HRI: Going beyond shelters to help the homeless

Just about everything that could go wrong financially was going wrong for Tim Anderson. It was 2007, he was in college with mounting college debt, his car broke down, his hours at work were cut, he was raising his 2-year-old son and living with his brother. It all added up to falling behind in the rent.
 
Anderson's landlord recommended he contact Housing Resources Inc. 
 
Over the next two months he met with HRI personnel who guided him in finding the assistance he needed. "At one point I was getting discouraged and they said 'don't worry, we'll get you pointed in the right direction.' And they did."
 
As a result, Anderson was able to stay in his apartment, finish his schooling, and went on to get his Master's degree in business administration through the University of Phoenix. Now he's the assistant general manager of Noodle's and Co. in Portage and a homeowner. All of which could have gotten derailed had he been evicted.
 
When the opportunity arises Anderson recommends Housing Resources Inc. to others. "Without a doubt," Anderson says.
 
Building relationships with landlords so they make the kind of referral Anderson's made, one that kept Anderson housed, is just one example of the work Housing Resources Inc. does as fights homelessness in Kalamazoo County. 
 
Landlords who work with Housing Resources Inc. have found out through experience that tenants will be supported as they get back their financial footing.
 
Although Anderson didn't get help paying his overdue rent through HRI, many do. The nonprofit spent $3.1 million over the past three years in direct assistance to families and individuals in Kalamazoo County to prevent them from becoming homeless.
 
One of the most unique programs HRI participates in, one that draws people from other communities hoping to replicate its success, is the Kalamazoo County Eviction Diversion Program. Led by United Way, the program brings together landlords, tenants, support services, and the courts in a process designed to keep people in their homes whenever possible. Pre-screening is often handled by 211.
 
Landlords, churches, and social service agencies know the work HRI does, but the community at large is not as familiar with the type of assistance the nonprofit can offer. That's why HRI is going out into the neighborhoods in the coming year with new outreach efforts.
 
It will be expanding on Community Housing Hour, a weekly drop-in program from 4 to 5 p.m each Wednesday at the Goodwill Building on Alcott that often is the first point of access for those experiencing a housing emergency. Fifteen nonprofits participate. 
 
No appointment is necessary for the session in which those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless describe their situation and the most appropriate response based on the severity of the case is determined. Action plans to help them reach their goals are part of the process.
 
In the past year, HRI responded to more than 7,000 contacts for housing assistance, including more than 1,000 individuals, at its weekly Community Housing Information Center and provided over $900,000 in rent payments and other housing assistance.
 
One way HRI currently gets the word out about how it can help is by attending volunteer fairs put on by local companies. Employers often invite HRI expecting that their employees will decide to help the organization. That happens, but it also is not unusual for employees facing a housing crisis to learn how they can get the help they need at such an event.
 
"The face of homelessness has changed," says Michelle Davis, executive director of Housing Resources Inc. "Most people do not associate being homeless with kids who have one or more working parents, but far too often this is the reality of homelessness within our very own community."
 
Among families who required the services of HRI's emergency shelter in 2013, 67 percent had an adult who was were employed.
 
Given such statistics it is not surprising that the federal Housing and Urban Development Department requires programs demonstrate improved income and employment are part of the package of support in order to receive HUD dollars. (Of the $1 million HRI spends annually on rent subsidies and homeless prevention grants, 80 percent comes from HUD.)
 
Why is the number of homeless families going up if at least one parent is employed? 
 
Davis points to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition that shows a minimum wage employee in Michigan must work 77 hours a week to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent.
 
"Those we serve, who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness, are employed," Davis says. "However, their wages do not match the required housing wage."
 
The situation is only being exacerbated by employers of minimum wage workers who are cutting hours of full-time employees in order to avoid being responsible for their health care under requirements of the Affordable Healthcare Act. 
 
Now those employees are likely to be in a housing emergency, Davis says. "We need to deal with the need that creates."
 
One part of the solution to the ongoing homelessness situation is providing more affordable housing. Kalamazoo County has 8,000 less affordable housing units than it needs. To address that shortage, HRI also is a developer of low-cost housing.
 
"One of the reasons I came to Kalamazoo to work at HRI was that Kalamazoo is doing it right," Davis says. "When you look at these affordable housing developments you don't see the typical 'projects.' These are places where people are living in dignity and in an environment that you and I would like to live next to." 
 
HRI has developed and operates Pinehurst Townhomes, The Rickman House, Rosewood, and Summit Park. Together these represent 274 units of affordable housing. Services to support those with special needs are available in 94 units, offered in partnership with Country Meadows. 
 
That partnership came about when residents of The Rickman House were relocated there during the renovations to the downtown apartment building. Some residents enjoyed the greater independence they found at Country Meadows and were allowed to stay there with the assistance they need. Davis says it's a model they hope to replicate. 
 
Meanwhile, as people need places to turn in an emergency, HRI provides rapid rehousing at Eleanor House. The 24-bed facility for homeless families provides them stability as they seek permanent housing within 30 days. Support at Eleanor House helps them recover financially and emotionally. After they find housing, they receive support for 18 months.
 
HRI also operates 50 scattered sites for families where the head of the household has a disabling condition, offered with rent subsidies.
 
For those who want to help in the fight against homelessness in Kalamazoo County--so people like Tim Anderson don't face eviction--the opportunity arises this spring. On March 22 is the annual Walking Home event to raise money for the nonprofit. Volunteers, walkers and sponsors all are needed.
 
Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
 
Photos by Erik Holladay.
2013 Stats 40 agencies and 75 landlords in Kalamazoo County partners with HRI to provide homelessness prevention, emergency intervention, eviction diversion and other supports. 3,352 calls for assistance received at Eleanor House alone from January through Oct 2013. 60 families served: 213 individuals and 142 children for 4,845 nights of shelter
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