The face of West Michigan homelessness: A 5-year-old child

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The workers who try every day to keep people from living on the streets say the face of homelessness in West Michigan is changing.

It's no longer a middle-aged man with mental health issues. It's a 5-year old elementary school student.

Family homelessness is becoming a huge issue in our area as recent numbers show thousands of children don't have a bed to sleep in.  State numbers show there are more than 3,000 children known to be considered homeless in Ottawa County and Kent County combined in 2016.

"We know that typically when people think about homelessness, they think of that single individual. We don't always think of a family with children," said Kate O'Keefe, community relations and development manager for Family Promise of Grand Rapids.

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Family Promise provides emergency shelter for children and families. More than 80% of the families in the emergency shelters are employed. Yet, family homelessness is the fastest growing homeless population. O'Keefe says this is a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Earlier this year the organization kicked off a campaign to raise awareness of the growing issue by placing dozens of life-sized cardboard cutouts throughout Grand Rapids. Each one, shows a child holding a sign with a surprising number.

It's not just an urban problem.  Numerous cases of homeless children were reported to the state by school districts across the area.  As an example, there are more than 200 children in Grand Haven's schools reported to not have a place to sleep.

Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids has tried to do a bit of outreach into more suburban communities including Cedar Springs to help people get the resources they need.  The fear is families who are homeless won't reach out for help because they are scared their children will be taken from them.

Dennis Van Kampen, president of Mel Trotter,  says that's not the case, except for clear-cut abuse cases. The hope is to keep the family together and provide assistance to them to stabilize the situation.  

"We need to make sure we are getting there for families and we're helping to end the cycle," Van Kampen said. "So we have the opportunity to meet them where they're at to help them get into a safe environment so at least we can start to take away some of the crisis."

With an economy that's booming and a low unemployment rate, it's perhaps hard to understand how families could become homeless.

Van Kampen points to the state of the housing market in Grand Rapids as one big issue.  The Grand Rapids area has had the one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the country so people who are making $10-14 an hour can no longer afford to rent along a bus line because rent has skyrocketed.  It's a simple supply and demand issue with prices doubling for rent in some cases.

People who have a significant event happen can't recover because there's no safety net in this area.  

"We think people that are homeless have addiction problems or eviction or criminal past, more than 90 percent of the families that experience homelessness don't have any of that," Van Kampen said. "They are just like you and I and something very tragic and unexpected happened in their life."

Right now with the terrible weather, our leaders are telling us if you know a family with kids that's in trouble to let somebody know immediately because there are resources to help them get through a difficult situation.

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