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Fenced off abutment doesn't solve anything, says local homeless advocate

Concern grows over where displaced residents are living now.
Tami VandenBerg, Executive Director of Well House

Tami VandenBerg, Executive Director of Well House /Katy Batdorff

Where are those people now? That’s the question some in the community are asking after the decision was made to fence off the Wealthy Street bridge abutment that was being used by homeless residents for shelter.

According to the Well House Executive Director, Tami VandenBerg, there are 1,000 homeless people in Grand Rapids waiting for long-term housing. With a lack of available housing, she says it’s unlikely that those living under the overpass are any safer than they were before.

“They will try to find somewhere that’s warm. Either a house to squat in —  wherever it’s going to be, it’s not going to be safe. It’s going to be cold and let’s be honest people die on the streets,” she said.

VandenBerg admits that true solutions are longer term; she says it will take time to create the infrastructure necessary to house those who need it. But she believes we also need better short term options. Not all of those seeking shelter either want to or can abide by the rules offered by the temporary shelters along Division Avenue.

“Some folks who are not religious are not necessarily comfortable there,” VandenBerg explained. “Mel Trotter [Ministries] accepts families, but up until very recently families were split up. All the men went to one side, women and children to another.“ She does say that shelter housing for families has been planned for some time.

She also points out that LGBTQ homeless families will often not be recognized as such by the religious-based sheltering organizations and will choose to stay together outside, than be separated inside.

Well House recently launched a new campaign they’re calling 19:1. The premise is all about simple math, they say. There are 19,000 vacant homes in Kent County, and 1,000 homeless Rapidians and VandenBerg believes those numbers prove that no one in Grand Rapids should have to turn to an overpass for shelter.

“We know how to end homelessness. There’s an enormous amount of data and research. Kent County wrote a ten-year plan that expires in 2014,” said VandenBerg. “We know how to do it. If the community-will and political-will was there, we would have done it already. “

“We need to decide,” she continued. “Are we going to continue to push people out of sight into less-safe areas, or actually implement solutions that we know will work?”

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