A magazine cover. The title reads "The Homefront." The subhead reads "Confronting Kalamazoo's Homelessness Crisis."

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.

In Search of a Strategy

Pressure is on leaders in Kalamazoo County to end a homelessness crisis.

The Homefront

NowKalamazoo explored the homelessness crisis in Kalamazoo County in the Nov. 2019 special publication The Homefront.

It has been a year since homeless residents pitched tents in Bronson Park in the heart of Kalamazoo, bringing significant attention at the time to the perennial crisis, but there’s been little progress to end it.

“It is a problem of such magnitude,” says David Anderson, a Kalamazoo city commissioner. “I would say [we are] still trying to figure it out a year later.”

Many officials throughout Kalamazoo County who spoke to The Homefront say there is no strategy to end the homelessness crisis.

Without a strategy, however, it will be all but impossible to rally and organize the various tacticians to achieve the goal of significantly reducing if not eliminating homelessness, which to some degree nearly 80 communities in the country have achieved, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH).

In order to create and execute that strategy, says USICH, a collection of 19 federal agencies and advisors established by President Ronald Reagan and tasked with research and recommendations to decrease homelessness in the country, a community requires its leaders to play a crucial role. (In September 2019, it released one of its latest reports titled The Evidence Behind Approaches that Drive an End to Homelessness.)

“The support of county commissioners and other elected officials is critical to ending chronic homelessness,” Matthew Doherty, executive director of USICH, told The Homefront.

Kalamazoo city and county taxpayers and governments are putting significant resources toward initiatives to house and keep people in their homes, indeed. Many local elected officials are also involved in some aspect of the response, tactics like improving housing availability, support services or anti-poverty initiatives. Anderson himself serves on the board of an affordable housing nonprofit developer and manages housing projects for the county’s mental health and substance abuse agency.

“So you’ve got everyone just trying to manage their budget and do the work that needs to be done,” says Anderson, who also serves on the county’s public housing commission, which has housed 100 families with school-aged kids each year since a 2015 countywide millage was approved by voters.

Significant local resources dedicated to the crisis are being undercut by decreased state and national funding while being outpaced by an increasing number of people facing homelessness.

The shuttering of most Michigan psychiatric hospitals in the 1990s and lagging replacement of funding, for example, has been a burden borne further by local communities as people with bespoke needs for and difficulties of living at home turn to life on the streets, clogging emergency rooms and crowding jails.

“It’s not just a Kalamazoo problem, it’s a nationwide problem” made worse by cuts to low income and subsidized housing development programs, says Anderson. “What it has left is local communities to patch things together to make it work.”

More recently, in September 2019, the White House Council of Economic Advisors issued a report recommending a series of actions that contradict both research by USICH — which was not consulted for the report — and best practice successes in the United States and abroad.

The White House report was widely panned by national housing and anti-homelessness groups, and further muddied the waters in what feels in communities like Kalamazoo to be a rising tide of a crisis.

While there’s general agreement on how to successfully end homelessness, it is often multifaceted and requires refocusing how programs and funding are organized within a community.

Leaders Lack Authority

Two men, one sitting and one standing, next to railroad tracks.
Homeless individuals near the Kalamazoo Transportation Center in September 2019.

It appears to be a tall order in Kalamazoo County to get enough policy makers to take appropriate action, in part because local leaders are too focused on urgent needs to have time to step back and think about broad strategy to a complex issue and, in part, because they are constrained by a lack of clear-cut authority.

“The counties are really a unique entity in Michigan. We don’t have a lot of authority actually,” Julie Rogers, chairperson of the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners, told The Homefront. “We can’t dictate to a city, township, or a village ‘you shall do this.’”

The county may be unable to use a stick on its municipalities, but it can produce the carrots that convince them the county government is best placed to lead: it can solidify a community-wide mission; wrangle the dozens of municipalities within its borders to share the burden instead of doing either not enough or more than their fair share; formulate a strategy based on well-researched best practices and inspired by the success of other communities; maximize federal, state, and other funding opportunities and efficiently allocate these to address needs throughout the county; and hold everyone — including themselves — accountable.

USICH’s Doherty says local elected officials are both best placed to know local community needs and bring the appropriate support to heel.

“They can set ambitious annual goals around the creation of permanent supportive housing, mobilize resources and efforts to achieve them, and create accountability for progress. They can encourage sectors, like health care, housing developers, law enforcement, and the business community to come to the table in support of effective solutions,” says Doherty. “And they can help identify and reduce system-wide barriers, like discrimination or lack of coordination across agencies and systems, that keep people from getting the help they need.”

