State: GR homeless issue ‘much greater’ than first told

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — State health and human service leaders said Grand Rapids “must come together” to address “significant” issues surrounding housing access for very low-income families. 

“MDHHS is concerned about the number of homeless families in greater Grand Rapids and the lack of family shelter and permanent housing resources to help these families find stable, safe places to live,” wrote a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in an email Friday to 24 Hour News 8. 

“MDHHS will continue to be a partner with the community through (the state’s) Emergency Shelter Program, but the need is great and cannot be covered by one funder,” wrote Bob Wheaton. 

MDHHS was responding to questions from 24 Hour News 8 regarding the recent depletion of an emergency hotel fund administered by the Salvation Army in West Michigan. 

When the dollars were gone, around 40 homeless families had to leave Grand Rapids hotels. The families said caseworkers blamed “unforeseen circumstances.” 

Wheaton said MDHHS first became aware the hotel fund was running out Oct. 16. 

The $65,000, which became available Oct. 1, was the amount requested by the Salvation Army in West Michigan for Fiscal year 2019, according to Wheaton. 

“We have been told that it has all been spent,” wrote Wheaton. 

The average hotel cost for families per night is $75, according to the Heart of West Michigan United Way. 

At that rate, the $65,000 covered three weeks of hotel nights for forty or so families, which matches what the Salvation Army told 24 Hour News 8 last week. 

Wheaton said MDHHS has stepped in to provide additional hotel funding through an “emergency reserve” for families with zero options. 

It did the same in fiscal year 2018, ultimately providing the Salvation Army in West Michigan with more than $130,000 to assist with the need for additional “moteling.” 

Wheaton said the issue began developing a couple years ago. 

“The Housing Assessment Program (operated by the Salvation Army) had been using a strict interpretation of the eligibility requirements, and once it was determined that that interpretation was too strict, the result was a larger number of families being eligible and a shortage in funding,” wrote Wheaton. “That was coupled with rising housing costs that made it more difficult for people with extremely low incomes to afford housing.” 

The Salvation Army has said it usually maintains a waiting list of roughly 100 homeless families in need of shelter. 

“The true need for family emergency shelter and moteling in greater Grand Rapids is just beginning to be identified,” wrote Wheaton. “Work to align the (Salvation Army’s) Housing Assessment Program intake process with (MDHHS’s) Emergency Shelter Program eligibility made it become clear quickly that the need is much greater than previously reported.” 

Wheaton said the community must address two key issues: an immediate need for emergency shelter for families and a significant need for permanent affordable housing in Kent County for very low-income families experiencing homelessness. 

Wheaton said the Greater Grand Rapids Continuum of Care has created an emergency task force to develop strategies. 

Meanwhile, Mel Trotter Ministries has cleaned out classrooms, offices and community spaces to make extra rooms for homeless families. 

The downtown Grand Rapids shelter already has 22 rooms for homeless families. 

Now, it’s clearing rooms to make additional space to accommodate – at least temporarily – nine more families in crisis. 

24 Hour News 8 was at the Super 8 Motel in Wyoming Tuesday when one family, a single mom with eight kids, packed up to head to Mel Trotter. 

The head of housekeeping at Super 8 said it’s been heartbreaking to see all of the homeless families bouncing from hotel to hotel. 

“We’ve had them here at our hotels for months, different families,” said Salina Applewhite. “It’s sad to see them like this. I wish people could come together and do more to help families like this.” 

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