Two years later, an advocacy group for the homeless in Kalamazoo says a crisis approach is necessary

This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to affordable housing and housing the unhoused. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and LISC.

For the homeless in Kalamazoo, things have changed over the last couple of years, but a lot remains the same, a volunteer advocacy group says.
“There’s been some changes. But the underlying issues are still the same,” says Leander Rabe, whose Kalamazoo Coalition for the Unhoused is nearing the end of its second year, and continues to try to fill the needs of the unhoused.
“The underlying challenges remain and that’s not to say those will never go away,” says Rabe, speaking of the complex personal, psychological, and financial needs of people who are living on the streets, in cars, or jumping from one temporary space to another. “But how they’re being addressed is still the same for the most part.”
He says there are multiple efforts to provide clothing, food, medical services, transitional housing, and other resources to the hundreds of unhoused in Greater Kalamazoo. And those efforts are being made by multiple organizations, many individuals, and various government entities. But Rabe and members of his coalition say a larger, more comprehensive, and more focused strategy needs to be employed.
“At the core, this is a housing crisis and if it’s not addressed as a housing issue or as a crisis, then things will continue to be status quo,” he says. “If you respond to something as if it’s a crisis, the focus, the urgency, and the resources are exponentially greater than if it’s just considered an issue or a nuisance.”
He estimated that thousands Of people are unhoused in Kalamazoo County, “with the number growing each week."
Rabe is a business consultant who was shocked when he discovered people living outdoors in squalid conditions two years ago. His passion to help them inspired others to do the same, and the Coalition for the Unhoused started in the fall of 2020 with a whirlwind of energy. That continues, he says. His worry is that the organization is simply filling the gaps in services to help the unhoused without having the resources to tackle bigger issues.
“We are in a position where there are lots of people, groups, and organizations doing the work to support the unhoused community,” says Patrese Griffin, executive director of the Kalamazoo Continuum of Care, a United Way organization that has been working to coordinate countywide efforts. “At the end of the day, there are not enough housing opportunities for our community members. And that is the challenge that we are all trying to collectively address.”
Griffin, the former vice mayor of Kalamazoo, assumed her leadership role with the Continuum of Care in April. She says that organization continues to be focused on what’s happening with the unhoused “particularly as we approach the winter months.”
“We do have several boards, committees, and work groups at the Continuum of Care,” she says. “One is them is our shelter group. They meet monthly and we have been starting to have those conversations.”
The shelter group was set to meet with others on Friday (Oct. 14, 2022) to develop a list of places throughout the county that can be daytime warming centers for the unhoused when temperatures drop. City officials have said there are 10 shelters in Greater Kalamazoo available to meet the needs of the unhoused, though they acknowledge that more needs to be done.
“There are still so many more needs to be met,” says Carly Walter, co-chairperson of the Resource Committee of the Coalition for the Unhoused.
She says there has been a positive change since she began volunteering her time two years ago to help coordinate individuals who were intent on helping. She welcomed the opening this month of LodgeHouse, an affordable, 60-unit, efficiency-style apartment facility intended to help the unhoused. It is a conversion of the former Knight’s Inn Motel at 1211 S. Westnedge Ave. The downside is that so much more housing is needed. She says the coalition provides meals, socks, gloves, and other items to dozens of unhoused people each week.
"As we are working to set up a Warming Shelter for the upcoming months, we realize the need is beyond our capabilities,” Walter says. “Ministry with Community told us they are unable to increase capacity from last year and anticipate a great need for alternate support for day shelter once again.”
She said the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Unhoused is a group of volunteers working with generous community members. But it has a limited capacity to help.
“We plan to open at least two days a week as a supplemental opportunity to connect folks with resources and provide a warm meal, hot shower, and a place to warm up,” she says. “It is our hope that larger, more established agencies can step up to help fill this gap.”
Outreach events
Seventy-five to 100 people attend the Coalition’s Resource Outreach Events each month in downtown Kalamazoo, and new faces arrive each month, advocates say. They receive clothing, blankets, supplies, a quick meal, and other resources, care of the Coalition for the Unhoused, working with such organizations as Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, which provides food, and the Salvation Army of Kalamazoo, which has hosted a Warming Shelter during the cold-weather months. Other contributors have included Kalamazoo Mobile Closet (clothing), The Bridge (mental health, substance abuse, and housing services), Restored Soles (shoes), YWCA Kalamazoo (services for women and others), Gryphon Place/2-1-1 (counseling), Gospel Ministries (portable laundry and showers), Helping Women Period (products for women), and Animal’s Best Friend Fund and the Kalamazoo Humane Society (for pet support).
