The Struggle

After a cascade of unfortunate events, navigating a difficult system of assistance
The-Homefront-Homeless-Ministry-Sign-ing-Fall-2019
The Ministry with Community drop-in day shelter check-in, 2015.

© 2019 NowKalamazoo/Encore Publications

Heather Sadler stands in the foyer of Ministry with Community, a drop-in day shelter in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood, her eyes trained on the sidewalk leading out to the parking lot as it fills up with wet snow falling from a drab, gray sky in early December 2018.

By nighttime, visitors to day shelters like these for warmth and a bite to eat will have to leave. Some may head to the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, across from the bus and train depot. The Mission is the only overnight emergency shelter in the county and is run privately by a church with prerogatives and rules that have turned off some and turned away others.

Other homeless individuals will head to someone’s couch — which makes them technically not homeless, for the purposes of some government statistics. Or, they will find a pre-arranged transitional shelter, or less-than-ideal options such as outside in a doorway, a vacant building, under a bridge or in a vehicle.

Sadler, 31, is waiting for a ride from her social worker to a gas station where she’ll use a pre-paid card to buy kerosene for a heater to warm her tent. It’s two months before the Polar Vortex would hit bringing the worst of winter to the area. She told The Homefront that she, her boyfriend and their dog chose to live outside in a tent encampment on the nearby banks of the Kalamazoo River with about 10 other homeless individuals.

“We know the cold is coming, but it’s better to be outside than somewhere we are not welcome,” she says. “It’s better to make your own way than to try to go through a system that’s confusing and doesn’t guarantee you a place to live. A lot of people don’t know what to do.”

In Kalamazoo, where there’s a plethora of service providers and affordable housing advocates but a scarcity of affordable housing, the generosity that the area is known for is easily overshadowed by frustration — and the frustration is evidenced by the backlog of people in need.

“This is America. How can we have so many people not housed?” David Artley, chairperson of the non-partisan Kalamazoo County Public Housing Commission, told The Homefront. The commission has housed nearly 300 families with school-aged children in the three years since voters approved a 0.1 millage. “It’s an ongoing battle, and we need to try new and different things.”

While services and assistance for jobs, education and physical and behavioral health care are a necessary component to getting and staying out of homelessness, it is only effective with realistic and rapid housing opportunities and a clear pathway.

Studies conducted by, on behalf of, or cited by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) all found such systems were both successful in reducing homelessness, more cost effective than non-coordinated systems, and ultimately reduced the overall price of tackling homelessness in the respective communities.

“There is a significant body of research and evidence that documents the positive impacts of housing stability—and the negative impacts of housing instability—on families and individuals,” according to a September 2019 report by USICH called The Evidence Behind Approaches that Drive an End to Homelessness. “Accordingly, effective responses to homelessness focus on helping people get and keep housing, and to use housing as a foundation for accessing services, supports, and opportunities in their communities.”

In the large Ministry with Community waiting room of wet and worn clothes and bags, at least 100 people are taking a respite from the weather. They lay on plastic benches, using backpacks as pillows, share snacks in worn Ziplock bags, put their heads down on tables and take a nap, the hood of their sweatshirt pulled tight over their heads to muffle the sounds of occasional screaming children. They knit scarves, watch YouTube videos on their phones, talk to each other about where they’re off to next.

Many stare — out the windows, at people coming through the door of the Ministry with Community shelter and at each other, faces ruddy and reddened by the cold wind, eyes watery. Bodies slouching with exhaustion. On a TV monitor near a counter staffed by shelter employees, the times for lunch and activities come and go, then an inspirational saying: “Tough Times Never Last But Tough People Do.”

Out of Your Control

You are being let go from your job. You were already living paycheck to paycheck, like nearly 40 percent of households in Kalamazoo do, according to a 2019 United Way Financial Hardship Study. You worry about paying bills and buying groceries, clothes for your kids and gas for your car if you can afford one.

You look for work, but months go by, and you can’t find a job. The costs add up. To save money, you stop driving. To stretch funds further, you pay for only the absolute necessities. Perhaps you are on food assistance. To save on energy costs, you keep the thermostat as low as your kids can tolerate.

