Myth: Homeless people look like this

When you imagine someone who is homeless, what comes to mind? The old bearded man no longer represents the largest population of people who experience homelessness in West Michigan. The real faces of homelessness in Grand Rapids might surprise you.

The fastest growing demographic and homelessness in our community includes families and youth. It's estimated that at any given night in Grand Rapids up to 200 unaccompanied youth are on our streets or living in homes that are not safe. Of those youth, forty percent have aged out of foster care and have no one to help them and nowhere to go. Many more are fleeing abusive and violent situations in their homes and the only thing they can think of to do is to come to the streets. Some are even selling their bodies in exchange for a place that might be safe to sleep. 

While we don't usually see individuals and families experiencing homelessness in suburban and rural areas, there are many families experiencing homelessness living outside the city limits. These individuals and families are sleeping in their car, in tents, in motels or double or tripled up in uninhabitable living situations.

After realizing the significant gap in support services in the suburban and rural areas, Mel Trotter Ministries was invited in by Cedar Springs Public Schools to form a partnership. MTM provides 3 diversion specialists to support the district and surrounding agencies. The Diversion Specialists are there to provide resources and help to prevent families from ever becoming homeless. 

Signs of Homelessness: 

Poor hygiene/health: When someone is in crisis, their personal hygiene and health take a back seat. Lack of dental or vision care can be a sign of homelessness as well as someone who brings many belongings with them wherever they go and often wears the same clothing repeatedly. Inconsistent grooming is another sign. Maybe someone is well groomed one day and poorly groomed the next.

Attendance and attention: If someone you know is frequently late and struggling with transportation and attendance, they may not have a stable place to land every day and frequently seem to be distracted. Many teachers have shared that kids who are experiencing homelessness go to school for two main reasons, to eat and to sleep. It will be hard for someone to pay attention at school or work when they didn’t have a safe, warm place to sleep the night before.

Eating habits: If someone is binging on food or hoarding food, it could be a sign of homelessness or poverty. We see this at Mel Trotter Ministries. Although there is an abundance of food, sometimes people are still in survival mode and overfill their plate or feel anxious if they can’t take food with them in their bag.

Here’s your sign

A teacher I know recently told me that a 6th grader was acting out in class. He would not cooperate without incentives. When the teacher asked the student to write down what incentives he could get for good behavior he wrote: Beef, fried chicken and Powerade. Turns out, the student has a disruptive family life and didn’t have a stable place to land.

What to do?

The best way to approach these situations is with privacy and compassion. Each story of homelessness is unique and there is not one solution to overcoming homelessness. Privately ask the student or person if there is something they are struggling with. Connect the person to resources like 2-1-1… better yet, make the call for them. Find a church family to help support and reassure them that you’ll be there to walk alongside them.


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