Although homelessness is not a new problem to Grand Rapids, it has recently become a part of the public consciousness in a new way. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to heightened fears from many who are currently homeless about becoming infected in shelters where social distancing is more challenging. Those who have lost employment or had their hours of work reduced as a consequence of the pandemic are fearful of being evicted, even as a moratorium prohibiting evictions for non-payment of rent is temporarily in place.
There are many causes for homelessness but the most significant are systemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has unmasked some of these causes. Having an adequate income to afford a decent place to live is fundamental to having access to whatever market rate housing is available in the community. When market demand for affordable housing increases, so does the cost for renting or buying a home, often pricing lower income households out of that market. This can be true even for many who are working full time. Low wage jobs are also created by larger systemic factors in a market economy and while public policy can mitigate some of the effect, the impact on a low wage family seeking a decent place to live can be devastating.
This past year has also increased public awareness of systemic racism in law enforcement, the judicial system, health care and other sectors, all of which has an impact on access to affordable housing. Racialized outcomes in access to housing can often be attributed to the almost universal use of criminal history and credit scores in evaluating a household’s application for housing. Knowing that black and brown individuals are far more likely to be stopped, arrested and convicted than their white counterparts should give us pause in how we use criminal history in screening for housing opportunity.
We must also recognize the causal effect that untreated mental illness and substance abuse disorders can have on access to safe and affordable housing. Treatment options are presently inadequate to have any substantive impact on this cause for homelessness.
The good news is that these and all of the other causes for homelessness can be mitigated with broader societal engagement and a greater focus on the role of government and public policy in addressing the causes and impact of these disparities.
At Dwelling Place, we believe that housing is a solution to homelessness. We have worked for over 40 years to create more than 1300 units of affordable housing across West Michigan. Dwelling Place was founded in the Heartside Neighborhood of Grand Rapids, and today 373 of our 773 apartments in Heartside are dedicated for use as permanent supportive housing for households who were previously experiencing homelessness. We rely on our community partnerships to help fill those apartments, including outreach teams, shelters, and a referral process that prioritizes the most vulnerable individuals for permanent housing. Dwelling Place is continuously exploring new opportunities to better meet the housing needs of the community.
We would like to share just a few examples of steps we have taken recently to further address the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in Grand Rapids.
Building Systems that Create Housing Opportunities for the Most Vulnerable
Dwelling Place is leading a community-wide initiative to implement a national program designed to provide permanent supportive housing for frequent users of emergency systems. Frequent Users Systems Engagement (FUSE) helps communities break the cycle of homelessness and crisis among individuals with complex medical and behavioral health challenges who are the highest users of emergency rooms, jails, shelters, clinics and other costly crisis services. This initiative is taking place in partnership with thirty other organizations and local entities committed to serving this specific population. Once housed, these residents have access to wraparound support services, which help to stabilize their lives and have proven to significantly reduce returns to jail and homelessness, reliance on emergency health services, and improve overall quality of life.
Addressing Racial Disparities in Access to Housing
In August of 2020, the Dwelling Place Board of Directors adopted a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan that, among other things, commits the organization to root out and eliminate racialized outcomes in our apartment communities. After an analysis of our three largest permanent supportive housing properties, findings showed that Commerce Courtyard, which already has adopted minimal screening for criminal history, had significantly lower denial rates for persons of color than the other two properties which had slightly stricter criminal history screening criteria. The difference in denial rates was startling, offering clear evidence that stricter criminal history screening leads to racial disparities in access to our affordable housing. In light of this analysis, and the fact that there were no discernable differences in the eviction rates between these properties, Dwelling Place has committed to change the criminal history screening criteria at Verne Barry Place and Ferguson Apartments, the remaining two large permanent supportive housing projects, to mirror that of Commerce Courtyard Apartments.
Dwelling Place has also taken steps in the Heartside Neighborhood to ensure that information about various programs and services for homeless individuals is readily available. Through two DGRI grant activations, Dwelling Place has installed LED screens in commercial spaces along South Division Avenue, which provide current information about shelter, food, and healthcare pertaining to COVID-19. Additionally, one other activated space along South Division contains paper-copy resource lists available to individuals walking by with similar information.
Dwelling Place has a history of creating a wide array of affordable housing options for persons who have experienced homelessness, are fleeing domestic violence, and/or people with disabilities including physical and behavioral health needs. Residents living in our permanent supportive housing communities are supported by Resident Service Coordinators who walk alongside, assisting to navigate behavioral and physical health systems or by connecting them to health clinics, cooking classes, wellness programs, leadership training classes, community gardening and other programs and services that can enrich their lives. We are motivated to create apartment communities and neighborhoods that will enhance quality of life, promote equity and inclusion and where residents feel cared for, respected, and uplifted.
In the midst of an ongoing pandemic and with the knowledge that current eviction moratoriums will eventually be lifted, we expect that homelessness is and will continue to present a major challenge for communities across West Michigan. Consequently, the need for affordable and supportive housing resources will also grow for the foreseeable future. We remain committed to giving our best efforts, in collaboration with others, to create permanent housing solutions because we believe, and we think the community believes, that everyone deserves a Dwelling Place.