It's a growing problem in West Michigan. All week, WZZM 13 is shining a light on the issue of homelessness and sharing the stories of families that are affected and the organizations helping them.
"There are many families that don't reach out scared and don't know where to go," says Dennis Van Kampen, the president and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries.
Advocates for the homeless say, each night, there are are nearly 1,000 West Michigan families dealing with a form of homelessness and searching for somewhere safe and warm to stay. They and their children have been affected by a housing crisis that is among the worst in the country. And, unfortunately, too often, all of the local shelters are full.
"It is terrifying for families when they don't know where they are going. They don't know where their next meal is coming from. They don't know how they will get their kids to school the next morning, how they are going to get to work. They are just trying to keep it together for their kids," says Kate O'Keefe, Community Relations and Development Manager for Family Promise of Grand Rapids. "But, we have hundreds of families experiencing this terror. We, in Grand Rapids, have a wait list for families needing emergency shelter. We don't have enough shelter right now to provide for the families that need it."
The agency partners with other organizations and families to provide emergency shelter, basic needs and assistance in finding permanent housing. It serves about 350 families annually. Just under 1,000 of them are children. The average age of homeless children served is 6-years-old and younger. The organization is able to find permanent housing for more than 90% of the families it serves.
"Right now, Family Promise can get families into a home in about 35 to 40 days. We don't want them in shelter any longer than they need to be," says O'Keefe." Over 85 percent of our families are employed when they enter shelter."
Van Kampen echoed that and pleads with the community to challenge stereotypes that would stifle much needed help.
"Sometimes we think people are homeless have addiction problems or eviction of criminal past. Over 90% of families that experience homelessness don't have any of that. They are just like you and I, but something tragic happened in their life," he said.
Those families all experience homelessness differently. Some bounce around staying with relatives, hotels and even their cars.
"It is awful. It is an awful feeling," O'Keefe said. "These families will share they were so scared our kids were going to be taken away. They say 'we didn't know who we could talk to. We didn't know who we could trust.' We just say, you are safe. You are warm. You are welcome. You are okay."
O'Keefe says this is a community-wide problem and it will take a community response to fix it.
Families who are currently homeless or in danger of being so are encouraged to call United Way's 211 to be connected to an agency that can help.
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