Sep 10

Part 2 of 4 – Racial Disparities in the Homeless System

09 / 10 / 19

Grand Rapids is routinely recognized as “one of the best places to live in America” and “one of the best places to raise a family.” The national accolades tell a glowing – but incomplete – story. The reality that rarely gets reported is that thousands of families across the community have no place to call “home”.

“People think it doesn’t happen among families, yet there’s a lot of family homelessness,” says Dr. Juan Olivarez, Distinguished Scholar in Residence for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Grand Valley State University. “I think it’s another symptom of a bigger problem, which is that more people who are working are living in poverty, while the middle class is getting smaller. Inequities are growing exponentially, and inequities disproportionately affect people of color.”

Recent data makes that clear. More than 10,000 people in Kent County were in the homeless system at some point in 2018, meaning they were either without housing or were at imminent risk of losing it. A deeper look at the data reveals:

  • 3,471 children were homeless, which is more than one-third of the total homeless population.
  • 76 percent of those children are African-American.
  • One in seven African-American children in Kent County was homeless, compared to one in 160 white children.

Those numbers only include people who entered the homeless system; there are likely many others who stayed with family or friends or found help elsewhere and were never counted.

“The disproportionate number of children of color who are impacted is outrageous,” says Dr. Brandy Lovelady-Mitchell, Kent Intermediate School District Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “This seems to stem from legacies of inequitable practices, policies, and systems. It also goes back to how systems and structures are designed — who has access, who has resources and how folks are situated.”

Concern that homeless families – particularly families of color – are not being well served in Kent County led a group of stakeholders to ask KConnect to bring people together to study the problems and work toward equitable solutions. KConnect has been convening more than 50 partners for a year-long process that is scheduled to wrap up at the end of 2019. It will result in a comprehensive community plan aimed at increasing affordable housing and decreasing homelessness for families, children, and youth, with an intentional focus on eliminating racial disparities.

Kayla Morgan is advising that work as someone who has experienced homelessness herself. She spent her teenage years in several different foster homes and, when she aged out of the system, moved in with a partner who became abusive. She had two young children and nowhere to go when she left the relationship.

“What hoops do you have to go through to get permanent housing? You have to go through white-dominant systems that were once designed to legally exclude people of color,” Morgan says.

Morgan believes reparations should be a central part of the conversation. She also wants to see more training in anti-racism and support for those who have experienced trauma. “People aren’t really being trained in what generational poverty and trauma do.”

Morgan bravely shares her personal experience with the hope that she can help change systems to work better for those who have historically been disenfranchised. Dr. Lovelady-Mitchell says that type of meaningful engagement, especially as decisions are being made, is critical. “We have to be very intentional about not doing things to people but with people. We need to ask folks who are most deeply impacted what the solutions are. That’s a different type of leadership.”

Both Dr. Lovelady-Mitchell and Dr. Olivarez say addressing housing insecurity must be part of a bigger effort to eliminate inequities in all the systems that impact families. Dr. Olivarez refers to it as “inclusive growth.”

“Inclusive growth is how people get to better prosperity,” he explained. “We can’t look at one sector without looking at the others. Inclusive growth focuses on all of these elements that are connected: human development, education, early childhood, jobs, health care, access to banking and loans.”

Dr. Lovelady-Mitchell says that work will require a shift in mindset from being “a charitable community to becoming a justice-oriented community.”

This is the second in a series of articles about housing insecurity in Kent County and the collective efforts to reduce homelessness and increase access to affordable housing. Part One of Four – The Crisis of Family Homelessness. The next article looks at how children are impacted by housing insecurity and the effects it has on their success in school.

It should be noted the data is not precise due to margins of error in American Community Survey data that is collected via survey and extrapolated to estimate the population number. To learn more about the data, visit http://bit.ly/KConnectHousingData.