Coalition prepares to count GR’s homeless population

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Advocates against homelessness will be on the streets starting Wednesday night looking for anyone who is living outside.

It may be hard to believe anyone can stand to spend the entire night in this winter weather, but Kent County officials said that there are dozens who do it in Grand Rapids on any given night.

The purpose for the homeless count is keep track of the number of people needing resources but have for some reason to not stay at a shelter.

Mike Rowland, 49, said he was never homeless after serving four years in the United States Navy, and later working as a machine operator.  He said that all changed last year when he lost his job.

Rowland now spends all of his time in the cold. While he tried staying at area shelters, he didn’t feel comfortable to call those places home, even for just a short time.

Kent County commissioner and coordinator for the Coalition to End Homelessness Jim Talen said that many people echo those same concerns and choose to stay on the streets "with a bunch of people that you don't know and that you don't know what's going to happen. You don't know if you trust them. It's a difficult stressful environment."

There are about 800 people living in shelters in Grand Rapids and 20 to 40 more sleeping outside on any given night, even in the middle of winter, Talen said.

"I personally can't even imagine how someone can survive out there, but I know I've talked personally with a number of people that do it."

According to Talen, Kent County receives more than $5 million a year from the federal government to combat homelessness.

During the annual homeless count taking place on Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, people living on the streets will be asked some basic questions, from their age to history of mental illness and substance abuse. Talen said that the goal is to find a permanent solution by providing the homeless resources and tools they need to succeed.

"Bottom line is we want to get people into housing," said Talen. "People who are staying outside have a lot of reasons; many of them are bad experiences that they've had."

In the long run, Talen said, it's cheaper to pay for permanent housing for homeless rather than invest in temporary shelters. Homeless people are more successful when given their own place to call home.

Members of the coalition will also be passing out items such as hand warmers and bus tickets along with information on the resources available in Kent County.

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