What's the real cause of homelessness?
Imagine Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan filled to capacity and overflowing into the streets.
You’re picturing more than 3,000 people. That is one of the lower estimates of how many different people find themselves homeless in the Grand Rapids area each year, and that number only reflects the amount of people that have touched the system by seeking help. How can so many of our neighbors end up on the streets, in cars, tents, shelters, or on couches in our city?
Tecca is well educated and successful but she broke her hip, lost her job because of it, ended up in a nursing home for a long period of time and couldn’t pay her rent.
Cidette had a job, but left an unhealthy relationship with her significant other and bounced from motel to motel before running out of money.
Michael* is 20 years old and grew up in Forest Hills but broken relationships with his adoptive family led him to a year of homelessness on the streets.
Oftentimes, there are deeper issues causing one’s homelessness; more than simply a lack of finances. The causes of homelessness are as diverse as our community. It could be broken relationships, divorce, job loss, evictions, mental illness, addiction, death of a family member, physical injury/illness or a lack of community & support networks.
Here are some of the most significant factors we’ve seen lately:
The Housing Crisis
Even though the great recession is behind us and unemployment is significantly down in West Michigan, the cost of rent has continued to climb while affordable housing becomes scarce. Those who are employed or have steady income are unable to find suitable housing and instead get added to waiting lists that could be as long as two years or more. Landlords in our area are discovering the increased value of their property so they are fixing up their rentals and increasing rent which forces families out into cars, motels and tents. In fact, according to a study done by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, someone looking for a two-bedroom apartment in the state of Michigan would need to earn $16.24 an hour working 40 hours a week to be able to afford it. Sometimes paying rent means living paycheck to paycheck and if you’re faced with a large unexpected expense, it could begin a costly ripple effect. Unable to find a safe place, families and individuals come to us exhausted, frustrated and feeling betrayed because they’ve run out of options and resources.
According to Green Doors, over 92% of mothers who are experiencing homelessness are survivors of severe physical and/or sexual abuse in their life. Unfortunately, in many cases the women do not have access to money or a recent job history and don’t have family and friends they can turn to, so they end up on the streets or other dangerous situations. When mom is in crisis, kids can’t learn, grow and develop and the longer a child is in homelessness, the less likely they are to graduate high school and they are at risk for ending up homeless when they become an adult.
At Mel Trotter, 24% of individuals that were surveyed this year said that their main reason for becoming homeless was that they were evicted due to their addiction. A former guest describes his struggle this way:
“The lifestyle I was living and the money I was spending on drugs, alcohol and partying was getting out of hand and taking a toll on me. It was taking everything from me. I’d been to Mel Trotter before and decided to come again and repeat the same process. I was very reluctant but I also thought that I’d done things and lived my way for quite some time and it hasn’t worked out. It’s time to give it up to God this time.”
An addiction demands all of one’s resources and takes a toll on relationships with family and friends. That frustration can lead to family members giving an ultimatum – either get help or leave.
Physical Injuries or Illnesses
Tecca broke her hip. James had a neck injury. Henry has bone cancer. Such incidents and illnesses can leave you without a job and stuck paying an ever growing pile of medical bills. Eventually those in such situations are faced with an ultimatum of their own: either pay the medical bills or rent.
The breakdown of family relationships is the leading casuse of youth homelessness – like Michael*, who left home due to stress with his adoptive family. The National Coalition for the Homeless stated that “more than half of the youth interviewed during shelter stays reported that their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving and did not care.” The complex reasons for the broken relationships are unknown.
Understanding how all of these factors cause homelessness is important to how we, as a community, address homelessness.
Oftentimes people become homeless for complex reasons. From the surface it may seem like they were simply evicted – but why were they evicted? Was it an addiction? Did rent increase? At MTM we use a holistic approach that supports the emotional, physical and spiritual makeup of people. This starts with seeking to identify the barriers to finding a home. By getting to the root cause of someone’s homelessness, we can work to end their homelessness for good.
*Name has been changed for privacy.