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Guest Column: Homelessness won’t be solved by status quo

December 22, 2022


Earlier this month, 125 business, nonprofit and community leaders signed letters asking the Grand Rapids City Commission to consider new legislation promoting the health and safety of all who live, work and recreate downtown — and the ensuing conversation about homelessness has never been more robust.

Mel Trotter Ministries was a signatory of the letter, and we supported its initial development with the goal of getting three questions into the public eye:

  • How can we create a community that is safe for all: city residents, business owners and those experiencing homelessness?
  • How can we as a community better utilize the 30 or so ordinances already in place?
  • Where are the current service gaps and what needs to be done?

We’ve been successful. Over the past two weeks, community leaders have been more engaged in talking about the lack of truly affordable housing, the lack of mental health services and other big concerns related to homelessness than in any time since I stepped into this role in 2015. We need these important discussions — and more — to address the systemic issues that underpin the reasons someone lives without the safety and security of affordable housing, and for those with significant mental illness, permanent supportive housing.

In the process, critics have questioned our motives — claiming we are trying to criminalize homelessness and lack compassion. I assure you, since 1900, we have been called to do exactly the opposite.

I would ask those critics, what is your answer? I think we all agree that criminalizing homelessness is not the best solution, but neither is allowing someone who suffers from mental illness to live on the streets. We truly believe doing so is neither safe nor compassionate.

We do not want our unsheltered brothers and sisters to be put in jail, which is why we have the street court program through the 61st District Court to prevent that. Nor do we want any downtown residents, business owners or their staff to feel unsafe or be harmed in any way when we as a community can prevent that, too. Unlike many other areas of our country, West Michigan has all the resources we need to significantly impact homelessness and provide a moral, ethical and compassionate solution once and for all – for all. The question is, do we have the will?

Homelessness won’t be solved by new ordinances or more shelter beds. It definitely won’t be solved by leaving the status quo in place. It starts with the kinds of conversation we’ve been having this month — with seeing things through a new lens and with coming together as a strong and resourceful community to develop an out-of-the-box solution.

The past two weeks have been a good start. I invite everyone to join in these conversations, dig deeper into your mind and heart for real solutions and approach everyone you encounter with respect and compassion.

Dennis Van Kampen is president and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids.

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