Where did you sleep last night?
In talking with professionals about local homelessness, they remind us that if we don’t see homeless people, it doesn’t follow that there is no homelessness. People living on the margins have little contact with us. Also, we must realize that there are many forms of homelessness—couch surfing, sleeping in a vehicle, two or more families living in one house, and sleeping in the woods, tents or garages are just some of the forms homelessness can take.
Saying, “If only they’d get a job….” displays a lack of understanding of the situation. Affordable housing stock in our area is too low to match the need. Because the housing stock is low, placement wait times range from 1.5-3.5 years. Receiving a Section 8 housing voucher means that the holder will be billed a mandated amount for housing (a good thing). But many factors collide to make the voucher useless. Vouchers have time limits for their use. If the recipient is on the wait list for a long period, the voucher can expire before ever being used. The voucher can’t be used if the affordable housing stock is completely filled. In addition, low-wage jobs don’t support a lifestyle that includes housing. With everything going right, a sudden and unexpected car repair or a medical bill can bankrupt a budget and cause a mortgage or rental default.
Good Samaritan Ministries is the Housing Assessment and Resource Agency (HARA) for Ottawa County. Someone experiencing a housing crisis can call for an intake (616.392.7159) from anywhere in the county or complete a Housing Screening Survey on the Good Sam website (https://www.goodsamministries.com).
At any point while on the wait list for housing, a family fails the homeless status, they are removed from the list. “Where did you sleep last night?” is the question used to determine eligibility. If the answer is a shelter, my car, my church or a friend’s house, housing wait list status is lost. In my mind, all those situations speak of homelessness, but HUD guidelines are what they are. In trying to qualify people for a voucher, professionals say that they are placed in a tough position of wanting to help those in need yet protect the integrity of their organization by adhering to HUD guidelines. Following the high-bar guidelines means that people fall through the cracks and remain homeless.
We live in a desirable area. Good jobs are often available, but a family’s status can tank. A common scenario is that a family moves here seeking work. Even upon landing a job, waiting for the first paycheck can be a period where costs from gentrification, low affordable housing stock and something going wrong can cause homelessness. Strict guidelines can disqualify families for support, even though their needs may be great.