After nearly 50 years with extended family, this grandma finally has a room to herself in Kalamazoo

 A Way Home — Housing Solutions: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to homelessness and ways to increase affordable housing. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, Kalamazoo County Land Bank, and LISC.

Family means everything to Katherine White.
 
In 1973, she and her husband relocated to Kalamazoo from Brookhaven, Miss., to have a better life here, and to make this their home.
 
He found a job at a local automotive parts manufacturer. She found work as a patient assistant at a local nursing home.
 
After that, she worked for several years at Borgess Medical Center cleaning surgical instruments, then worked as a student aid in the Kalamazoo Public Schools. She retired from KPS about nine years ago. She will be 85 in July.
 
During her years here, she and her husband, Robert “R.P.” White, raised two sons and two daughters. They, in turn, became the parents of a total of 10 children. And they, in turn, became the parents of 10 others. The Whites made a home for them, from the eldest to the youngest. And at various times during most of the last 49 years, that has meant living with a daughter, a son, some grandchildren, some great-grandchildren, and various combinations of all that.
 
“They always would live with me,” White says, acknowledging that financial and personal troubles have made life a struggle for most of her children. “They never had a home to live at, so they always would live with me.”
 
Katherine White white stands inside the first home she has had all to herself in nearly 50 years.White’s home life has therefore been a long string of apartment rentals, primarily in Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood. Among them, she remembers that she and her family lived for about four years on North Edwards Street, then moved to North Park Street and lived there for seven or eight years. She relocated from there to Jefferson Street when she separated from her husband about 12 years ago. At that point, she lived for about 18 months with her youngest daughter, who was living independently. 
 
From there, she moved to an apartment house on North Burdick Street and lived there for about two years. All the while, and at every stop, she shared her space with family members. Her husband Robert died about eight years ago.
 
Human services and housing professionals say it’s not unusual for struggling families and different cultures to live with extended family members.
 
“You just know it exists in Edison and other neighborhoods as well,” Tammy Taylor says of extended families living together.
 
Katherine White relaxes on a recent afternoon in her Kalamazoo apartment.As executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association for 21 years before leaving that post at the end of 2021, Taylor advocated for residents of what is considered the City of Kalamazoo’s most diverse mix of households, in terms of ethnicities and economics. That neighborhood is approximately 40 percent White, 28 percent African-American, and19 percent Hispanic.
 
For some people, she says, living with lots of family members, "That’s just kind of part of the culture.”
 
Kathy White recalls living, at one point, in a one-bedroom apartment on Vine Street “and I had seven kids living in that one-bedroom apartment.” They were grandchildren and great-grandchildren who came to live with her as a result of their mothers’ lifestyles, sometimes involved with drugs or in trouble with authorities, she says.
 
“It was tough,” she says. “It was really tough. You go to sleep with them (the children) on the floor or whatever, and you wake up with them the same way.”
 
The placemats in the apartment of Katherine White really seem to fit her life with her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildrenThe seven children ranged in age from four weeks to 12 years old. The adolescent was the only one old enough to go to school. How did she manage to get him there while watching the others? She says a woman who lived in an adjacent apartment was a big help. And, “I made him go to bed early and I’d get him up early.”
 
“There were three of us in one bed,” she says of the youngest children at that time, with the infant in a crib.
 
And somewhere in the mix of all that living and sharing, she and her husband were foster parents to four other youngsters, two at a time.
 
“What can I say, I love children,” White says with a laugh.
 
Patrese Griffin says it’s not unusual for extended family members to live together here “particularly with our housing situation the way it is.”
 
Taylor agrees saying, “There are several cultures where families all stay together and support each other and take care of the elderly and that sort of thing. In some cases, it’s survival. (There are parents who say), ‘I don’t want my baby or my grandbaby living on the street and they can’t afford to make it on their own.’”
 
The Crosstown Parkway Apartments in Kalamazoo.Griffin was named director of the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care early this year after serving as vice mayor of the City of Kalamazoo where she championed the passage in 2020 of a new citywide Fair Housing/Anti-Discrimination Ordinance.
 
She says Kalamazoo's housing problems include a lack of affordable rental units, a lack of affordable housing options, and other barriers, especially for seniors and others who may be living on a fixed income.
 
Rental housing in the Greater Kalamazoo area is estimated to be more than 90 percent occupied, making it tough to find a suitable place to live. And while housing prices, rental rates, and home construction costs have risen steadily, the wages of average workers have not.
 
“When you add all those factors together, there is an incredible number of people that you would consider doubling-up, if you will, in our community,” Griffin says. “That is a regular story for a lot of people and one that doesn’t get told as often, particularly when we’re talking about housing.”
 
Griffin is among fair housing advocates that worry about how some moderate- to low-income people will survive as a two-year influx of federal and state financial assistance and rent subsidies -- to help those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic – comes to an end.
 
In the meantime, she says it is not uncommon for African-American families, who historically faced red-lining and discriminatory housing practices that limited the options for housing, to live in larger family groupings out of necessity.
 
Taylor says, “It’s everywhere, especially now with the housing shortage.” And she says, “During the pandemic, folks lost their jobs and they had to double-up, so to speak, to make ends meet.”
 
atherine White has found a home at Crosstown Apartments, which caters to seniors.White remembers the last place she lived with her extended family, 744 Douglas Ave. She lived there for about six years before becoming sick and being hospitalized. After being discharged in July of 2021, she became a resident of Crosstown Parkway Apartments, an apartment high-rise for seniors at 550 W. Crosstown Parkway in Kalamazoo. And after nearly 50 years, she has the place, a one-bedroom apartment, all to herself.
 
She says her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have also found steady places to live.
 
Advocates at ISAAC helped her a lot, she says. Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community is a faith-based organization that, among other things, supports education, early childhood development, secure transportation, and affordable housing.
 
Rent at White’s apartment building is federally subsidized, allowing many seniors to pay no more than 30 percent of their annual income. Therefore she pays about $330 per month, using income from her retirement pension at Kalamazoo Public Schools.
 
How is it having an apartment to herself?
 
“It feels real good,” she says. “I tell you, I didn’t know life could be so good. It feels real good.”
 
Is there a downside?
 
She says she often misses the bustle of being around young family members, which involves cooking, cleaning and care. Her youngest great-grandchild is now about 5 years old, she says. And she often sleeps on the living room sofa, rather than in a big bed she has for herself. She laughs as she acknowledges that it doesn’t quite fit her yet, and it’s hard to stop living a compact life.
 
White says she always wanted to own her own home. But she was always reluctant to buy, thinking she might someday relocate back to Mississippi.  But now she’s more than happy to now have her own space.
 
“I did a lot of praying and I love my family,” White says. Speaking of the years she spent providing room for her children and grandchildren, she says, “I was the only one who could do it. So I just prayed.”
 
What’s the best part of having her own place?
 
“It’s easier for me to keep it clean,” she says with a smile. “And I don’t have to worry about waking up to get kids off to school.”

 

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.