Demand at homeless shelter grows during COVID-19

by: Barton Deiters
Posted: Apr 2, 2020 / 07:35 PM EDT Updated: Apr 2, 2020 / 11:26 PM EDT

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -  One part of society not taking time off during the pandemic is the homeless crisis.

Homeless services provided by places like Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids have been deemed essential services by state and federal authorities.

“We’re seeing more people than we normally would this time of year. We’re seeing in singles an increase of about 25%,” said Dennis Van Kampen, president and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries, which has cared for the homeless for more than a century and has no intention of stopping during the pandemic. “If Mel Trotter suddenly was closed tonight, there would be almost 400 individuals who would be on the streets with no one to care for them.

“What we’re seeing right now is that everyone is coming into the shelter, because, frankly, I think they’re scared,” he added.

People are coming for food and shelter, as well as care and compassion. There are also those who have no other option.

“Some of the jails have done early release programs. We have seen some people released from the jail with no place to go so they end up at Mel Trotter,” Van Kampen said.

It has led to changes in operations. The fire department helped build structures to separate the residents who are normally in close quarters.

“Even at meal times, we have lengthened meal times. We’re 6 feet apart at the tables. In the hallways waiting for meals, we have tapes 6 feet apart, with inspirational message on that tape,” Van Kampen described.

Families have been moved to a hotel that was provided with the help of Family Promise to clear out space for the additional single people who have to be separated and to protect families and children from any potential outbreak. But that ends after 30 days and Mel Trotter leaders will have to figure out what to do next.

There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Mel Trotter. They are doing multiple daily temperature checks of staff and residents.

“If anybody has any symptoms, we have them medically evaluated at a hospital and if they are positive, they go into the care of the county health department,” Van Kampen said.

Mel Trotter was among 80 homelessness organizations in Michigan that signed a letter asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for funding for temporary housing and longer bans on evictions and foreclosures, among several other proposals.

The need for community support is as great as it’s ever been. Because of COVID-19, Mel Trotter spent $95,000 more than it budgeted in March and that is only expected to get worse. Van Kampen said the organization is also running low on gloves and masks and is asking for those types of donations, too.

“Pray for us, pray for our staff, pray for our guests,” Van Kampen said.

To learn more about Mel Trotter Ministries and how to help, visit


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