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Can Grand Rapids end homelessness?

By the numbers, we should be capable of ending homelessness. But we aren’t, and our progress in that direction is too slow to keep up with our city’s breakneck growth.
Degage Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids

Degage Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids /Marjorie Steele

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Mel Trotter Ministries in Downtown Grand Rapids

Mel Trotter Ministries in Downtown Grand Rapids /Marjorie Steele

Can Grand Rapids end homelessness?

Grand Rapids, we need to have an honest conversation about homelessness. All of us.

I could cite the fact that nearly 10,000 individuals in Kent County touched the homelessness system last year, 39 percent of which were children. I could point out that over $34 million in annual retail potential lies unlocked on South Division Avenue, the cause of which is an escalating turf war between nearby businesses and the homeless population and ministries which serve them. I could tell you one of the many heart-rending stories of the experiences that come from being homeless - stories of which Grand Rapids’ homelessness ministries and organizations have no shortage.

I could talk about the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new guidelines for using the “housing first” model, and how urban communities must collaborate and share resources in order to access this federal funding. I could talk about the $26.4 million in funding Grand Rapids’ 14 main homelessness organizations received last year1, and the fact that $14 million came from private donors who aren’t likely aware of the “housing first” model, or the research that supports it. I could talk about the homelessness programs, services, and collaborations that are working. And I could talk about those that aren’t.

There are a lot of facts and figures I could write about - and I have. But I pitched that draft. All 3,500 words. I pitched it because the truth is that this topic is simply too much for one article. It’s too much for one voice - or for one solution. If we’re going to make a measurable impact on homelessness in Grand Rapids, we must have a conversation that includes everyone. And we’ll have to work together.

I’ve been learning about how Grand Rapids manages homelessness since I began working in urban development in 2012. In the business world, obstacles are for overcoming, and as I’ve examined the topic of homelessness through this lens, I’ve been haunted by the theoretical feasibility of solving the very real problem of homelessness in Grand Rapids. And to be clear: this is a problem which affects us all - business owners, residents, employees, economic and real estate developers, tourists, and, not the least of these, the people who are homeless themselves. By the numbers (the public and private funding currently going into our homelessness system2 minus the hypothetical costs of providing barrier-free housing and access to services along the continuum of care), we should be capable of ending homelessness. But we aren’t, and our progress in that direction is too slow to keep up with our city’s breakneck growth. Over the years, months and weeks, I’ve spoken to people from very diverse perspectives; city leaders, church pastors, organization directors, business owners, grant writers, advocates, homeless and formerly homeless individuals. They all have insights which are based in very real experiences and pressures. Sometimes these insights align, and sometimes they clash.

These are insights and experiences we all need to hear. Without them, we’re working in silos - sometimes against each other.

Because the truth is that our problem isn’t a lack of resources. The Greater Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, for example, manages the HMIS database (the one required of communities receiving CoC funding from HUD), to which 60 homelessness organizations currently contribute data. The Heartside Neighborhood Collaboration Project, comprised of over 20 Heartside churches, ministries and organizations, works to be “a catalyst for collaboration” in the downtown neighborhoods. Organizations like the Inner City Christian Federation, Family Promise of Grand Rapids, Dwelling Place, Community Rebuilders, Well House and many others are providing housing and housing development for homeless across the county. Our charitable community is currently donating over $14 million3 each year to organizations dedicated to helping the homeless.

We have resources. We need to connect the dots between them.

As I’ve learned more about the proof of concept behind housing first, I’ve come to understand that the communities that have gained traction in ending homelessness have found it through collaboration between private, public and religious organizations. Why? A successful homelessness “continuum of care” by nature requires a very diverse spectrum of services, from housing development to social work and mental healthcare. In Utah, a religious and private web of collaboration has helped the state reduce its homeless population by 72 percent since 2009.

I’ve come to understand that in order make a serious reduction in the number of individuals and families who experience homelessness in our community, we need to have an honest conversation that includes many voices, much listening, and much collaboration.

So how do we start the conversation?

Like any project, I believe it has to start with learning. With understanding the needs and goals of all the stakeholders involved, and how those needs motivate them. Then we need to learn more about the tools we have available to achieve those goals.

We need to learn about the data and philosophy behind different models for managing homelessness, and which methodologies work best. About the real cost of our current system, and how that revenue is being used. About the pressure which ministries face from their donors to focus on specific services - and the heartfelt motivation behind those donations.

Since June of this year, over 70 of San Francisco’s media publications are collaborating to better understand the problem - and potential solutions - of homelessness in the city. The blitz has produced a massive body of work, and has prompted similar coverage in over a dozen other cities.

I don’t see why we can’t do the same - or better.

Here in Grand Rapids, we’re a city known for our creativity and entrepreneurship. We’re doers, and problem solvers. We’re “design thinkers." Homelessness is a problem that can be solved - if we do it together.

So come on, Grand Rapids. What’ve you got?



  1. Based on most recent 990 reports of Mel Trotter, Degage, Guiding Light, Heartside Ministry, Family Promise of GR, Well House, ICCF, Dwelling Place, Community Rebuilders, 3:11 Youth Housing, accessed from ↩︎

  2. A recent study funded by the Frey Foundation examining the impact that local affordable housing nonprofit Well House has had on its tenants found that permanently housing tenants who had historically been denied housing saved an average of $2,429 each year in hospitalization and jail or prison time. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the annual cost of hospitalization and medical treatment for people experiencing homelessness ranges between $2,000 to $14,740 per person. The US Interagency Council on Homelessness confirms that “Without connections to the right types of care, people who are experiencing chronic homelessness cycle in and out of hospital emergency departments and inpatient beds, detox programs, jails, prisons, and psychiatric institutions—all at high public expense. Some studies have found that leaving a person to remain chronically homeless costs taxpayers as much as $30,000 to $50,000 per year.” ↩︎

  3. Same as 1. ↩︎



Marjorie Steele was Creative Director for urban development firm 616 Lofts and Development from 2012-2014, has worked downtown since 2010, and is currently consulting and grant writing for local Grand Rapids businesses and nonprofits.

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