"About two years ago, the leader of a homeless shelter based in downtown Grand Rapids realized the issue of homelessness reaches far beyond the city, right into the rural town he calls home.
Dennis Van Kampen, the executive director and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries, recalls when he was questioned by someone from Cedar Springs Public Schools about what services Mel Trotter provided to the rural homeless community in West Michigan.
"The question I was asked was 'Mel Trotter does such a great job in the city, have you thought about those of us up here and even the town that you live in?'" Van Kampen said. "To be honest, at that point I knew there were some homeless in the rural communities, but I didn't know the extent of it. We were very focused on what we do here in the city."
The mission has since been invited to form partnerships with organizations in Cedar Springs - where Van Kampen lives - which includes Cedar Springs Public Schools and North Kent Connect. Mel Trotter laid the foundation for a pilot program that kicked off this summer to address rural homelessness by hiring an outreach advocate who works at least once a week out of the administrative office of the school district as well as North Kent Connect.
The job of the new employee, Steve Tigchelaar, is to help those facing the possibility of homelessness or who are homeless. This will usually be through referrals, he said, and could include helping people overcome barriers such as lack of housing, finances, transportation and domestic violence.
Even though he is mainly based out of Cedar Springs, Tigchelaar is also focused on helping people in the Sparta, Kent City and Rockford areas.
To establish if there was a need for the program, mission employees contacted Kent Intermediate School District, law enforcement and church leaders to get an idea of the prevalence of rural homelessness. They learned that 2,098 students this past school year in the Kent Intermediate School District from kindergarten through fifth grade experienced homelessness, Van Kampen said.
"One of the ways we try to do things at Mel Trotter is to find out if there is a need, and make sure existing services aren't already in place," Van Kampen said. "Then we try to see if there is someone to partner with, then build a small pilot of the program."
Cedar Springs Public Schools was the natural place to establish a pilot program for working with the rural homeless community, Van Kampen said. There are many great resources already in place at the school district that will compliment what Tigchelaar can accomplish there, he said.
"We definitely have a homeless population and need to provide resources for families and kids," said Cedar Springs Public Schools Superintendent Laura VanDuyn.
VanDuyn has worked to establish a holistic approach for learning at Cedar Springs, she said. Three years ago, the district opened a medical, dental and mental health clinic to alleviate stress from families and students in need, VanDuyn said.
"What they don't have (at Cedar Springs), which is the gap we're filling, is case management for people experiencing homelessness to help them stay out of homelessness or move out of it," Van Kampen said.
Van Kampen and Vanduyn said the duties of the case manager from Mel Trotter Ministries won't duplicate what the Cedar Springs homelessness liaison is already doing at the schools.
Supplementing existing resources
The job of the liaison is mainly to focus on the academic success of a student in a homeless family, Vanduyn said. They also are focused on setting up methods of transportation so the student can stay at the same school, regardless of changes in their housing situation.
A student's academics are almost guaranteed to be negatively impacted if are facing the possibility of homelessness or are homeless, Vanduyn said.
What the Mel Trotter partnership will bring to the schools is an expertise in stepping in before a student becomes homeless to try and coordinate temporary shelter as well as a sustainable solution, Vanduyn said.
The new service Mel Trotter will now provide was "out of the scope of the district" before the collaboration, she said.
Working to identify rural homelessness
Rural homelessness is less visible, Van Kampen said, because smaller communities tend to "take care of their own," which doesn't mean they don't need additional resources, he said.
Another reason is because people aren't keeping track of the number of homeless people in rural areas, which stems from the fact that there is a disparity of homeless shelters in those places, he said.
When a homeless person walks into Mel Trotter Ministries or any shelter in downtown Grand Rapids to receive housing or other services, they are entered into a Homeless Management Information System. This information is used to better inform homeless policy and funding provided at the federal, state and local levels.
"The more people we put into HMIS, the more the state will recognize the rural homelessness issue and more dollars will be allocated to that," Van Kampen said.
Now that more rural homeless people will utilize Mel Trotter's services, Van Kampen predicts that over time HMIS data will prove there are more homeless people living in rural areas rather than cities.
If the pilot program proves to be successful, Van Kampen hopes to extend Mel Trotter's services across rural Kent County and the surrounding areas.
"Wherever there's a need and we're invited, we're going to work," Van Kampen said.
Van Kampen and Vanduyn both said there is a need for an emergency shelter to be installed near Cedar Springs to get homeless families losing shelter with at least a temporary roof over their head.
"Emergency shelter is a very important thing," Vanduyn said. "We'd like to see if we could maybe provide an emergency area."