GREENVILLE — An event this week in Greenville may have been a simulation, but homelessness is a very real problem.
“I heard last week that Kent County has a 1 percent housing availability — the tightest market in the nation. I bet we’re tighter in Montcalm County,” said Have Mercy Director Kim Cain at Wednesday’s Project Connect and homeless simulation at Greenville Community Church. “And it’s not just us. All of West Michigan is struggling like this.”
According to Cain, these limited resources especially affect the homeless population.
“The problem that we face in our community is there is a huge waitlist for the housing needs,” Cain said. “By huge, I mean months to a year and depending on which category they fit into maybe even three, four or five years.”
Have Mercy sponsored Wednesday’s event, which made many resources available for area homeless. Agencies at the event included the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), EightCAP Inc., Relief After Violent Encounter (RAVE), Randy’s House, Michigan Works, local landlords, Housing Assessment and Resources Agency, Section 8, United Way, Montcalm County Housing Commission, Alpha Family Center and many others.
All the agencies had been working on spreading the word about the event through flyers and word of mouth. Transportation was available for people to get to the church. Free food and raffle prizes were additional incentives. Cain was expecting around 50 attendees, but only about a dozen attended.
“It’s always a challenge to get the word out to people who need to come to these events,” said Denise Hubbard, a retired United Way director. “They don’t read the newspaper, and they don’t have internet access. You pass out information through food pantries and client services, but it’s a challenge to get the people out here.”
“I’m disappointed that more people who are in need did not come out and benefit from the rich resources that were here because there really were a lot of resources and things here for them,” Cain said. “But, the networking available today was worth everyone coming out.”
“The 2016 Project Connect was meant to connect people with the resources they need to get out of homelessness,” she added. “They were all here, and that’s why I’m disappointed.”
She attributed the low attendance to “crisis brain.” According to Cain, once a homeless person’s immediate needs are met, he or she has a hard time focusing on the long term needs that need to be met.
Have Mercy and many of the other organizations serve Montcalm and Ionia counties. There are two shelters available in the counties: Randy’s House, which is exclusive to women recovering from substance abuse, and RAVE, which has 26 beds, but 20 of them are reserved for domestic violence victims.
“I can fill those six beds with one family,” Cain noted.
The homeless population faces several struggles when it comes to housing. Once they’ve been evicted, it shows on their credit report. Old felonies show up during background checks. They might make enough for rent, but not enough to put down a deposit. It makes getting into the tight housing market even harder.
Another challenge the homeless population faces is the nonexistence of 211 in Montcalm and Ionia counties.
“We couldn’t fund it, so it was taken away. Right now, everyone who is needing resources, the agreement is they’re supposed to call EightCAP or DHHS for assistance,” United Way’s Terri Legg said. “There’s no assistance we have at our office for anyone that’s needing resources. Until we can find a reliable funding source, which it is a lot for 211 — about $35,000 a year — so until we can find sustainable funding, we don’t have that service available.”
After Project Connect, the focus changed to educating community members about the challenges of homelessness through a homeless simulation.
“People have the tendency to think that a homeless person is a 40- or 50-year-old guy, maybe a veteran, who smells to high heaven and sleeps under the bridge, probably an alcoholic, probably a substance abuser,” Cain said. “There is such a stigma attached to being homeless. They don’t understand the handicaps they’re faced with, and we want to educate.”
For the homeless simulation, agencies set up booths with fake applications, dollars and vouchers. Participants were given a situation, such as divorce, job loss, etc, that caused them to become homeless. Some situations included children which had to be dropped off and picked up from the school booth. Participants had to try and find their way out of homelessness by visiting the agencies around the room.
A timer was set for six minutes to represent a day and two minutes to represent a night. During the simulated nighttime, participants had to find a place to stay — state land, park or bedbug infested motel. What the participants were able to accomplish in a simulated day was the equivalent what takes a week for a homeless person, Cain said.
“I felt very insecure and confused,” Alpha Family Center’s Karen Marsman said. “I wasn’t sure where I should start and how the process went. I was shocked to find out $16,000 a year was too much money to qualify for some of the housing I was looking for. We’ve had several homeless clients in our center recently, and this really was an eye opener for me to see what they’re experiencing. I will look at everything with different eyes now. I’m very grateful for what I have.”
The simulation was set up to resemble Montcalm County. Cain is hopeful that participants of both events will be able to serve clients and each other better after networking and experiencing what it is like to be homeless.
“I get probably 20 phone calls a day from moms or dads saying they’re sleeping in cars or tents with kids,” said Lynda Slavens with the Montcalm County Housing Commission. “It is real, and it’s very scary. They’re not the stereotype, but they’re single moms and single dads.”