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Many teetering on the edge of homelessness

October 14, 2022

By: Grand Rapids Business Journal

World Homeless Day was Oct. 10, but instead of talking about people experiencing homelessness, I want to offer you a broader perspective. There’s actually a whole population that’s on the brink of homelessness because of the rising costs associated with living in a popular city like Grand Rapids.

Just below the teeming lights of a vibrant downtown district are families who have to budget tightly to cover everyday expenses. The smallest hiccup, like an unexpected car repair or medical bill, can push them into homelessness. If that happens, there’s limited shelter space in Kent County and a waitlist for families, meaning without some form of outside support, they may be forced to live in their car or on the street until a spot opens up.

The sad truth is, while most of us would consider these normal life expenses, for this population it triggers a downward spiral. Without a place to live, parents can’t go to work and may lose their job; their kids may have to pull out of school. If a child experiences three or more homeless episodes during childhood, they are significantly less likely to graduate from high school.

For these reasons, experts are taking a more intentional path to address homelessness. In addition to the more traditional approach of feeding and providing shelter for those experiencing homelessness, Mel Trotter Ministries is trying to address the problem upstream. In 2020, the nonprofit hired a prevention and diversion specialist to identify people and families who are on the brink of homelessness in Kent County. This specialist is focused on helping a little to avoid having to help a lot. They often pay for that unexpected car repair, home repair or medical bill that may be threatening the family’s financial stability.

Today, Mel Trotter Ministries has a team of four diversion specialists who work closely with local school districts, as well as one of West Michigan’s largest employers to help keep many of their employees out of homelessness. Since 2020, this team has been able to provide support to 300 families, helping them stay in their home. That’s 300 moms or dads who were able to continue working, supporting their families, and about 1,000 children who stayed in class and continued their education.

This is why I feel so connected to the mission of Mel Trotter Ministries. They seek to demonstrate the compassion of Jesus Christ to everyone in our community by offering help to those in need. They recognized that as an organization they can make a bigger impact through prevention efforts than by just providing food and shelter for those experiencing homelessness.

It may seem like a compassionate approach to help families but when you dig deeper it becomes clear that it’s also a more fiscally responsible strategy that benefits the community at large. The company that mom or dad works for no longer needs to incur the costs related to staffing turnover. The parents stayed in their jobs and continued receiving a paycheck, paying taxes, and living in a self-sufficient way instead of requiring additional aid from government agencies or other nonprofit organizations.

On average, the Prevention and Diversion team at Mel Trotter Ministries spends about $250 to keep a family out of homelessness. Had that family become homeless, it would have cost the community about $40,000 a year. This is the definition of fiscal responsibility and, to our business brains, ROI at its finest.

Preventing homelessness isn’t one person’s or organization’s job. As a member of the community, it is our responsibility to support each other and help our neighbors in need. I encourage you to exert your personal and professional influence and see how you can make a difference in the lives of those around you, especially those who need a lifeline to stay afloat.

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