“That doesn’t include all of the volunteers who are buying and making desserts, transporting donations, helping us set up and tear down (tables and signs), and using their money to purchase resources for us to distribute,” Walter says. “It really does take a village.”  
A community outreach and street medicine team from W-Med (the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine) has provided medical services to unhoused people at the Warming Shelter. And a hair-dresser has come on several occasions to trim hair.
PFC Natural Grocery & Deli (formerly the People’s Food Co-op) has provided a place for the Resource Outreach Events in recent months. It has allowed the Coalition to use space on the south side of its 507 Harrison St. location.
Volunteers are disappointed that the city has not been able to find a site to open a POD community to provide small, heated, living spaces to help the unhoused survive the cold-weather months. Housing Resources Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps people find affordable housing, spent about $1 million earlier this year to buy 50 waterproof, fire-resistant, transitional units, most capable of housing two people (16’ by 8’ by 8’ units and 8’ by 8’ by 8’ units). It currently projects they will be available in the spring of 2023.
In the meantime, the city is looking for churches, organizations, or businesses willing to use space on their property to erect one or more of the pods to provide temporary housing for those who would otherwise sleep outdoors. The city enacted an Emergency Housing Ordinance last year to allow for that.
“We need community partners for people who are willing to put up pods,” says Kalamazoo City Commissioner Jeanne Hess. “Housing Resources Inc. is happy to share them.”
But she says she thinks logistics may be a concern as each pod needs to be assembled and, although they have heating and can be connected to electrical services, each pod host will need to provide them access to plumbing and cooking facilities.
Finding long-term and permanent solutions for the unhoused is complex, Hess says, with some organizations trying to meet immediate needs, while others, including the City of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo County, have been focused on longer-term projects, such as keeping people in their homes. Sharilyn Parsons, housing development project coordinator for the City of Kalamazoo, is wrestling, for instance, with such things as renovating and rebuilding homes in the city’s core. Kalamazoo County Housing Director Mary Balkema is helping organizations and developers craft plans to use revenue from the county’s new housing millage to fund the renovation, improvement, and construction of more housing, including more affordable housing.
“We DO have entities in town,” Hess says. “I DO believe we’re working on it. And I DO believe the community sees it as an issue. And I know that the community probably says it (homelessness) is happening everywhere. Which it is. It is a national crisis.”
Rabe says the Coalition questioned the break-up of large encampments of unhoused people last year, as well as ongoing efforts to chase them away from outdoor spots where they can pitch a tent.
Dozens of people had gathered last year in tents and make-shift shelters in two large encampments near the Kalamazoo River, just east of downtown. City officials, who worried about crime, the use of illegal drugs, sex trafficking, and trash, said they thought it would be safer and easier to work with unhoused people away from the large encampments, Rabe says. But after police broke up the encampments, along with another just west of the downtown, off Stadium Drive, Rabe says unhoused people scattered and have made themselves more difficult to find. And thereby more difficult to help.
“The ones who were around in those camps (the advocates) say it’s infinitely harder,” Rabe says. “It’s not just that they’re scattered. If they leave their stuff and go to a resource, it takes four, five, or six hours to get there and get back. And meantime, your stuff can be stolen. And No. 2, they’re getting swept by the cops any time they set up anywhere.”
The effort to help continues regardless, Walter says.
“United for the Unsheltered (another local volunteer group) has done a really good job of keeping track of people and going out and finding people,” Walter says. “Even when there are one or two people next to a store, they’ll get a call. They’re trying really hard to bridge that gap to go out and offer the folks resources so no one slips through the cracks and goes unsupported.”  
Of shelters and transitional housing, Griffin says a tremendous number of organizations have banded together to provide housing supports. But, she says, “There is no one-size-fits-all location.” And there are many reasons people may not choose to or decide they are unable to stay at a location – everything from issues around pet care and service animals to not wanting to be separated from others who are going through a traumatic situation.
“I would say there’s a lot of energy and effort from people who are committed to doing the work and serving,” Griffin says. “And we still don’t have enough places for people to go. We do not have enough permanent housing options.”
Rabe praised efforts like establishing the LodgeHouse and pod housing. Of the housing pods, he says, “We were advocating for that two years ago and exposed the city (of Kalamazoo) to how Eugene, Ore., was doing that – allowing up to five of those to any business, church, faith group.”
He described it as fantastic but says it will only help a limited number of people.
“There has to be crisis response,” he says. “Little drips and drops, and then we make press releases saying ‘Hey, we got 10,’ or ‘Hey, we got 50.’ Now that can all add up. But it’s not being done at a crisis level that’s going to change the landscape in the next year, or two years or five years compared to the need. The need is massive.”

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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.