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A look at the Homelessness Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids

January 4, 2021

The issue of people who are unhoused in this community has gained extra attention in recent weeks, because of the various encampments in Grand Rapids, particularly the encampment that was at Heartside Park.

Just before Christmas, the City of Grand Rapids had told those who were staying at the encampment to vacate or be evicted. City officials said they had alternatives, but most of those alternatives violated the rights of people, as was pointed out by the ACLU in a letter they sent to Grand Rapids City officials

Various grassroots groups organized quickly to provide some support and relief to those who were being evicted from Heartside Park. In addition, there was a protest last week and an online campaign to pressure Grand Rapids City officials to not criminalize those who are unhoused where nearly 400 people sent messages. Of course, we all received a canned message in response from the Mayor’s office, which included these comments:

“The City has also created a Homelessness Work Group, appointed the City’s first full-time homelessness coordinator, and formed the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) in conjunction with the Grand Rapids Fire Department, Grand Rapids Police Department and Network180.   We are also working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the Eviction Prevention Program in the 61st District Court.

Ensuring people have a safe and warm place to sleep each night is a priority.  We also have to respond to some of the significant health and safety issues occurring in some public spaces.   These are complex issues that require a community response and we are doing all that we can to find solutions.”

Noticeably absent from the City’s response was their failure to actually address the issued raised in the online letter, along with the the fact that they do not acknowledge their role in criminalizing homelessness.

In the coming weeks, the number of unhoused in Kent County may increase significantly, due to the end of the CDC’s moratorium on eviction, which ended on December 31st. While this crisis is exacerbated because of the pandemic, it is important that we come to terms with the fact that there has been a decades long problem of homelessness in the Grand Rapids area. 

Therefore, we need to examine not only the larger social factors which lead to people being unhoused, we also need to take a more honest look at what we might call the Homelessness Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids and why their function primarily serves to perpetuate homelessness in this community.

Before people get their tighty-whities all in a bunch, I am not suggesting that we just do away the organizations which provide temporary shelter to those experiencing homelessness, at least not without having something else in place. I know there are well-intentioned people who work for these groups, some who even care. However, we need to stop looking at complex social issues through the binary lens of good/bad when it comes to the non-profits who make up the Homelessness Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids. In many ways, like most non-profits, these groups only respond to the symptoms of the problem, instead of addressing the root causes.

Homelessness Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids

On December 25th, the Grand Rapids Business Journal published an opinion piece by  Dennis Van Kampen, the President and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries. The opinion piece is entitled, Do we have the will to end homelessness in Kent County. It’s not a very insightful article by Van Kampen. In fact, the opinion piece reflects an important aspect of why the Homeless Industrial Complex is part of the problem. Van Kampen states that one of the strengths of this community is growth and development, even though it has consequences. Van Kampen acknowledges that while rent has nearly doubled in the last decade, wages have not. However, what is extremely instructive about the piece by Van Kampen, is that he doesn’t provide a solution to the problem of homelessness. 

In the 40 years that I have lived in this community, there has been a significant increase in the number of homeless shelters and housing assistance organizations. Most people view these increases as a good thing. On the contrary, the increase in services is not a good thing, in my opinion, rather it only expands and perpetuates the need for the Homeless Industrial Complex, which is highly problematic. One of the reasons that it is problematic, is that these agencies only address individual or family needs, but fail to address the larger structural problems, which cause people to be without stable housing. In other words, the shelter model, which i also the White Savior model in this community, is a false solution. So what factors contribute to the Homelessness Industrial Complex as being a False Solution?

First, most of the shelters and homeless advocacy groups in this community are Christian groups. More accurately, they are Christian groups that practice a form of White Saviorism, rather than theology of liberation. Many Christians in this community can avoid having to practice radical hospitality, because the shelters like Guiding Light or Mel Trotter Ministries will take care of that problem. On top of most Christians getting a free pass on the homelessness issue, there is the issue of people who utilize the services of these groups with having to constantly deal with religion being imposed on them. For people who are not Christian, this can be a huge turn off and more importantly it is a form of spiritual violence.

Second, there is the issue of Non-Profits having the 501c3 required Board of Directors. Those who sit on the boards of non-profits are often interested in how it will look on their resumes or because they work in the financial sector or corporate world and have access to people with deep pockets. Those who sit on boards of shelters are generally not those who have experienced homelessness, but often people in positions of privilege. Having boards with status and privilege doesn’t foster a conversation about the root causes of people who are unhoused. Take a look for yourself to see who sits on the boards of Mel Trotter Ministries, Degage Ministries, Guiding Light, Family Promise, ICCF and Matthew’s House Ministries.

Third, there is the issue of careerism with the non-profit sector, which doesn’t tend to lend itself to wanting to actually eliminate the problem of homelessness. Part of the careerism is that those in leadership positions can make a pretty decent salary, especially compared to most workers. I looked at the salary of the CEO of Mel Trotter and Degage, which were $111,000 and $80,000 respectively, based on 2018 990 records.

Fourth, there is the issue of funding. Most of the shelters in the Grand Rapids area rely on foundation funding, which is money that comes from those who are part of the local power structure. If a non-profit’s goal was to eliminate homelessness by attacking the root causes, such groups would have a hard time getting funding from those who made their millions/billions by exploiting people and buying politicians who craft public policies that are beneficial to members of the Capitalist Class. Just looking at the 990 documents for 2018 (the most recent available) from the various DeVos family foundations, non-profits like Mel Trotters, Degage, Guiding Light, Family Promise and ICCF have all been recipient of sizable contributions.

The fifth and last reason is because none of the organizations that make up the Homelessness Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids are attacking the root causes of people being unhoused. None of these groups actively promote and demand that all people make a living wage, which in this market, would be roughly $20 an hour in order to have a mortgage or be able to rent, especially for families. None of the members of the Homelessness Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids are exposing or challenging the serious wealth gap that exists in this area. We have several families that are worth billions and according to 2016 data, there are 600 millionaires in Kent County.

In addition, until stable and secure housing is actually a right in this community, we will always be at the mercy of landlords, property management companies, real estate companies, housing developers and mortgage brokers, all of which operate within the framework of the profit system, which means they inherently see housing as a means to make a profit, not as a fundamental right of people.

Now, I recognize that dismantling capitalism is a tall task, but it is possible. It won’t happen over night, but we can begin to work on it in stages, with ideas and solutions that make housing justice the goal of our movement. However, if we are unwilling to begin having conversations and develop strategies that centers housing justice, we will be stuck with Homelessness Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids and its relationship to the local power structure that will always oppose the core belief that everyone has the right to secure and safe housing. Housing Justice Now!

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