Patrese Griffin is new director of County Continuum of Care where housing strategies are made

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.

Local leaders all over the country are wrestling with the problem of homelessness and an acute shortage of affordable housing. Relatively few have been homeless themselves. But the new head of the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care has been there.

Former vice-mayor Patrese Griffin became the new director of the program in early April 2022. The Continuum of Care is designed to promote community-wide planning and strategic use of resources to address homelessness and related issues in Kalamazoo County and is housed in the offices of the United Ways of South Central Michigan. It and similar Continuum of Care programs in other cities grew out of a desire by federal housing officials in the 1990s to improve the way grants were processed and approved.

Griffin says she has a passion for housing equity and justice. For that commitment,  she credits her work in community organizing and that of her husband, community leader, artist, and Hip Hop activist Ed Genesis, plus past personal experience with housing crises. But she says facing the issue first-hand brought it home. She and her family spent more than a year without a home of their own, trying to navigate the support systems in the community: "What I did, as I learned some of the things from my husband and organizing, and how to use my voice for good, was learn how to effect some of the changes that needed to take place in our community."

Griffin was appointed to the Kalamazoo City Commission in 2019. But even before that, she was encouraging the city to get a grip on issues of housing fairness. She began working on what became Chapter 18 and Chapter 18A of the city’s fair housing ordinance, which was unanimously approved by the Kalamazoo City Commission in 2020. It expanded Fair Housing protections by banning policies that discriminate against people seeking to rent housing because of past evictions or criminal convictions. It also set up a housing civil rights board to enforce the law. 

Griffin says joining the city commission gave her a new perspective on housing issues. "I just began to get another perspective in terms of the municipality's responsibility in our fight to create housing equity and justice in our housing system,” Griffin says. "Municipalities are responsible for creating a framework."

Although the City of Kalamazoo is ground-zero for the region’s housing crisis, it can’t solve the problem on its own. It must work with Kalamazoo County officials as well as housing developers and a variety of nonprofit groups. Griffin says, "This is a community issue, and it will take a collective effort." That’s where the Continuum of Care comes in. 

It partners with other nonprofits, governments, and developers to improve coordination and identify housing gaps, Griffin says. It also analyzes data about homelessness and affordable housing in the Kalamazoo area, "to ensure accountability throughout our system of services for our community members who are experiencing homelessness."

Its other duties include writing and maintaining the "ten-year plan to end homelessness” required by the federal government. It also administers many state and federal housing grants. Developers in Kalamazoo County hoping to get low-income housing tax credits for their projects through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority must apply through the Continuum of Care.

Griffin says the Continuum also plays an important role in educating the community about issues related to the housing crisis – something she says is needed. "There's a lack of understanding of who is homeless, on why people are experiencing homelessness, which absolutely plays into the solutions, and maybe some of the outcomes and why we may not be seeing some of the outcomes that we'd like to see." 

For example, Griffin says a majority of homeless people in Kalamazoo are Black women, often with children. But she says the public tends to think of the homeless as those who are most visible. The narrative around housing insecurity and homelessness suggests people who are in these situations are there by choice or due to substance abuse or mental illness, which plays a part, however, she says the community can’t understand the scope of homelessness without considering the wide range of needs and experiences involved.

Griffin says she hopes homelessness can be effectively eliminated in Kalamazoo County, while acknowledging that’s a tall order. She says it will require addressing related issues like low wages and a shortage of affordable housing units. 

It’s estimated that the county would have to add 6,000 new units to close the gap. That can sound daunting, but Griffin says, "It's not a non-issue for anyone. Even if you are securely housed, the unhoused and the housing crisis is absolutely at your front door." Since joining the Continuum of Care, Griffin says she’s optimistic about the future, adding, "Opportunity is the word I would use to describe where we are right now." She says Continuum of Care has a great staff and that, for her, it’s "heart work,” not just a paycheck.

Some communities, including Grand Rapids, have taken a focused approach to fighting homelessness through targeted programs for at-risk groups like veterans, victims of domestic assault, and young LGBTQ+ people. Griffin says she thinks that’s a good idea. She uses a framework called  "targeted universalism,” which acknowledges that the experiences and needs of people who are housing insecure can vary widely. "With the Continuum of Care being a convening body, we are all able to lean in, give feedback, and be active parts of this work." 

Local governments and nonprofits in Kalamazoo County are currently working on a cohesive plan to deal with these kinds of issues.

Griffin says she hopes the Continuum of Care will have an impact on the persistent shortage of affordable housing that underlies much of the problem in Kalamazoo, and elsewhere. As a "landlocked” community where open land is at a premium, Griffin says the community needs to remove barriers to housing so it can achieve its goals. 

Another problem area: housing vouchers. They allow some in need to find homes but are in short supply because of funding issues. And even those with vouchers can struggle to find a place to live because they are turned away by landlords. That’s illegal in the City of Kalamazoo because of its housing equity ordinance. Griffin says, "It doesn't mean that a landlord has to rent to a person because they have a voucher, but they cannot automatically refuse to rent to a person because they have a voucher."

Griffin says she’s committed to fixing that and other problems because of her family’s own experience. "I was an individual in need, and I never forget that."