Salvation Army: ‘Ugly’ to see homeless forced from hotels

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Salvation Army has acknowledged it “could have done a better job” alerting the community to the exploding housing crisis in Kent County.

The agency’s leader spoke to 24 Hour News 8 Friday about emails in which the state laid out its concerns regarding the organization’s housing program.

In one email, a state official wrote that staff at the Salvation Army’s Housing Assessment Program in Grand Rapids was not following eligibility requirements, resulting in “vulnerable clients being screened out, placed on a wait list and remaining on the streets or in their cars.”

After documenting homeless families being forced from hotels in October, Target 8 submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to find out what went wrong. MDHHS provides the Salvation Army with funding for emergency hotel stays.

In a series of email exchanges in August and September MDHHS called out the Salvation Army.

“MDHHS and TSA-EMI (The Salvation Army Eastern Michigan) continue to be concern about HAP’s (Housing Assessment Program’s) current ability to administer motel funding in its service area…” wrote Lynn Hendges of MDHHS in an email dated Sept. 4.

“HAP has not sufficiently expanded its access to local hotels/motels to meet the current need,” Hendges stated.

In addition to concerns about HAP wait-listing families the state said were eligible for emergency shelter, MDHHS wrote of difficulties in dealing with staff.

“Clients and partners are reluctant to call HAP staff because calls are not returned promptly, and HAP staff are rude or dismissive,” wrote Hendges.

Major Glen Caddy, commander of the Salvation Army’s Western Michigan Northern Indiana Division, blamed a “perfect storm” for the crisis that exploded in late summer and fall.

“The resources just were not there to meet everyone who came through the door,” said Caddy in an interview at the agency’s headquarters at Fulton Street and Fuller Avenue NE.

“Now were there some folks that didn’t get served that probably should have? I can say yes, there were. And for that, we apologize within reason related to the availability of resources,” he said.

In addition to a record number of homeless families — unable to keep up with soaring rent prices amid a booming housing market — Caddy pointed to staff transitions at the Salvation Army and conflicting information regarding eligibility requirements for families in need of emergency motel shelter.

“I don’t know that we’re ever going to find a place to put the fault where things went wrong because there were so many moving pieces,” said Caddy.

“Something did not function the way the system was designed to function that caused the crisis to explode,” he added.

In an August email to the Salvation Army, MDHHS referenced a particularly disturbing situation.

“In the recent case of the mother who was being released from the hospital to homelessness with two newborns, this family would have met our eligibility because they were self-certifying that they were literally homeless,” read the email.

Caddy did not have any details regarding the mom’s situation or what ultimately happened.

The Salvation Army said it put some homeless families on waitlists instead of finding hotel rooms because the agency was trying to stretch the state motel funding to last the entire fiscal year.

But ultimately the state dollars ran out anyway, and the Salvation Army drained its own reserves too, according to Caddy.

“The intention was they were supposed to be phased into housing and there just was not enough housing to phase them into and it ended up to be a very ugly thing,” said Caddy, referring to the images of homeless families being forced out.

“No one wants to see on the news people being evicted and put out on the street,” he said.

When asked if he thought the Salvation Army failed, Caddy stopped short of that.

“I can’t say 100 percent that we failed. I think that we could have done a better job. Again, as far as alerting the oncoming storm and getting ahead of it,” said Caddy.

“The need just became so great that the system that was in place could not handle it,” he elaborated.

Caddy pointed out that the Salvation Army is just one agency and cannot do it alone.

There’s now an Emergency Task Force working on the crisis in Grand Rapids — a coalition of housing and social services agencies working on short- and long-term solutions. Among the efforts is a plan to use the Holland Home Fulton Manor as an emergency shelter for homeless families temporarily.

Target 8 will continue to track developments in the story.

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