Maybe you talk to your landlord about giving you a little more time to figure things out. The back rent begins to pile up. You can’t pay the utility bills. After months of being patient, your landlord evicts your family.

After the fog of anxiety and shock has lifted, the gravity of your situation becomes clear: You have no place to call your own, no personal space to settle in, no shelter in which to raise your children.

You are homeless.

Now what?

“If you are entering homelessness the sustained daily crisis of not having a home makes it hard to navigate the system,” Matt Lynn, who was community impact director for the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region before taking a leadership position in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo earlier in 2019, told The Homefront. “There is a consistent anxiety there.”

In a series of reports released over the past year by USICH, a team of 19 federal agencies and advisers tasked since the Reagan administration to tackle the national crisis, it’s most effective and efficient — for taxpayers and those in need — to get people into stable, dependable housing as quickly as possible while simultaneously ensuring that support services tailored to their specific needs are accessible.

Just as swiftly, the reports say, it’s important to connect them with services that help them remain in their home and assistance to address issues that led to their homelessness experience in the first place.

“Research shows that the most effective approach to ending homelessness is when the housing and services mix is customized to the population and the individuals being served,” Emmy Tiderington, an assistant professor of social work at Rutgers University, whose research and work focuses on the impact effective housing and support services programs has on homelessness, told The Homefront.

In Kalamazoo, however, both those in need of housing and services and those who provide them often confront a frustrating reality that the system is inefficient, which naturally blunts its effectiveness.

Some people are homeless because of a catastrophic life event, like the loss of a job or a serious illness. Others choose to live life on their own terms, checking out of modern society for any number of reasons. Still others struggle with mental health or addiction.

Regardless, becoming homeless can be frighteningly easy for those just hanging on. But getting out, however, can be extremely difficult and sometimes too daunting. The on-the-ground realities of life on the streets and raw truths of survival take precedence over everything else.

Nuance-free definitions of the homeless are common: they are addicts, unmotivated, have a history of crime. The picture of homelessness is in fact multi-layered, complicated and often as specific to the person or situation as is the solution, which, in turn, is often commensurate in its complexity.

Indeed, all six of USICH’s 2019 priorities are geared toward creating an intersection of housing and support services that allows for assistance that is coordinated but also personalized.

Ultimately, a community is best equipped to tackle its homelessness crisis when its system to address homelessness functions like a funnel: people in need of a home and/or services enter the system through one commonly agreed to entry point, their needs are quickly defined in detail and addressed by the entities within the system best placed to do so, and with that support they begin their way out of the system and exit the pipeline.

It all begins, experts agree, with a home. In Kalamazoo County, there aren’t enough of those available. That’s why the Gospel Mission emergency shelter is renovating and expanding its facilities. It’s the reason individuals and families wait months for assistance and then, after receiving a housing voucher, wait even longer cycling in and out of the system until a rental unit that accepts vouchers opens up.

“We can’t physically find them affordable housing,” says Monica Poucher, who spent 25 years working with students and families in need through the public school system and for the past two years in private practice counseling people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

Even with a housing voucher, which can underwrite some or all of a person’s rent, people are racing against the clock, living in various interim living situations until a unit opens up or their voucher expires.

There’s been no study as to the exact demand for affordable housing in Kalamazoo County — though Julie Rogers, chairperson of the county commission, says talks are underway with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research to conduct one — but no one who spoke to The Homefront said there’s adequate supply.

If not too expensive, there are other common barriers to accessing available units, Poucher says: money for transportation to find an apartment let alone the often non-refundable application fee, perhaps a previous eviction or back due utility payments. Many landlords will also reject applicants if a background check reveals a past criminal conviction.

Oftentimes, the process of finding housing in Kalamazoo — an already frustrating endeavor even for someone without the burdens of homelessness — is a frighteningly lonely one. In many instances, the recipient of housing assistance is on their own once the help is granted.

