Can Grand Rapids end homelessness?: Part 3, A destination city for homelessness

Because supply meets demand, GR has became a destination for homelessness. How can nonprofits and the community work together to provide the services and care that will redefine our city?
When a complex economic ecosystem has developed, determining the causal relationship between supply and demand can be nearly impossible.

In other words: it’s hard to tell whether demand is driving supply, or supply is driving demand.

As unusual as it may be to think of the issue of homelessness in purely economic terms, we cannot fully understand Grand Rapids’ issues with homelessness without realizing that our community has a complex and close-knit relationship between the supply of emergency services and the demand for them.

In addition to the significant economic insecurity being experienced by lower and middle income families, individuals, and youth which creates homelessness right here in our own backyard, Grand Rapids is a city which imports homelessness—though not necessarily of our own volition.

“Police departments from other cities in West Michigan will drop their parolees off here,” observes Mel Trotter executive director Dennis Van Kampen, who goes on to list off the names of a handful of West Michigan judges who routinely parole former inmates directly to Mel Trotter’s address.

The justification is, of course, that Mel Trotter has the capacity and organizational focus to provide services to everyone—including parolees, who are often left without the financial and community resources necessary to rebuild their lives after serving their sentence. Many men being paroled also find themselves deeply in debt due to child support payments that racked up during their incarceration.

“We literally are the safety net for everyone,” Van Kampen says.

It’s not just West Michigan police departments and judges who export homelessness to Grand Rapids. Van Kampen confirms that Mel Trotter routinely receives individuals who have been given a one-way bus ticket to downtown Grand Rapids by churches, families, and even missions in other cities across the Midwest.

“When people ask me, ‘is Grand Rapids a destination city for homelessness?’ I tell them, ‘absolutely, yes it is.’”

It’s not a status anyone takes pride in, but it’s a reality nonetheless.

Laid overtop the kinds of observations made by neighborhood regulars like James McCoy (quoted previously in Part 2 of this series) that an uptick in drug-related crime and violence come from “bad folks” from out of town, the scenes that play out in places like Peckich Park, across from Degage, come into better focus.

Homeless folks are coming in from out of town, although many of them not necessarily by choice. And yes: by the account of South Division business owners like Reb Roberts, certain portion of them do present a public safety issue—at least, in the kinds of concentrated populations that are difficult to manage.

Dennis Sturtevant

“The problem isn’t that there are too many poor people there [on South Division],” says Dwelling Place executive director Dennis Sturtevant, “It’s the location. When you have that many people looking for services concentrated in that area, you have a problem.”

This helps to explain why, despite sociologist Michael Ullman’s assertion that, by the numbers, “GR does NOT have a large homeless problem…the bottom line is the level of street or unsheltered homeless in Grand Rapids is below average for a large city,” our city continues to struggle with a never-ending stream of the homeless and desperate.

Why is Grand Rapids a destination city for homelessness? How has this steady demand for homeless services grown larger than the needs of our local community warrant?

In short: because the services exist here.

But these services exist here because there is demand for them.

According to Van Kampen, Grand Rapids’ city fathers asked Mel Trotter to start Grand Rapids City Mission in 1900 to serve a growing population of individuals struggling with alcoholism and homelessness. Mel Trotter, himself a recovered alcoholic and near suicide victim, ran the mission for 40 years under the mission of “trying to see people for who they can be.”

Mel Trotter’s services today focus on two main areas: rescue, which includes emergency shelter for several different demographics, and restoration, which includes alcohol recovery, job readiness, and housing readiness programming with the goal of exiting into permanent housing. Meals, medical and legal clinics, and church services are also part of Mel Trotter’s catalog of services.

With up to 400 beds available every night, Mel Trotter is downtown’s largest provider of emergency shelter, and the only shelter to offer services to the majority of individuals, versus select demographics. In 2017, the ministry’s outputs included over 100,000 nights of emergency shelter, and 401 individuals who found stable housing. Currently, 88 percent of people who successfully transition from an MTM program into housing do not return to shelter, which is an increase from 78 percent last year.

Mel Trotter isn’t the only ministry providing emergency services downtown, however.

Dégagé Ministries

Dégagé Ministries, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, provides emergency overnight shelter to up to 40 single women without children per night. This is in addition to ID services, job coaching, the Open Door program which aims to secure permanent housing, and the daily cafe which serves low-cost meals. Many of Dégagé’s services do charge a nominal fee, which can be paid in tokens earned by doing various jobs within the facilities.

Family Promise of Grand Rapids, which is part of a national network, provides shelter specifically to families, through partnerships with local congregations and with Mel Trotter’s Pathway Home program. There are 32 units of family shelter in Grand Rapids, 22 of them are at MTM, the others are with Family Promise and ICCF. MTM also provides a emergency shelter for youth ages 18-24.

Guiding Light’s services are much more niche, and strategically targeted toward men in recovery, whether from alcoholism, financial insolvency, unemployment, homelessness, or all of the above. Last year, 200 participants successfully exited Guiding Light’s Back to Work program, with 50 percent holding a lease at the time of their exit. Both the Back to Work and Recovery programs dig deep into helping men address the causes of their financial insolvency, whether it be credit card debt, unpaid utilities, overdrawn or nonexistent bank accounts, unpaid child support, and unpaid court fines. Guiding Light also advocates for its clients directly with Friend of the Court to reduce fines.

Guiding Light

Cumulatively, these ministries four represent nearly $16 million in revenue, according to Guidestar’s 990 reports from 2015, with Mel Trotter comprising the lion’s share at nearly $10 million.

