In Case You Missed It: NowKalamazoo took an in-depth look into the Kalamazoo County homelessness crisis in a Nov. 2019 special edition called The Homefront. Since the crisis continues, we are republishing the articles below. Click on the picture of the cover to read a digital version of the magazine.
NowKalamazoo explored the homelessness crisis in Kalamazoo County in the Nov. 2019 special publication The Homefront.
“Is it just me, or are there a lot more people who appear homeless?” I was struck by that question from my father, the third of my family’s four generations from Kalamazoo. I assumed someone living the past two decades in Chicago — or in any big U.S. city where homelessness is often concentrated and extremely visible — might be desensitized to such observations.
His was a serious question as a visitor a year after residents brought statewide media attention and tough questions for local leaders regarding the perennial crisis of homelessness.
For residents here, however, the question has become rhetorical. In the immediate aftermath of the summer of 2018 Bronson Park protest encampment, we began wondering: What is the state of the fight to end homelessness in Kalamazoo? And why does it seem so ineffective?
The spotlight on our homelessness crisis has since waned, and yet the response by local leaders is not sustainable. So what happens next? Can Kalamazoo do better?
This journalism project was borne from those questions. Kalamazoo County is in need of a broader discussion of this crisis, and it is a conversation better held — for individuals experiencing homelessness, stewardship of taxpayer dollars, and the health of the local economy — sooner than later.
The Homefront is a reminder of this crisis, of the toll it takes on the most vulnerable in our community, and the opportunities that exist to bring meaningful change.
The narratives in these pages aim to not only help us understand the system in which homeless people survive and service providers operate, but also highlight reasons for hope that we can reach what we’re setting out as the goal: to have the fewest number of people experiencing homelessness for the least amount of time as humanly possible.
The analysis from our reporting leads us to an obvious conclusion: the status quo cannot achieve that goal. Even with the best efforts by service providers and other tacticians, some of which we are focusing attention on in this special publication, the people most vulnerable to the most severe impacts of homelessness still remain vulnerable.
A significant resource we relied on was the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), a federal agency that began its work during the Reagan administration and continues to research the crisis and provide extensive information on successful strategies and best practices used elsewhere.
“We must design community responses that prevent homelessness whenever possible,” USICH says. “When we aren’t able to prevent it, we must make sure it’s a rare, brief, and one-time experience.”
USICH’s suggested actions for local communities to achieve that goal are not easy or quick, but they are logical, rational and — as other communities have proven — successful and cost-effective: an efficient system through which people at risk of or experiencing homelessness move; where appropriate services are available, accessible, and tailored to address symptoms and root causes of their homelessness but without negatively impacting access to shelter or housing; with accountability for and of service, shelter, and housing providers, as well as regulators and managers of the system.
We found a multitude of tacticians — including social service, housing, and shelter providers — committed to ending homelessness. But they’re hampered by an overall lack of coordinated countywide leadership to guide those tactics under a strategy to ensure best practices, efficiency, effectiveness, and responsibility for success in pursing established goals.
The crisis needs to be addressed with a level of authority that will shepherd colloquial demands and tactics into a strategy of enlightened self-interest.
The Kalamazoo County government, working with City Hall leaders and other community stakeholders, is best placed to guide our community toward the goal of ending homelessness locally.
While much of the available services and, thus, homeless population are located in the city of Kalamazoo, municipal leaders lack the mandate, bandwidth and skill set to manage a crisis that can’t be contained by jurisdictional boundaries.
The county government can and should bring together its more than two dozen municipalities, streamline funding and appropriations to address the challenges of homelessness and ensure the community has bought into an equitable, successful, and sustainable strategy.
As last year’s encampment in Bronson Park proved, the fallout from the status quo will make it exponentially harder and more expensive to continue to ignore this responsibility than to claim and execute leadership. The next step is for leadership to step up, create and execute a strategy informed by data and best practices.
Without such a strategy, there’s no way to fully gauge the effectiveness, redundancies and plain failures of the status quo, let alone identify what additional tactics are necessary or changes tacticians need to make. And without leadership, there’s no one taking the responsibility to measure our community’s success at implementing the strategy, no ability to set key performance indicators and benchmarks against which to evaluate the tacticians and ultimately no one held responsible.
The Homefront is a journalism project of optimism. There’s much hope in the opportunity to be taken by our local leaders, not only because of faith in the community itself to hold them accountable. A local leadership that takes this crisis seriously can look to communities across the nation that have drastically reduced their homelessness crisis for proven examples that can be adapted for Kalamazoo — communities with fewer resources and histories of successful outside-the-box strategies to solve entrenched
To be clear, The Homefront is not a panacea. There’s always more that can be written, more questions asked, more insights to be found. There are hundreds of important stories and ideas that we could not get to. Not every problem is raised, question asked, or solution introduced. But it is our part, as a local media outlet, to contribute thought leadership and ideas for policymakers and stakeholders to use to better our community.
Until then, the status quo persists: those doing good work continue to do so but with little community-wide results to show for it; the true financial costs to taxpayers and the economy are hard to quantify; and when winter weather comes again, the risk returns that someone in our community will again die shivering in the night.
Publisher of The Homefront
The Homefront is a special publication of NowKalamazoo, a new media company covering important issues in Kalamazoo County. Copyright 2019, Zoo City Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved. Correspondence should be sent to [email protected]
The following journalists and publication partners made this possible:
- Tirrea Billings
- Miranda Drake
- Michael Grass
- Chris Killian
- Ben Lando
- Marie Lee
- Victar Mas
- Brian K. Powers
- Alexis Stubelt
- Encore Publications, Inc.
- Portage Printing
Funding for the The Homefront came from organizations and residents of Kalamazoo County including:
- Dan Antor
- Mark Denenfeld
- Sara and Glen Dillon
- Jim and Jennifer Evans
- Elizabeth Forest
- Habib Mandwee
- Kevin and Denise McCarthy
- Susan Andress and Jeff Palmer
- Peregrine Company
- Ed Sackley
Ben Lando, Publisher of NowKalamazoo and The Homefront, is a graduate of Loy Norrix High School and Western Michigan University. He began professional journalism in 2000 as a government and general assignment reporter for radio stations and newspapers in the Kalamazoo area. He spent 2006-2009 reporting for UPI in Washington, DC. He lived in Baghdad, Iraq from 2009-2015 as a freelance reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, The Economist, and others, as well as founding the online news outlet iraqoilreport.com covering Iraq’s oil, politics, and security. He lives in Kalamazoo with his wife and kids.