HAMILTON — Groups in Allegan County worked to spread the word this month: Homelessness is not a just a problem for urban areas; it's here, in Allegan County.
To highlight the issue, the county's local planning body — the group that coordinates funding and services for the homeless — partnered with Love In the Name of Christ in Hamilton on a display that replicates the conditions one might experience living in a vehicle.
"Number one, we want people to realize that homelessness is a real thing in Allegan County," said Shandra Stewart, a case manager for Allegan County Community Mental Health Services' Homeless Assistance Program.
"This is people's everyday, real-life experience they're going through. Children, elderly people, working people are going through this. They have goals and dreams like everyone else."
The Homeless Assistance Program received 80 calls between October 2020 and September 2021 from households who were experiencing homelessness in Allegan County, defined as lacking adequate overnight shelter, sleeping in a public place or other place unfit for human habitation.
The agency received another 120 calls from households who were imminently facing homelessness, defined as people who were expecting to lose their housing in a few weeks.
"We came up with this display this summer," said Jean Eding, life skills director at Love INC. "We're trying to get more people educated about the need."
There is no emergency homeless shelter in Allegan County, so ACCMHS's Homeless Assistance Program provides hotel and motel stays for people who are homeless and informs them about their options for shelters in Holland, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
Stewart said going to an out of town shelter isn't always possible for Allegan County's homeless population, who may have a job here or a child in the school system, or may lack transportation to get to Holland or Kalamazoo.
The agency provided 606 nights of hotel and motel to 45 households over the last year, Stewart said, with average stays between 13-26 nights.
"Beyond that, we can offer them rental assistance for a set, determined amount of time," Stewart said. "We also provide their name to the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority for a Section 8 housing choice voucher. The objective is to get people out of homelessness with the hope that they will then transition into long-term housing with support of a Section 8 voucher."
Since Oct. 1, the agency has received about 30 calls. Many of the people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity also have a mental or physical health ailment, Stewart said, troubles that are often exacerbated by a lack of housing.
"When we are able to provide housing or help a person maintain housing, then we have seen the trends or the levels go down in terms of physical and behavioral health needs," Stewart said. "They're able to take their medications, work a job, stay employed, attend to their mental needs and they are more likely to want to do those things, because they don't have the burden of figuring out where am I going to lay my head tonight."
Eding said Love In the Name of Christ is trying to grow its transitional housing program, Homes of Hope.
Love INC partners with local churches to sponsor families, who can stay in a house owned by the church for 1-2 years while they participate in Love INC's life skills program.
"So many people think of the average homeless person as a single man, and that's wrong," Eding said. "The average homeless person in the state of Michigan is a mother with three children. These children get moved around from school district to school district, home to home. In order to stabilize them, they need something in the way of housing, like transitional housing."
Love INC is seeking churches and landlords willing to participate. They currently have the capacity to house two families in the Homes of Hope program.
"We are hoping to get more houses where the landlord is willing to work with us and allow a reduction (in rent) or accept a housing voucher," Eding said. "If churches and people come together, they can make a big dent in the problem."
This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Nonprofit shows what living in a car is like for Homeless Awareness Month