GRAND RAPIDS — A nonprofit housing advocacy organization has launched a new program aimed at reducing the number of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness, targeting a high-traffic area in downtown Grand Rapids.
Community Rebuilders’ Geographically Targeted Housing Outreach will focus first on the Rosa Parks Circle and Monroe Center area of downtown, and is expected to target other areas in the city in the future. The nonprofit set a goal to place 30 youths and 30 adults in housing by the end of the year.
The organization placed eight unsheltered individuals in housing in the first week after launching the program last month. Of 37 people identified for the program, 14 are working with specialists to secure permanent housing.
“We’re taking a broader systems approach and really pushing this idea that you create a prioritization list to match anticipated openings in housing,” said Community Rebuilders Executive Director Vera Beech.
Community Rebuilders coordinates a team of outreach providers making connections with people living on the street. The team includes other nonprofits, shelters and the city of Grand Rapids’ Homeless Outreach Team.
The teams help set up short-term housing in hopes of finding permanent accommodations, as well as various health care support. The group prioritized the Rosa Parks Circle/Monroe Center area based on the number of unsheltered individuals there, as well as it being a “high traffic business area,” Beech said.
“The idea is to work on one area at a time and keep on going,” Beech said.
Typically, unsheltered individuals are identified but confront a long waiting list to get into affordable housing based on a lack of availability.
“With dynamic prioritization, we’re saying upfront we’re going to identify 60 of the most vulnerable in our community in a particular geographic area and are going to meet their needs first,” Beech said. “It’s really shifting the focus to getting people housed versus just serving people with resources while on the street.”
The effort comes after city officials identified an increase in unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness.
Grand Rapids Fire Chief John Lehman, who oversees the city’s Homeless Outreach Team of two firefighters, two police officers and local addiction and social work experts, is seeing “anecdotal evidence” of a rise in homelessness in Grand Rapids.
“We’re just seeing a larger homeless population in the downtown area than we have encountered before,” Lehman said. “The Homeless Outreach Team is responding in those areas to see if we can be that middle person to meet the needs of homeless individuals while at the same time making sure we have a healthy environment.”
Although some housing advocates say preliminary numbers are unverified, and can’t necessarily point to a direct link to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are noticing a shift in recent years.
Courtney Myers-Keaton, coordinator with the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, which is Kent County’s continuum of care, said claims about an increased number of individuals experiencing homelessness still need to be verified.
Typically, the counts are done annually in January and provided to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The coalition did a “point in time count” in late September that showed 156 unsheltered individuals in the city of Grand Rapids. The January 2020 count for all of Kent County showed 86 unsheltered individuals.
The September count was a pilot and doesn’t have any prior years for a comparison. As well, it was completed in the late summer as opposed to the winter.
“Is there increased visibility of people on the streets? Absolutely,” Myers-Keaton said. “I’d say we suspect there might be an increase in homelessness, but we’ve been seeing that trend happen over the past few years.”
The pandemic also may be playing a role in pushing more individuals to the city center where more resources are available, she said.
However, if the pandemic lingers for months and requires capacity restrictions at shelters, advocates are concerned it could strain available resources.
“We do have a concern that, come this winter, we will have to look for other ways to ensure people are sheltered appropriately or are connected to housing quicker,” Myers-Keaton said. “We’re worried that reduced (shelter) capacity will have an effect on how many people can get into shelter.”
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