Homeless count up in Grand Rapids area

Posted at 8:39 PM, May 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-19 22:21:48-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- The number of homeless people in Kent County is at its highest in several years, according to the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness.

The organization's annual homeless count from January found a 15 percent increase in the number of homeless people compared to a year ago, according to the report released Tuesday.

On January 28 when the count was conducted, volunteers counted 912 people without permanent housing in the area, 600 of those were considered families while 307 were children under the age of 18.

While nearly all of the people were counted were in some type of shelter, volunteers did find 26 individuals sleeping in places "not fit for human habitation" when temperatures dropped below 10 degrees.

Vail said a contributing factor to the increase is due in part to the diminishing availability of affordable housing in the area.

"What we're seeing is a trend that affects a lot of families who end up experiencing homelessness," she said. "Availability of affordable housing is increasingly difficult in our community and that disproportionately affects those in lower income levels."

In March, FOX 17 reported that Grand Rapids had the lowest vacancy rates for rent in the entire country according to a study from Zillow.

"It shows how much we need to pay attention, not just to attracting talent that can pay high rents in our community, but also looking at the people we already have in our community and making sure they're supported," Vail said.

Beyond that, Vail said the increased count also reflects continued improvements in counting.  The report also displays an increase in people finding temporary housing while fleeing domestic violence, and increased focus on housing opportunities for homeless veterans, according to Vail.

"It costs our system more for people to experience homelessness for a longer period of time," she said. "We know that getting people into permanent housing as quickly as possible actually  saves money in the long run all around."

The count was conducted by 50 volunteers on a night when temperatures dipped into the single digits in January. Every community that applies for federal funding for its activities to end homelessness is required to conduct the count.

The results will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to eventually become part of an annual report to Congress.