatever reason, today you’re going to give it another shot. Either way, you’ll need to fill out the correct forms. If you don’t have the proper I.D. – like a Social Security card or birth certificate – you can’t apply for basic social services.

“Really, who carries a birth certificate around with them daily?” says Vail. “But you need one to get a driver’s license or Social Security card. And that makes it incredibly difficult. We add barriers to accessing services.”

That isn’t the half of it. Transportation to and from the various agencies can be problematic without money or a bus pass. You’ve already stood in numerous lines. It takes time for your application to get processed, and you wait in even more lines. You hope you’re standing in the correct line, or you’ll have to start over again at the back of another. Finally, days or weeks later, they have an answer for you: You don’t qualify. Try another social service.

And the process begins all over again. Meanwhile, you still don’t have a roof over your head.

“When someone leads a homeless existence, it’s hard to put things together to move forward,” Vail says. “When you worry about basic needs – where to sleep for the night, how to get food -- it’s work just to get the process started. Poverty takes a lot of time.”

Most of the time, our current social services system offers the homeless temporary housing -- meaning the issue is being managed with a sort of one-size-fits-all approach, placing people in a shelter, short-term program, or providing one-time financial assistance. Maybe that kind of help works for some families, but it doesn’t work for everybody.

Ending homelessness requires getting folks housing first, assessing each individual’s needs, and then meeting those needs, whether health-related, work-related, or whatever the challenge happens to be. The new paradigm calls for an emphasis on prevention -- helping people keep existing safe and affordable housing – which could mean financial assistance for mortgage or rent payments, or help with utilities or other assistance that helps bridge the housing affordability gap.

Of course, it takes money -- a lot of money. In order to receive federal funds, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities to have a Housing Continuum of Care (HCC) that allocates funds on a local level, and to conduct planning activities related to homelessness and housing services. GRACEH is designated as the HCC for Grand Rapids, Wyoming, and Kent County.

GRACEH also acts as the housing sub-committee of the Essential Needs Task Force (ENTF), a group that has been in existence almost 30 years. It’s organized through Kent County and works to ensure the essential needs of food, housing, utilities, transportation, and economic/workforce development are being met in our community.

Three core tenets drive GRACEH: to shorten the duration of homelessness; provide support services to maintain housing; and let people hold their own leases, possess more tenant rights, and know their responsibilities. In short, treat homeless individuals like actual people.

GRACEH’s goal is to respond quickly to anybody with a housing crisis. Salvation Army Social Services’ Homeless Assistance Program (HAP) has centralized intake and assesses each individual’s need, then refers the person to the appropriate resource. Part of a national United Way initiative, Michigan 2-1-1 – a free, confidential service -- helps folks connect with local community-based organizations throughout Michigan offering thousands of different programs and services for people seeking help. One need only dial 2-1-1 or access the website here.

Ten years ago, the city of Grand Rapids and the Kent County Board of Commissioners – with research and input from area agencies, churches, and individuals – created the “Vision to End Homelessness,” with the goal being to end homelessness by the close of 2014. Funded and supported by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Dyer-Ives Foundation, Steelcase Foundation, and HUD, the project is massive and ongoing.

Vail says that making the Vision to End Homelessness a reality requires critical shifts in how we serve people, think about basic needs, and plan for the future. This is where the Coalition has focused its work, using an approach that puts housing first.

“In many cases a household’s roadblock is affordability,” Vail says. “On average, people entering the Kent County homeless system can pay more than 50% of their income toward housing, while only 30% is considered affordable.”

The Coalition staffing and operations are supported by the City of Grand Rapids CDBG, Kent County CDBG, Kent County Department of Human Services, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Network 180, the Steelcase Foundation, and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The Salvation Army Booth Family Services provides in-kind support, and resources to support the community-wide Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). Community Rebuilders also supports the costs to operate the HMIS for the community partners. In all, approximately 150 agencies, organizations, and individuals work together to make the vision a reality.

Vision to End Homelessness is one of over 60 plans in Michigan. All counties have one, and there are more than 300 plans nationwide. Many of these communities are connected through the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“We shouldn’t be making people prove they are worthy,” Vail says. “We need to get them housing. It’s as simple as that.”

Get involved:

- Get educated and learn about the Essential Needs Task Force and the Vision to End Homelessness
- Learn about the State of Homelessness in America in 2014
- Volunteer for the Salvation Army
- Volunteer or donate to the Heart of West Michigan United Way
- Become an advocate

Here’s a list of some organizations that need volunteers and donations:

Access of West Michigan
Catholic Charities of West Michigan
Community Legal Services
Degage Ministries
Dwelling Place
Family Promise of Grand Rapids
God’s Kitchen
Goodwill Inc.
Grand Rapids Red Project
Guiding Light Mission
Heart of West Michigan United Way
Heartside Business Association
Heartside Gleaning Initiative
Heartside Ministry
Mel Trotter Ministries
Street Reach/Pine Rest
Well House

Download a pdf of places that need donations and volunteers

Victoria Mullen is the Do Good editor for Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird

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