There are other players in Heartside’s ministry scene as well: God’s Kitchen, a Catholic charity that provides meals; Heartside Ministry, which provides ID services, mail service, art studios, educational events and other programming; 3:11 Youth Housing, which provides transitional housing for youth; and HQ a drop-in center for youth homeless.

God's KitchenDemand for homeless services and shelter for youth and families is on the rise, according to Family Promise executive director Cheryl Schuch and Covenant House Academy executive director Pam Spaeth. In 2015, the number of families with children seeking shelter in Grand Rapids increased by 200 percent, according to Schuch. While the economy has overall rebounded from the recession 10 years ago, Schuch notes that “that ratio of homeless families hasn’t gone down post recession; rising housing costs hit low-income families hard, due to the fact that incomes haven’t risen for the lowest income brackets.”

Meanwhile, permanent supportive housing and affordable housing (rent and income restricted) continues to be developed by developers like Dwelling Place, the Inner City Christian Federation, Community Rebuilders, and Well House, in order to support the community’s move away from emergency services and toward housing first.

“Our focus and mission is on quality of life type of questions,” says Dwelling Place executive director Dennis Sturtevant. “That’s why we have neighborhood community revitalization programs like Heartside Ministries, focused on community engagement and organizing-type activities. We do art in that, because we feel that’s a critical piece in the whole quality of life question.”

Schuch and Van Kampen emphasize, however, the importance of ensuring individuals and families can be successful in maintaining permanent housing, expressing that while they fully support the housing first model, there’s often situational nuance which requires a careful and intentional approach to permanent housing.

Length of stay within emergency shelters is a success metric often emphasized by HUD and Continuum of Care models, but Schuch points out that focusing on this metric alone can lead to failures in the long term.

“Length of stay can never be separated from housing exits; they can’t just focus on a short length of stay. We have to focus also on the quality, stability, and affordability of housing,” Schuch says.

“If we set a family up in an apartment for $1,000 per month, and their financial assistance runs out after three months and they can’t afford rent anymore, then they’re back on the streets, and we’ve really only made things worse in the long run. It’s much better to take a little more time to work with that family to find, say, an apartment for $700 that they can continue to afford.”

Van Kampen echoes this: “We’ve seen people from our shelter go into housing, and we’ve seen them come right back, telling us they didn’t get the services they need.

“We believe completely in the housing first model—just not that it’s the only way. If we have 1,000 people experiencing homelessness, there’s 1,000 different reasons,” Van Kampen says. “There’s more than one answer.”

Sturtevant echoes the need for multiple, flexible models—albeit from a different perspective.

“The issue is complicated. The one size fits all is what I object to…I don’t think there’s enough opportunity for piloting innovation, for thinking of new ways to do it, because you’ve got to live with the models you’re given. And those models [for federal funding] change all the time.”

Homelessness is a complicated issue, without simple solutions.

According to Schuch, Family Promise is committed to innovation and agility, as an organization. “One size doesn’t fit all. Multiple approaches work. What we do for men and women experiencing homelessness on Division is not how we should treat families. Shelter in the family community is different from a bed and a meal—it’s a host of services.”

Meanwhile, ministries like Dégagé serve the low income as well as the homeless, including the hundreds of residents of nearby permanent supportive and affordable housing—a demographic businesses in the neighborhood don’t currently serve. Degage’s cafe and events enjoy a joyful, celebratory atmosphere of community, which arguably provides a critical service to low income residents, who would otherwise have little to no outlet for safe, indoor community gatherings and recreation.

“Mother Theresa says the worst poverty of all is being unloved and unwanted,” executive director Marge Palmerie observes.
While many in the community clamor for a more dramatic shift away from emergency services and towards the housing first model, demand for these services isn’t going away anytime soon.

Income disparity continues to cause family and youth homelessness to rise, and ministries and parole boards continue to funnel steady demand to the services provided by Grand Rapids’ ministries.

Yet some of these ministries have a keen eye to the future—especially in light of the imminent shift in donor base and donor values.

“We’re on the cusp of changing who we are, for the future,” says Van Kampen, citing the mission’s current feasibility studies into social enterprise business and social impact investing—which would mean greater employment training opportunities, new small businesses, and even housing development. Van Kampen cites Rising Grinds Cafe in Madison Neighborhood as an example of the type of social enterprise model Mel Trotter is examining. Recent partnerships with other ministries, like Family Promise’s collaborative shelters, seem to represent a small taste of what’s ahead for Grand Rapids’ largest mission.

“Need won’t stop. So we need to learn how to become more sustainable,” Van Kampen says.

Across the board, ministry directors emphasize the need for homelessness prevention.

Pekich Park serves as a meeting and hangout space for people who are not traditionally served by area businesses.

“There’s no prevention upstream,” says Guiding Light’s Stuart Ray. “We continue to perpetuate generational poverty.” Ray points out the relationship between the supply of homelessness services and the demand for them.

“We don’t know what the real need is,” he says. “We built it.”

The problem of a lack of mental health services and a general lack of options for residents is echoed by most of the ministry directors, including Palmerie.

“Mental health is a big issue, and also housing—skyrocketing rent, and people don’t have a lot of options. Having more options for people is what we need. Giving people more control. The rules [of being an affordable housing resident] can be so limiting, and can cause people to live in fear.”

Parole support services; basic needs and income assistance for at-risk families; better and more affordable access to mental health services; according to nonprofits leaders like Palmerie, Ray, Van Kampen, Shuch, and even Dwelling Place’s Sturtevant, these are all upstream prevention strategies which have the power to stop homelessness before it begins.

“Our job is to put ourselves out of business,” says Schuch. “Let’s face it: we’ve all got other things that we could be doing. Let’s finish this work so we can move on, as a community.”

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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