Today major news sources in San Francisco will be focused on the issue of homelessness in their city. They are asking other cities around the country to band with them and raise awareness about homelessness in their own cities. We aren’t going to do that here.
First, we will not spend today talking about homelessness in the City of Grand Rapids—because we need to widen our lens to all of Kent County. Too often local stories on homelessness focus on Grand Rapids, and specifically on the Heartside neighborhood. This is not the full picture of homelessness in our community, merely a few pixels of the whole. What this view misses are people in tents throughout the county, in both urban and rural areas. It misses families in cars or finding 24 hour businesses to pass the night hours. It misses youth, bouncing from one unsafe place to another. People are experiencing homelessness throughout Kent County, in ways that do not fit our typical understanding, and they cannot be forgotten from our conversations.
Secondly, we do not want today’s goal to be letting people know that homelessness exists. They know that already. What we should do is let them know that an end to homelessness exists. That end is housing. We have amazing programs housing individuals and families by the hundreds each year. It is called Housing First, and note that housing is first, not last. These programs also provide the supports that each individual or family needs to remain stably housed. A key component of these programs is they don’t assume there is something wrong with a person because they are experiencing homelessness. Homelessness only means that a person lacks housing, not that they lack skills, morals or worth. Successful programs recognize this and treat people accordingly, with respect and dignity and allow for self-determination. It’s not rocket science, it’s how we each would want to be treated in that situation.
What we will do in solidarity with San Francisco today is ask our media outlets to join us in ending homelessness by sharing those stories. Using Housing First, we have seen what the end of homelessness can look like. We are making significant progress on our goal to end homelessness among our Veterans and anticipate reaching that goal this year. What the programs doing this work need is the support of all the county’s residents. In order to reach our goals, we rely on employers to hire, landlords to rent, neighbors to welcome, and reporters to share. Everyone can play a part in ending homelessness.