Helping the homeless through a pandemic

Collaborator: Rachael Schuit
Published: 02/25/2021, 7:59 PM
Edited: 03/11/2021, 10:22 AM
(TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.) Throughout the last year advocates for the homeless in the Grand Rapids and Traverse City regions have been adjusting the ways in which they reach out to and help the people they serve. Dennis Van Kampen, president and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries, said the number of people who are homeless has been increasing over the last several years. "The data has shown that while many people were leaving homelessness there was almost an equal number of people coming into homelessness, and then right before the pandemic we saw that it was increasing," said Van Kampen. "What's happened in the pandemic over the past year is that the trends have accelerated and we have seen a significant rise in the number of people that are homeless." Along with the increase in homelessness, the obstacles to leave homelessness have risen as well. "We have also seen it be a little more difficult for people to leave homelessness because you know with social restrictions and shutdowns how do you find housing, how do you find a job," said Van Kampen. And more obstacles for the organizations that serve the homeless. Van Kampen said Mel Trotter has 475 beds in its shelter, and on cold winter nights prior to the pandemic, they would find ways to sleep almost 700 people if necessary. "If that meant mattresses in conference rooms, we would do that but with social distancing there's a hard cap on how many people we can serve," said Van Kampen. To address that gap, Mel Trotter Ministries started looking for additional space at the end of last summer. In December, Mel Trotter Ministries along with Guiding Light, an organization that helps people with recovery, found a building in downtown Grand Rapids. With financial help from the City of Grand Rapids, Kent County, and private donors, they were able to lease the space for five months as an emergency shelter. The space has 100 additional beds that can be used if necessary. Further north in the region, advocates for the homeless have also been hard at work over the last year adapting to all of the changes. Ryan Hannon, Street Outreach Manager for Goodwill Northern Michigan, said there is one particular group of people he's seen reach out more for help. "What we've seen is an increase of people who have worked in restaurants that have now either had their hours greatly reduced or lost their job because of the pandemic and as a result had lost the place they were staying," said Hannon. Hannon said the Goodwill Inn has also addressed the needs of people with compromised immune systems. "The Goodwill Inn has a wing for immunocompromised, that's really separate from the rest of the population to possibly help mitigate any risk of spread," said Hannon. Other areas where advocates for the homeless have had to adapt include the manner in which they locate people who are staying outside. "COVID made us kinda think outside the box on some things," said Bryan Holt, the Path Outreach Supervisor for the Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services Street Reach Program. Holt said they've started using drones to find people who might be staying in wooded areas. "We weren't able to necessarily have human contact all the time, so we were able to find encampments in areas we might not have been able to before," said Holt. "Plus, we were able to remain safe as the staff trying to reach out to people." Despite the obstacles over the last year, Holt said he thinks the pandemic has made people more aware of the issue of homelessness. Holt said with public places like libraries closed, that left fewer places to go for people who are homeless during the day. "They had nowhere else to go," said Holt. "People turn around and see that there's people that are laying on the side of the road, there's people that are hiding in cubby holes or pitching tents in places that are open. I think that it made things more visible and I think that that created a willingness to listen now in regards that homelessness is real, homelessness is not going anywhere, and homelessness needs to be addressed."


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