“It’s kind of like, ‘Here’s the money,’” Benjamin Leverette, the Continuum of Care Director at the Kalamazoo office of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), told The Homefront. “’Now go find a landlord.’”

It’s not that easy, he says, and not only because there’s a lack of affordable housing and other non-shelter rental units geared toward homeless people. Pitfalls are plentiful.

Federal regulations protect people from discrimination by local agencies based on their personal history. Landlords, however, don’t have to abide by the same rules. If a property owner decides not to rent to a person with a troubled past, such as a previous eviction or criminal background, there is no recourse for the applicant, Leverette says, leaving them unable to build back up the very rental credit they need to escape from homelessness.

Additionally, landlords who purchase homes or units that were previously rented as affordable housing have no responsibility to keep those units on affordable housing rolls, potentially reducing the affordable housing stock even further, officials say.

“I don’t blame landlords per se,” says Artley of the public housing commission, himself formerly homeless, an addict and traumatized from abuse in his youth. Landlords say it’s a risk to rent to people “with huge arrears in utility bills so it is hard to get their electric and gas turned on in their name.”

Within a tight housing market, the renter-landlord relationship is especially strained. Tenants and their advocates complain that, too frequently, affordable housing is located in neighborhoods with higher crime or is in disrepair when they move in. Landlords express concerns of having been burned by tenants trashing the place.

“In their defense, what if it’s destroyed?” Leverette says. “Then they’re out the money with no recourse.”

Finding One of the Missing Pieces

Homeless people with disabilities and mental health issues or people recently released from prison are at an added disadvantage when it comes to discussing rental arrangements with a landlord, Leverette says.

“Some of them can’t advocate for themselves,” he says. “They don’t necessarily know how to talk to a landlord. They have lived a regimented life and can be taken advantage of. They’re vulnerable.”

Regardless of the reason — or reasons — for how individuals become homeless, escaping that vicious cycle requires more than just a place to call home.

Once they’ve made it to the point where they sign a lease, some of the most difficult work starts.

“They need case managing. Helping them. Holding them accountable,” says Poucher. “That’s one of the missing pieces of that.”

Funds, mentorship and other programs — available in Kalamazoo and seen as best practices according to the federal government — make up key services, such as those that assist recipients with maintaining their tenancy, locating physical and mental health care options, achieving educational goals and career support.

“You can’t just hand someone the keys to a house and say ‘good luck.’ You need to continue to surround them with services to ensure that they can stay housed and address the issues that would inhibit them from sustaining that,” says Lynn. “For many, it’s a huge change going from the streets into their own home.”

A system that ensures recipients have convenient and barrier-free access to those services is not only crucial to the people exiting homelessness, it is the most cost effective way to do it.

But there’s no single reference point for the homeless population to access the services commonly needed, though niche populations — veterans and the elderly — have dedicated service lines.

Even getting to an appointment with various social service agencies can be difficult, especially for those without a vehicle who rely on buses, bikes, or walking to different locations. If they have a mobility impairment or other disability, that complicates matters even more.

If they are working, they must take time off to meet their appointments. If they have kids, they must arrange for childcare. And that’s if they are even know what services and programs are available to them. Many do not.

And, if they haven’t found permanent or non-shelter housing and have to list a shelter on a job application, employers may discriminate against them.

“It can be like, ‘So, you live in a homeless shelter. Are you sure you can make it to work on time if you don’t have a car?’” Lynn says.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) has suggested, and research from across the country has proven, that successful reductions in homelessness require housing and services that are quickly delivered, accessible and tailored to a person’s unique situation in or facing homelessness. This includes a coordinated entry system to track and assist recipients and collection and utilization of data to make sure the housing and services available are adequate for the community’s needs.

“Sometimes it takes a crisis, like what happened in Bronson Park,” says Rutgers’ Tiderington, “to help people see that something is not working and that it might be time to try something new.”

Stories in this issue:

From The Publisher

In Search of a Strategy

The Struggle

Those Facing the Most Risk:

Tears of Relief

We Can Do It Too

Not Enough Support

About The Homefront

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