As we investigate how difficult it is for families to afford to rent an apartment or own a house in West Michigan, the WZZM 13 Watchdog team is trying to get emergency housing for a family of five who could be homeless at any moment.
The mother of four children we're identifying only as "Linda" posted an advertisement on Craigslist asking for "housing ASAP." Her ad indicated her four children are in a school district in Ottawa County and she was in search of a "warm basement" for the family to live in.
The ad said, "Not looking to shack up with a single male just need help to help my family during a difficult time with no support or positive family. Thank you and God bless."
We interviewed Linda at a trailer where the family of five is doubled up with another family, staying in one room until she could find permanent housing. She has three teenage girls and a young boy.
"I've got one girl that sleeps on this bed [mattress on the floor], two other girls that sleep on this [twin] bed and usually my [7-year old] son likes to lay on the floor," she said. "I don't know why [he likes to sleep on the floor] but sometimes he likes to crawl in bed with his sisters. Occasionally I will bring my son out to sleep by me on the couch."
We investigated how she got to this point. A domestic incident involving a criminal case led her to vacate stabile housing this summer. Mix that with a lack of employment and a subsequent eviction as she tried to move out on her own with no safety net caused her to became homeless. Health issues and a lack of family support she says contributed to her problems. She has cash and food assistance, but it's not enough to afford housing.
As it stands now, Linda said she could afford $200 a month for rent.
We asked her if she is having substance abuse problems, and she said she was not having any recent issues.
"I want to be able to do this on my own," she said.
One of her biggest fears is Child Protective Services taking her children. We confirmed in court documents what she explained to us that she's been cleared of any issues from CPS. She thinks she is doing everything she can to house her children.
"I can't imagine them (the kids) not there," she said. "I want to give them a better life and it's not fair (to them)."
She is deeply concerned her children will not graduate from school.
"They shouldn't see my cry and they shouldn't see me struggle," she said. "I don't know where to turn anymore who to ask for help because I have nobody. We just don't know what's going to happen next and what are we going to do."
We are taking a close look at child homelessness and the numbers are shocking to see how many kids don't have an adequate place to sleep at night.
Nearly 10,000 children in our state are confirmed to either live on the streets, in shelters or in motels. Another 25,000 kids live with other families doubled and tripled up in small places. About 6,000 homeless children live in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon Counties according to state numbers.
The experts believe those numbers are lower than what's reality because many parents are too proud to report the problem or are concerned they will lose their children if they do report their slide into homelessness.
"They can't learn to read or write," Mel Trotter Ministries President/CEO Dennis Van Kampen said. "They're coming to school thinking about they get some food and where will they will sleep because where they were last night they didn't sleep and they didn't get food most of the time."
Van Kampen's team at Mel Trotter Ministries realized families like Linda's aren't necessarily in the urban Grand Rapids setting anymore. They're all over the place.
"It's a family doubled up and tripled up, so they're not out in the open and in the community," Van Kampen said. "We as humans have this not in our backyard thing but the truth is, it is in your backyard."
Numbers gathered by Michigan's Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI), show the problem of child homelessness is widespread. The children are recorded if, in the opinion of their school leaders, they do not have an adequate place to sleep at night.
Geographically it's all over the place from Grand Haven (214 homeless students) to Cedar Springs (88 homeless students) to Hart (235 homeless students) and to Muskegon (158 homeless students).
Even school districts considered to be more affluent have the problem from Rockford (19 homeless students) to Forest Hills (43 homeless students) to Hudsonville (95 homeless students) and to Holland (277 homeless students).
It's an urban city problem too with Grand Rapids leading the area with 797 homeless children recorded.
"There isn't a month that doesn't go by, 2-3 families who need help how to survive and live," Sparta schools homeless liaison Paul Cole said.
"It isn't something you see on the streets; it's hidden but it's here," Cedar Springs Superintendent Dr. Laura VanDuyn said.
"That's not something when you close your eyes and think about Grand Haven, [child homelessness] is not one of the things you think about," former Grand Haven Public Schools homeless liaison Cindy Benson said.
Why is homelessness happening?
The state's unemployment rate is at around four percent at one of the lowest points over the last 10 years. It's a third of what it was during at the height of Michigan's recession in 2010. But there's a cost to success: higher rent. Those people who used to be able to afford an apartment at close to a minimum wage salary can't do it any longer. There are waiting lists for apartments and with little supply and tons of demand; prices are skyrocketing. What used to be a $700 apartment is now $1,200 according to housing experts in Grand Rapids.
That means if a person has an eviction or a criminal conviction, they're down the list.
"We know most often when a family gets a home, it's because another family lost a home," Family Promise Executive Director Cheryl Schuch said.
Our search for housing
Before leaving Linda's temporary home, we promised her we would get in her in contact with people who can help her.
We went to several agencies in Ottawa County to talk with the experts about her situation. We also contacted leaders in Kent County to try to get some emergency help.
Many of the experts told us Linda's situation isn't much different than dozens of cases they see regularly. They promised us they would try to help the family but acknowledged there is a severe lack of shelter space.
Ultimately, after nearly three weeks of work, we haven't been successful at getting the family housed and Linda's family moved out of the doubled-up situation in the trailer trying to buy some more time at a family member's house to avoid having to go back to the Holland Rescue Mission for a third time over 10 years.
"At this point I would gladly make minimum wage and a little two-bedroom apartment," Linda said. "I just want a place for me and my kids."
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