Selina Parks remembers her first steps into a Grand Rapids homeless shelter in vivid detail.
It was February 2002. She’d been living on the southwest side, raising two children, and she’d struggled with addiction—“drugs and alcohol,” as she put it—for “a very long time.” She tried to convince herself she could balance work and her children and her habit.
But she couldn’t, and now her life was falling apart. She was facing eviction and didn’t know where to turn.
“Eventually, it begins to crumble,” she said. “Because then you can’t get up. You got a hangover. This and that. And then you begin to fall behind on the bills. You begin to fall behind on putting food in the refrigerator.”
Parks said one of her friends used to pick up Thanksgiving turkeys at Mel Trotter Ministries, a strongly Christian shelter on the corner of Williams Street and Commerce Avenue. That friend had a card with the mission’s info on it, and Parks had had it for ages. She’d never managed to throw it away. She’d never imagined she’d actually use it.
But there she was, calling, asking if there was space for her and her children. In what she describes as a moment of divine intervention, she walked in at 10:15 a.m., she said—she remembers the time very clearly—and started changing her life.
“The experience of coming through those doors—you’re relieved because now you know the change is coming,” she said. “But then you’re fearful because you fear for the unknown. How are they going to accept me, what do they think of me, you know—just, how did you get here?”
Parks told the story earlier this month in the cafeteria of Mel Trotter Ministries, where she spent a year in its programs. She’s since found a job at the shelter and risen to its leadership team. She’s looking forward to moving from an apartment into a home of her own soon.
But her struggles sound almost out of place. Within a short walk are brand-new high-rises and a booming business district. There are half-built storefronts and towering cranes and half-finished developments promising an even taller, brighter tomorrow. Grand Rapids is increasingly full of life to live, but not everyone has a chance to live it.
Ironically, experts on local homelessness worry the city’s successes are moving it ahead without its most vulnerable residents. Since the end of the Great Recession, federal data shows local rents skyrocketing by more than 50 percent; meanwhile, median family income has grown 11 percent.
“It’s easy to talk about all the ways that (the city’s boom) is great. Economic development equals more tax dollars, equals more people moving into the city, equals more growth,” said Shandra Steininger, who heads Grand Rapids HQ, a drop-in center for homeless youth—but that growth has brought increasingly expensive markets.
“We have youth who have lost (a housing) voucher because they can’t find a place they can afford. That is a shame. That is a terrible reality,” Steininger said. “The price of housing is increasing at a much higher rate than salaries and wages for jobs that are available.”
This is a common refrain among the experts closest to Grand Rapids’ homeless. Dennis Van Kampen is president and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries. When he started in 2012, he’d watch the shelter’s guests find jobs paying as well as $10 an hour, giving them a bridge to independence. Nowadays, the pay is often the same, but rent is increasingly unaffordable.
“It is impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots or your straps are broken,” Van Kampen said.
When someone loses his or her home, there’s nobody standing nearby with a clipboard, and that makes it hard to measure the scope of Kent County’s homelessness. Wende Randall, who heads the Kent County Essential Needs Taskforce, said an annual “point in time” count, which logs the number of people in shelters, transitional housing and “unsheltered” persons, tends to measure local capacity for homeless people—not the real size of the local population. She said in 2017, though, 7,069 “literally homeless” individuals accessed Kent County’s system of resources in some way.
But not all were like Parks, who came to homelessness through addiction. Perhaps one of the most difficult things about homelessness is understanding its myriad causes. Randall calls it a “systems issue.” Changes in numerous other things, like housing costs, or even the public transit system—which a paycheck-to-paycheck worker depends on to get to their job—can change someone’s life.
Other experts add to this list: high medical bills, mental illness or drug dependency can all push someone beyond stability. And, as Randall points out, nearly 30 percent of Kent County families fall below a key poverty threshold.
“My homelessness came behind my addiction,” Parks said. “Some people that come in here, they don’t have an addiction, it’s just that they can’t make ends meet.”
That’s increasingly a nationwide problem. In August, Pew Research Center published a report that shows inflation-adjusted hourly wages holding nearly steady nationwide since 1964. Theories for why range from rising benefits to weakening labor unions to shifts in the jobs available in the U.S.
For some, it’s a matter of broken relationships. Steininger, whose center works closely with youth homelessness, offered an example: a transgender 15-year-old was exploring a male-to-female transition. Her family kicked her out and told her to change her name.
“(Being) 15 is a vulnerable time for everyone, but trying to figure out who you are and be homeless is extremely challenging,” Steininger said.
Steininger linked West Michigan’s homelessness in part to a culture of proud stoicism—Dutch, Christian Reformed values. The community is proud of being Beer City and the home of ArtPrize, she said, but finds it harder to talk about the uncomfortable realities of poverty.
“I think people who struggle in this community generally feel less valued and pushed out and misunderstood,” she said. “But I also think it’s something youth feel more specifically … if we felt that selling our bodies was the only way we were going to be able to eat tomorrow, those aren’t things that are easy conversations.”
There’s a robust discussion on how to move forward. New affordable-housing units offer one solution. The city continues to work on policy solutions for housing prices. And Van Kampen said that, no matter how big the problem may sound, solving it is no pipe dream.
“If there is any city in the U.S. that can solve homelessness, especially for families and youth, it’s Grand Rapids,” he said. “The question is, do we have the will as a community to actually use the resources we have to end homelessness?”
*Main Photo: Selina Parks said she came to Mel Trotter Ministries in 2002 after a long battle with addiction. “Eventually, it begins to crumble,” she said of that struggle. “Because then you can’t get up. You got a hangover. This and that. And then you begin to fall behind on the bills. You begin to fall behind on putting food in the refrigerator.” She’s since joined the staff there and become a member of the leadership team. (GR|Mag photo/Sam Easter)