It’s difficult to explain how a community is going to reach its goal of reducing homelessness if the strategy to do so is not defined, and without defining it, it’s difficult to hold officials to account for diverging from it.

Largest sources of homelessness-prevention funds coming into Kalamazoo County:

  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
    • 2018: $1.762 million
    • 2019: $1.672 million (estimated)
  • Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s Emergency Solutions Grant
    • 2018: $455,000
    • 2019: $487,000
  • Kalamazoo County Local Housing Assistance Fund millage, a 2015 voter-approved 0.1 mill property tax for housing assistance to families with school-age children who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness: More than $4.1 million since 2016
(Sources: Kalamazoo County, State of Michigan, Local Initiative Support Corp. of Kalamazoo)

Take the county commission in the summer and fall of 2018: while protestors and the City of Kalamazoo were battling over Bronson Park, political infighting on the county commission led to the temporary defunding of an anti-poverty agency.

If core governance in a community — such as at the county level — is distracted, then a municipality such as the City of Kalamazoo is forced to punch too far above its weight, as it did in the aftermath of the Bronson Park encampment.

Despite a vocal and aggressive response, the city struggled to maintain momentum. On a page on the city’s website titled Efforts to Address Homelessness in Kalamazoo, which was created as the city began taking heat for proposed ordinance changes perceived as burdensome to homeless people living outside, there’s a chronology of action and reaction. The last post is dated Nov. 14, 2018, noting a “very small turn-out” to a meeting with homeless people. “Attendance may have been affected by a weekly meal being offered at a local church at the same time,” the post said. No one attended a subsequent meeting.

(Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema did not reply to multiple emails and calls for an interview and information about the city’s response over the past year in time for publication.)

A year later, various private, nonprofit, and governmental entities continue to chip away at the increasing count of homeless students, families, and individuals throughout Kalamazoo County.

“We are a regional center for services [in southwest Michigan]. Not only the county, but more so the city of Kalamazoo,” Anderson says. “The city is putting vastly more funding into housing than ever before. … The city is not a housing provider, it is not a mental health services or support provider.”

He says the Kalamazoo County Public Housing Commission, which he helped launch a decade ago, is best placed — and, now, timely — to be empowered to manage processes and strategy toward a goal of ending homelessness.

“We don’t have a state-run system [but] I presume you could be more effective,” Anderson says.

Rogers says the public housing commission is doing “the day-to-day grind” and that the county administration’s role “is taking it to the next level … trying to figure out more of a regional strategy.”

Why hasn’t that been moved forward, or the county cracked down on tacticians that may not be deploying best practices? “We have a lot of balls in the air to juggle,” Rogers says. “We try to be community partners on a variety of things.”

Without a strategy to end homelessness and leadership stepping up to implement the strategy, the efforts by these tacticians are being underutilized and recommendations of best practices as researched and outlined by the federal government are ignored.

Rogers pushes back on accusations that county leadership lacks focus on strategy with a list of some of its achievements: a permanent $125,000 annual budget line to help the county’s Public Housing Commission starting in 2013, which is used to prevent foreclosures and help homeless families with school-age kids to get into homes; referrals to support services such as mental health care; supporting group housing opportunities that incorporate support services; and a push to focus on affordable housing.

“I don’t know that it can be solved 100%,” she says, pointing to the prevalence of the drug epidemic in the county and the needs of those suffering from mental illness, both of which are taxing endeavors to address. Plus, “while homelessness is getting a lot of the press, part of the issue we are discovering is there is not enough affordable housing.”
Rogers says the county administrator, Tracie Moored, has been tasked with connecting with municipal leaders in Kalamazoo County to prepare for taking care of homeless people during extreme winter weather and broadly collaborating on other tactics. (Moored provided The Homefront with a list of ways the county is contributing to fighting homelessness though did not reply to an email query about municipal collaboration in time for publication.)

While Kalamazoo has been experiencing a warmer-than-normal fall, winter weather looms, bringing additional risk to those who are unsheltered.

“We need to start planning for winter now. … We will have refugee camps throughout the county,” Nathan Dannison, the outspoken senior pastor at First Congressional Church in downtown Kalamazoo wrote in a call-to-action Facebook post on Sept. 24. “And I’m not talking about letter writing or political strategy stuff. That’s important, but we are going to need tents, blankets, medicine, socks and shoes, etc.”

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