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Local shelters strive to curb trend of child homelessness in Grand Rapids

Mel Trotter, Family Promise and other organizations are working to house a growing number of homeless children despite limited shelter space.

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The Coalition to End Homelessness

(616) 459-5049

Mel Trotter Ministries

(616) 454-8249

Family Promise of Grand Rapids

(616) 475-5220 

A mother with her son at Mel Trotter on Christmas Day

A mother with her son at Mel Trotter on Christmas Day /Courtesy of Mel Trotter

/Courtesy of Family Promise

Jodi Scholma, Mel Trotter's Children's Advocate, reads to children

Jodi Scholma, Mel Trotter's Children's Advocate, reads to children /Courtesy of Mel Trotter

For many children in Grand Rapids, waking up without a place to call home is not a bad dream. For many children, homelessness is a reality.

Cindy Longyne, communications manager for Mel Trotter Ministries, says there are 45 children currently staying in the downtown ministry’s shelter. Mel Trotter’s three school buses take children to and from school every day, picking them up and dropping them off at the ministry.

“We’re really trying to expose and make more people aware of [homelessness among children],” says Longyne. “Typically when someone thinks of a homeless person they think of an older male with a beard that’s grown a little too long. We’re seeing the face of homelessness changing to be younger. We see a large number of children.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as “people who are on the streets or who are staying in shelters.” A 2011 Detroit Free Press four-part series described homelessness among Michigan students as having "jumped 300% in the last four years" and Kent County has not had the luxury of being a statistical outlier. Grand Rapids Salvation Army, which serves as the city’s processing center, registered 4,100 households that were homeless or were at imminent risk last year. Those households represented over 4,400 children.

Cheryl Schuch, executive director for Family Promise of Grand Rapids, says these numbers don’t accurately reflect the magnitude of child homelessness, citing statistical exclusion of children enrolled in agencies like Head Start and those who haven’t been registered as homeless.   

“We’re just starting to get a handle on our homelessness management system,” says Schuch. “[Grand Rapids has] one of the more progressive central intake systems in the country but the Kent ISD homeless count is significantly underreporting the number of kids being affected. [The groups of homeless children] ages 0 to 3 are silent and hidden.”

Family Promise shelters an average of 65 families annually through their emergency shelter, and Schuch says that 80% of the children they see are under the age of 12.

“Everyone is shocked to find out we have families with young children who are homeless in Grand Rapids,” says Schuch. “Several educators over the years have said it’s a ‘tsunami’, an ‘epidemic’, and it’s still increasing. We need to have people understand this problem exists here.”

Jesica Vail, the program manager for Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, attributes causality to poverty and income inequality.

“If we look at rates of unemployment, at low paying jobs and at the cost of housing, all those contribute to housing instability,” says Vail. “People are paying a significant portion of their earned income toward housing and aren’t able to save money, and they’re one crisis away from losing their housing.”

The Coalition to End Homelessness, a collaboration between over 70 local organizations including the Salvation Army and Mel Trotter, works to provide those in housing crisis with emergency shelter as a temporary fix leading to permanent housing. Families worried about a lack of a place to stay register with the Salvation Army, and the Salvation Army refers the family to appropriate resources. Resources include prevention programs that attempt to help families struggling with housing payments keep their homes.

“We’re not trying to maintain homelessness,” says Betty Zylstra, director of the Salvation Army’s Booth Family Services. “We’re trying to maintain housing for poor people.”

Vail says that the prevention center “needs exceed the supply.” According to Schuch, almost half of those registered with the Salvation Army last year were unable to be housed due to lack of room in shelters. Government grants often provide temporary housing, but when the money runs out, families are often stranded.   

“I think you would be really surprised at how many women and children are using hotels as their home,” Longyne says. “That’s because they’re just getting enough money to get by week by week. They don’t have enough to pay for the deposit on an apartment.”

The American Institute for Research’s database says that homeless children are sick four times more often than other children, have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems as non-homeless children and are four times as likely to show delayed development. The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes that “toxic stress” in childhood, which includes poverty, can result in negative “changes in [the] baseline stress-response system” that can lead to problems in adulthood, including obesity, financial woes and suicide.

“If we’re not getting these kids off the street quickly and medicating that stress, then their potential for school, jobs and everything down the road is significantly reduced,” says Scuch. “It’s not something we can go back and fix later. These young kids are a huge priority for us right now.”

Since the beginning of 2013 Mel Trotter has increased beds for children by 120% and designated a floor for intact families. Mel Trotter’s re-housing efforts resulted in 115 people gaining housing between September and December of 2013.    

Longyne emphasizes that Mel Trotter’s efforts are powerless without external charity.

“It sounds a little cliché to ask for a monetary donation, but unless we have the funding to do these programs they won’t go through,” says Longyne. “It’s easy to say, ‘We’ll just mentor a mom,’ but that doesn’t link her up to the resources she needs.”

Family Promise partners with the Kent ISD Homelessness Coordination Service and ELNC preschools to bring awareness to homelessness among children, and works alongside families to prevent housing loss. For those who have lost homes, Family Promise provides basic needs like food and diapers and has case management, workforce development and financial literacy programs for parents. The organization is also currently trying to increase their “emergency safety-net” capacity for families with kids.

“We need to have people partner with our agencies providing emergency support, but we also need people partnering through our coalition because that’s a coordinated effort helping to bring about a more sustainable support for families,” says Schuch. “That’s really what it’s about: the emergency support happening very quickly and the right collaborations going into place so we can make a lasting change.” 

“The key is putting our resources, whether it’s volunteers, money or landlords offering affordable rental units to families, [where it’s] really focusing on families with young kids. If we can’t we’re going to be seeing the impact for a long time to come.”

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