Walkers help HRI exceed goal to raise funds for services helping people stay housed, or get housing

Saturday morning, March 19, just as around 280 walkers in the Housing Resources, Inc., Walk to End Homelessness left Growler Stadium to hit Mills Street, a cold soaking rain began to fall.
It was a typically miserable form of Michigan March weather. Some walkers grimly moved forward toward the goal of reaching the Rickman House in downtown Kalamazoo and turning back; some more-cheerful folks had pep in their step, practically skipping forward. 
HRI executive director Michelle Davis says that she's heard suggestions that the fundraiser could be moved to a nicer month. But bad weather has a way of making a clear point for HRI's cause.
"This is absolutely what people experiencing homelessness have to go through," Davis says. "People slept in this last night, people every day have to get up and go to appointments in this, and walk most places. So we have to get up and endure this on a Saturday morning, to raise awareness — this is why we do this in March."
Davis was happy with the size of the crowd that came out that morning. Before the walk began, she announced they'd reached $87,000 of their $100,000 goal. 
In spite of the weather, the mood was festive as people gathered for the walk.It was the first group walk since March of 2019. Because of COVID, HRI held "drive up and donate" events for 2020 and 2021, Galyn Barnum, director of community outreach, says. 
The fundraiser met HRI's goals of $90,000 for both of those years. This year the goal is bigger because "affordable and available housing in Kalamazoo is scarce, and at times, nonexistent," Barnum says.
"We're facing a historic level of crisis with affordable housing, locally and nationally. And we have to solve this problem," Davis says to the walkers. "The last two years have been incredibly hard with the pandemic on all of us, but especially those who've been experiencing homelessness."
The Walk raises funds for HRI's core services helping people stay housed, or get housing. "In 2021 we served 2,608 Kalamazoo County households who were facing eviction, housing crisis, or homelessness. We provided $11.1 million in financial assistance for emergency housing-related costs."
Through HRI's work with the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program, "we released a total of $29.3 million to Kalamazoo County to assist tenants with their back rent. Because when you have an affordable housing crisis in your community, and you don't have units to put people in, the very first thing you need to do is assure people who have housing is that they stay in that housing." 
'My back's not turned'
Kalamazoo's political elite came out for the walk: Commissioners Don Cooney and Chris Praedel, Mayor David Anderson, State Representative Julie Rogers, State Senator Sean McCann. 
HRI's Michelle Davis addresses the crowd.KVCC Law Enforcement cadets, along with director Victor Ledbetter, led the walk.
Some of the most important, and fervent, participants were those who'd experienced homelessness themselves. 
Davis says they'll tell her, "'I'm here today because you've helped me in the past. This is my way of giving back to you.' That's a lovely thing we experience here."
Members of the Recovery Institute of Southwest Michigan, a peer-run Kalamazoo nonprofit helping people with substance abuse and mental health issues, were among the first to show up Saturday morning.
"Each and every one of us has been impacted by homelessness, in some form or shape," Recovery Institute peer Samantha Sojka says. "We do a lot of work with our homeless population. I've sought shelter there (Recovery Institute) when I was homeless. It's a safe place to go, with people who care about you, and want you to be better."
Cadets of the KVCC police academy participated.Sojka says the Recovery Institute saved her during the Polar Vortex of January 2019, when temperatures fell to -15 degrees. "I don't know how I survived. I don't know how I did it. But it was times like going into Recovery Institute, seeking shelter, being around people I knew cared about me. Wanted to see me do better. That's why we're out here."
For 40 years HRI has been working to find solutions to help people stay housed. Sojka says she thinks solutions should include "just loving each other, you know. Being an ear to listen. There's not always going to be a solution to come up with, we just gotta care about each other."
She continues, "Love on each other, be there for them, look them in the eyes, acknowledge them. When I walk downtown and I see people with their heads down, I say 'good morning' to them. My back's not turned. I want them to know, I see you. I might not be able to give you something, but at least I can do something as a person, acknowledge that you're here."
As of the following Tuesday, HRI has gone past its goal, reaching $101,989.96, thanks to around 487 donors. Donations are still welcome here.


Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.