RE: Request to address public health and safety
I write today in response to concerns over interactions with unhoused persons in the downtown area and specifically, the recent suggestion of adopting new ordinances. I recognize and appreciate the problematic issues identified but firmly believe the issues are best addressed with a multi-level collaborative approach within a health and housing perspective. Community Rebuilders wishes to provide considerations, suggestions, and support for collaborative efforts to promote a healthier, economically thriving, safe community where homelessness is rare, brief and does not reoccur.
To understand the interaction between structural and individual causes of homelessness, there is an analogy of children playing musical chairs that is often referred to by those of us who work on the issue of homelessness. When the game of musical chairs is played the most vulnerable child is usually left without a seat. At the end, a fast, larger, confident child gets the last available seat. You can say that disability or lack of physical ability caused the child to end up chairless. But in this case, being chairless is inevitable. The only reason anyone is without a chair is because there aren’t enough of them.
When we apply this analogy to homelessness we can talk about the vulnerabilities of individuals, and the problems in their lives but when there is a shortage of affordable housing it all but guarantees a certain number of people will become homeless. Lack of affordable housing is the underlying cause of homelessness. We must look at infrastructure and systems; understanding how people flow in and out of the homeless response system is essential. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2023/01/homelessness-affordable-housing-crisis-democrats-causes/672224/
Regulating and putting additional restrictions in place have proven to be ineffective, expensive, and actually worsen the tragedy of homelessness. Punishment and fines distract from implementing programs and strategies that are cost effective and proven to produce results.
We must work together with clear objectives and a reliance on each other to restore our streets to their intended purposes and ensure businesses and our community members thrive. Improving community safety and vitality is more than simply regulating the unhoused. We must stop the cycles that prolong homelessness with intention and compassion.
Our community has a vision for transformation. The Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness has created a Compass that lays out the mission, vision and goals of the Coalition. It is a clear and compelling vision for planned transformation. The Coalition Compass is the result of input from numerous stakeholders and is meant to serve as true north for the Coalition. It’s intended to quickly align stakeholders and resources around a common direction and vision and to drive clarity into the unique identity and purpose of the Coalition. You can find it here: https://endhomelessnesskent.org/about/strategic-plan/ We must build the will to align around this compass.
Homelessness is a solvable problem. Let’s embrace the values outlined in the Compass and build a Community where homelessness is rare, brief and one time.
The city of Grand Rapids and the downtown business community have taken extraordinary measures to create opportunities and increase positive outcomes for everyone. We appeal to you now, to take extraordinary measures to solve the crisis of homelessness and restore our streets to their intended purpose.
Community Rebuilders offers the following strategies to produce the intended results of a healthier, economically thriving, safe community where homelessness is rare, brief and not reoccurring.
1. Provide decentralized locations of scattered site Interim Housing models that are housing focused and low barrier.
Emergency shelter can and must play an essential role within an effective, housing-focused crisis response system. However, we must consider the impact of broad changes and improvements within our crisis response system before reactively expanding the supply of traditional emergency shelter to meet the needs of those experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Interim housing is an answer to the limitations of traditional shelter and has been adopted by many communities. We must provide the unhoused with temporary accommodations that mirror living in one’s own home. For some people who are unhoused, moving out of their own tent in an encampment community and into traditional congregate shelter does not meet the need of “a safe and secure place to call home.” It may involve giving up one’s possessions, being separated from their partner or a beloved pet, not to mention a measure of independence and freedom of movement. Scattered site rental units have been proven effective for this purpose in our community. The Housing Connection Center, a successful interim housing model operated by Community Rebuilders, was previously housed in a repurposed church rectory. Repurposing vacant spaces and use of rental units are opportunities that could be pursued. The pandemic made the plight of the highly vulnerable unhoused population even more visible and urgent than before. Recognizing the shortcomings of traditional congregate shelter, and the scale of suffering on our streets prompted some local shelter providers to innovate by adding motel rooms to provide non-congregate accommodation. We urge our community to innovate again and adopt interim housing models that result in housing as an outcome.
2. Prioritize building lasting solutions to homelessness by ensuring a system wide response to reach functional zero for all unhoused persons.
We must ensure the system is not disjointed and fill the service gaps that are required to get to functional zero. A resource inventory dedicated to functional zero efforts is required and was successfully utilized when our community reached functional zero for Veterans. Additionally, service providers must be willing to share data on who is flowing in and out of their services and utilize coordinated entry’s standardized assessment and referral system to fill vacancies with prioritized persons.
3. Ensure coordinated access, assessment and prioritization for homeless and housing services through an improved coordinated entry system, Community Housing Connect 2.0.
Despite millions of dollars, excellent people and the best of intentions, the current Coordinated Entry system is failing to produce the desired results because the process and technology are not set up for success. Examples of challenges include a manual intake and matching process, inconsistent/unequal prioritization, lack of trust in metrics due to offline capacity, housing supply and demand are reactive with minimal forecasting, planning and resource development leading to long wait lists and poor system-wide outcomes, federal regulatory compliance burden, administrative burden, and the lack of collaboration overall. In response to this concern, CommunityHousingConnect.org was piloted and resulted in The Continuum of Care, the City and philanthropic organizations coming together to support the expansion of Community Housing Connect to serve as the new Coordinated Entry system. Community Housing Connect 2.0 is being designed to solve the problems outlined and will be ready for community use in late 2023.
4. Promote cross sector collaboration to address the social determinants of health of those living unhoused. Prioritize, housing, health, employment and transportation coordination of services.
We must address the underlying contributors to homelessness. The Gather Resources Align Community Effort or G.R.A.C.E. Network, has brought together 30 community based organizations working together to promote access to safe affordable housing and the resources and supports needed to maintain stability and live fulfilling lives in our community. All partners on the network have a shared vision and see how their work or priorities fit with the goal to bring about a new reality where homelessness is rare, brief and nonrecurring in Kent County by meeting needs around health, income, employment, education, transportation and more.
5. Lead with a focus on racial justice and equity for marginalized communities and populations.
People with lived expertise must have consistent leadership and decision making roles regarding systemic efforts to end homelessness. True social equity can only be achieved when those who are marginalized, underrepresented, or not represented experience equity.
We urge our community to truthfully and transparently review our system level data related to homelessness. When considering all strategies, we must focus on activities that produce the greatest promise or achievement in client access, client satisfaction, performance outcomes and other values identified in Continuum of Cares Compass. Together we can restore our streets to their intended purpose and ensure those living unhoused are thriving and contributing to our community. Together we can eliminate disparities and not exacerbate them. We must address the highest need unhoused populations first- those who are medically fragile, older, unsheltered. We must grow partnerships that result in more resources and deeper impact. We must get people into housing if we want economic recovery. We must act quickly and not criminalize sleeping outside or make remaining unhoused an acceptable option. Individuals deserve a safe place to call home.
I hope you will find time to read the attached addendum that details immediate actions our community can take.
Thank you for your time and dedication to our community.