Ending homelessness is achievable if solutions include real housing and evidence based practices. Mobilizing the voices in our community who have inspired hope for seriously addressing encampment issues is key. An urban campground will not solve the problem but the hope that is inspired by an engaged, caring community willing to address issues of justice, equity and the advancement of affordable housing is a critical start. Now is the time to apply proven solutions to the problem of homelessness in our city.
At Community Rebuilders we believe people have a right to housing. That is why last year we moved 615 people out of homelessness and into permanent housing, serving 348 families and 244 Veterans. We will always focus on identifying housing as the appropriate response to a person’s lack of housing. Anything short of this goal is to minimize the needs and the very lives of people. We recognize that housing is essential to the inherent dignity and well-being of every person just as it is essential to building a safe, sustainable and inclusive community.
In this time of heightened awareness and concern for people who are lacking permanent housing and particularly with the impact of Covid-19, it is critical that our community not settle for alternatives that actually and, perhaps unintentionally, undermine people’s autonomy and dignity, and jeopardize their safety and health. We do not want to be distracted by quick or easy shortcuts or a band aid approach when it comes to any individual who is unhoused.
Persons in encampments are particularly vulnerable to abuse, harm, trafficking, exploitation, and sickness, especially when their basic needs are unmet. Contaminated food and water are common, along with the potential for fast spreading illnesses due to lack of sanitation facilities. There is greater risk of infections, chronic illness, poor mental health and increased substance abuse. A lack of housing, including living in encampments, changes life expectancy – in fact, CDC research suggests that people experiencing homelessness have an average life expectancy that is almost 20 years lower than housed populations. Relying on encampments, even one that is a planned solution to assist those who are homeless, is not acceptable – it is not justice. While a homeless campground planned and equipped to support the homeless population may seem like a temporary fix, encampments are actually a sign of system failure for too many in our community. Urban homeless campgrounds promote exclusion and poverty and increased concentration. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty isolate their residents from the resources and networks they need to reach their potential. Homelessness is about race – not just poverty. By legitimizing substandard accommodations for our residents experiencing homelessness, our community would be contributing to stark and persistent racial disparities in housing, health, and financial well-being.
We believe that most of the residents of this community would agree with a housing-focused approach. The critical missing piece may be a lack of understanding or confidence in how needs can be addressed and how housing can be prioritized. So, let’s talk instead about how we can take the communities best intentions and match that with evidenced based solutions that prioritize housing, dignity and community well-being.
The essential elements include the following:
- Make housing a shared priority across community systems. If our community begins with housing as the goal rather than alternative or temporary solutions, the strategies and expectations will change accordingly.
- Mobilize and prioritize housing and supportive resources for those at greatest immediate risk and those living in places unfit for human habitation.
- Use of rental subsidies in order to rapidly re-house many of the shorter term unhoused persons.
- Use of permanent supportive housing vouchers that are ongoing for unhoused persons with more severe and persistent disabling conditions.
- Ensure that temporary accommodations are available and accessible if needed until permanent housing is secured. While this should always be as short-term as possible and must always be attached to a housing plan, the accommodations must also uphold the dignity and safety of the diverse needs of persons.
- Rely on data and outcomes when making decisions rather than on hearsay or opinions that are not rooted in knowledge of best-practice, system evidence.
- Engage with unhoused persons to ascertain their needs and to involve them in the decision-making process.
- Be creative and innovative in thinking about the creation of affordable housing options.
The good news is that there is so much interest right now from a broad and diverse representation of the community in responding to the needs of unhoused persons. Our community has taken some deliberate, concrete and targeted action to address homelessness in the Heartside Park area. This was initiated because of genuine concerns for the health and safety of the unhoused persons. Efforts were made to ensure access to shelter beds for those living in encampments throughout the park area, but, it is important to note that permanent housing has not yet been prioritized or addressed. We can change that!
Recently the City of Grand Rapids provided support and funding to Community Rebuilders so that they could close an encampment on Monroe Center. This is not new to Community Rebuilders as we, in fact, successfully closed three encampments in the Grand Rapids area over the past several years – restoring the streets, parks, and sidewalks to their intended purpose while honoring the inherent dignity, voice and well-being of those who once resided there. The Monroe Center Project continues and updates can be viewed here. It is also critical to note the importance of the expertise and voice of the person living in an encampment when deciding to close it. We must not support efforts that criminalize and further marginalize those experiencing homelessness. Please see our response to the closing of encampments.
Further, our community has had great success in addressing homelessness for Veterans andin 2018 the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) joined our county in celebrating our success in making Veteran homelessness rare, brief and non-reoccurring. Find details here: https://communityrebuilders.org/veterans/
Ending homelessness is achievable if solutions include real housing and evidence based practices. We stand ready to support these efforts to the best of our ability.
Vera Beech, Executive Director