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More Kent County families seeking shelter than this time last year, due to pandemic

silhouette of mom holding hands of two kids in front of sunset sky
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Kent County shelters are seeing more families experiencing homelessness as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Family Promise in Grand Rapids usually houses 30 to 40 families a night during the winter. This year, they're providing shelter to twice that amount. The families are staying in hotels, with many people working and going to school remotely.

Cheryl Schuch is the CEO of Family Promise of Grand Rapids. She says the move to motels was necessary, because congregate settings make it difficult for families to adhere to physical distancing guidelines.

"When you’re in trauma your immune systems don’t work as well. More than half of our families come in with underlying conditions for COVID high risk, so it would’ve been a nightmare had the families been together and COVID spread," she said.

She also says the pandemic has highlighted already existing inequities in terms of housing in Kent County.

"The disproportionate inequities by race are present pre- and post-COVID, but we see much higher rates of the underlying conditions in our families. It’s just about half of the families that come through shelter are high risk households," Schuch says.

According to Schuch, 70 to 80% of the families are people of color: an inverse relationship to the demographics of Kent County. She also says almost 70% of the households are headed by single females, usually single mothers, and just under 70% of the total number of people in Family Promise's shelters are kids, and around 70% of those kids are under the age of six.

"So we have a lot of over or under 70 % numbers," Schuch remarked.

Putting all of these factors together, Schuch says the typical family is a single mom with three kids, most of whom are under the age of six, and these families are usually Black and brown.

Schuch says the pandemic has emphasized that access to housing is a public health issue. 

"I think just that as we've heard from many people, that COVID has really magnified some of our gaps and disparities, and two things we know is that one, inequities in our housing systems disproportionately impact families of color and kids of color. And the second thing that's exposed is the gap in affordable housing in our communities, housing that people can afford to pay for with jobs in our communities."

Family Promise says it has enough money to cover hotel rooms until June, thanks to philanthropy and money from FEMA, but it's still figuring out a plan for its summer months.

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Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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