GRAND RAPIDS, MI — The number of families in Kent County homeless shelters has doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Cheryl Schuch, executive director of Family Promise.
The nonprofit serves low-income and homeless families and is the lead agency for temporarily housing homeless people in hotels.
In March, Schuch said shelters were at their regular capacity of about 40 families. Now, about 85 families, or roughly 340 parents and children, are being housed.
Part of the reason for the increase is that pent-up demand for family shelter space was met when expanded family sheltering capacity was brought online in mid-March to house families in hotels instead of shelters as a COVID-19 mitigation effort.
But the economic downturn, housing crisis and families unable to double-up in households for fear of COVID-19 has also driven the increase, said Schuch.
Doubling up is when an individual or family lives with another household or scrambles indefinitely between homes because of economic hardship.
Summer demand could be historically high
Typically, the winter and holiday season see less families in shelters because many are doubled-up with family or friends, she said. With no sign of a seasonal decline in this year, Schuch worries the number of families seeking shelter this summer could reach historic levels.
“Every summer we usually see that 30% to 35% increase in the demand for shelters,” she said. “If we see that on top of the levels we have now, those will historically be the highest levels we’ve ever seen for families experiencing homelessness here in Kent County.”
Currently, the hoteling program is funded through February or March for a volume of about 80 families. Further dollars likely coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should extend the program through May or June.
In total, the facility costs for the program since it started in mid-March and through its expected end in mid-2021 is about $2.5 million. Some overflow capacity will be available through year-end with those dollars.
While the number of families needing shelter has increased over the pandemic, it’s nothing compared to how overwhelmed the system would be without the federal eviction moratorium.
Federal eviction moratorium extended
The moratorium, originally set to expire Dec. 31, was extended to Jan. 31, 2021 as part of the latest congressional spending bill and provided $25 billion in emergency rental relief. The moratorium was put in place Sept. 4.
Schuch said the federal eviction moratorium and funds for eviction diversion are preventing “thousands of people” in Kent County from losing the roof over their heads.
Without an extension in sight, nonprofit workers were “panicking” over the holidays.
The relief bill earmarked a “significant amount” of funds for eviction diversion and other safety nets, Schuch said.
“The numbers are so, so large that there’s no normal safety net system or nonprofit system or coalition or anything that could address (the pending evictions) at that scale,” she said. “It really has to be a national intervention for the number of families that we know would be eligible for eviction if that’s lifted.”
The experience of homelessness has been more visible in Kent County during the pandemic. In late December, the city of Grand Rapids cleared an encampment of some 100 people living in downtown Heartside Park after an overflow shelter was opened for single adults.
Homeless advocates previously said they couldn’t recall the last time an encampment that large was ever seen in the city.
Schuch said the volume of families experiencing homelessness in Kent County is “really extreme” when juxtaposed with the wealth of public and private resources available in the community. It’s also a symptom of the housing crisis in Grand Rapids.
A Grand Rapids-commissioned housing study released in summer 2020 found the city needs an additional 5,340 rental units and 3,548 for-sale units by 2025 to meet demand and ensure low-income residents aren’t displaced.
Schuch called on elected officials, as well as businesses, to prioritize funding for shelter space and housing with immediacy.
“We have to be putting down a significant investment. It can’t just be planning. It has to be dollars that go into it,” she said. “We have to be creating housing and we have to do it quickly. It can be something that happens three or four years from now. It needs to start happening now, this year, 2021.”
Shelter data shows racial disparity
Among the families needing shelter, there exists a massive racial disparity in Kent County.
While 82% of residents in Kent County are white, about 75% of the families needing shelter are people of color, with Black residents accounting for the majority of that number. About 11% of county residents are Black.
“There is so much that is built into our systems, and the housing system is no different, that cause racial inequity,” Schuch said.
“To see almost a complete inverse representation of the county population demographics by race versus what we see in the homeless system is just so disheartening for the kids that are in those families that we’re working with. It’s such an uphill battle for them from the start.”
Increase in homeless K-12 students
Along with the increased number of families in shelter, the pandemic has also likely increased the number of homeless children.
Casey Gordon, special population consultant for the Kent Intermediate School District, tracks the number of students across the district’s 400 public and private schools who are without a stable home.
Of the district’s 120,000 students, about 2,570 of them are homeless without a permanent residence, per the last typical count in the 2018-2019 school year.
The majority of these children are pre-kindergarten through 12th grade — about 1,800 of them — are living in doubled-up residences that might change by the week or the month, Gordon said.
The roughly 770 homeless students not living in doubled-up residences were either in a hotel, shelter or transitional housing, during the 2018-2019 count. About 51 students had no shelter whatsoever.
The district isn’t able to track with certainty how many students are experiencing homelessness during the pandemic because many of the tools they use to track the numbers are dependent on facets of in-person learning, like bus transportation.
Gordon says she believes the number of children experiencing homelessness during the pandemic is likely higher than it has been in the last several years. She said some temporary housing supports, like doubling-up with family or friends, may not be available because people are worried about COVID-19 infection.
“I believe absolutely we are probably at least at that 1,800-student mark, and that would be under-identification. I believe it’s far more than that,” Gordon said.
“Anecdotally, what we’re hearing from all our teachers, homeless liaisons and families is we have a tremendous number, probably more than we’ve had in the last several years, living in doubled-up situations, especially unstable doubled-up situations where they are moving every week to every two weeks.”
Without support systems in place and available eviction diversion funds, Gordon said Kent ISD expects to see an “unprecedented” number of homeless students when the eviction moratorium eventually lifts.
“We truly expect that as soon as the eviction moratoriums are lifted and as more courts come back and start hearing more eviction cases, we are going to see an unprecedented number — not just here, but nationwide — an unprecedented number of students who are experiencing homelessness and living in doubled-up situations,” Gordon said.
Virtual learning problematic
Shelter and other living situations have presented unique problems during the pandemic as children living in these circumstances attempt to attend virtual school.
The issues largely stem from the number of children under one roof all attempting to learn virtually from home. Those issues include access to reliable internet, access to few devices to complete virtual learning, having quiet spaces in cramped environments to focus and having consistent access to food, Gordon said.
The district has provided numerous children with internet hotspots, tablets and laptops and headphones and earbuds to drown out background noise to help alleviate these problems.
Other issues, though, aren’t as easily remedied. For example, older children may now be responsible for babysitting their younger siblings and ensuring they’re completing their online work, all the while missing out on their own education.
Additionally, school spaces are typically the one stable place in a homeless student’s life. Advocates say it is a place of routines where they know they are safe, meals are guaranteed and their needs will consistently be met.
Some of the immediate impacts officials expect to see are more students getting off track for graduation with higher levels of course failures.
“I think we’re going to have kids that, when we count up days how many days of instruction they’ve actually been able to participate in we’re going to find it’s the equivalent of chronic truancy,” Gordon said.
“I think we’re also seeing students that we’re concerned about their emotional health, their mental health, because that lack of socialization and routine and safety that school often provides (isn’t there). Just lacking that type of stability really does have a long-term impact on how students are able to function, how students are able to learn in the future as well.”