The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting almost every aspect of American life, especially housing.
In July, 32% of U.S. households missed housing payments, according to a CNBC report published July 8. With federal eviction moratoriums ending soon, the pandemic is putting increasing stress on Americans at risk for homelessness. One analysis from the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project found 20% of 110 million renters are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30.
Organizations that address homelessness and the contributors of homelessness — such as income stabilization, job placement, education and other social determinants of health — are seeing more demand for their work than ever before. One of these organizations is Community Rebuilders in Grand Rapids.
For the past 25 years, the nonprofit has served thousands of individuals and families by working to ensure access to affordable housing in their community.
“We believe that homelessness is a solvable problem,” said Vera Beech, executive director of Community Rebuilders.
To Beech, the solution is straightforward: affordable housing. And Community Rebuilders is doing its part. In 2019, the organization was able to help 1,889 individuals exit homelessness by obtaining stable housing.
“Most people only need a short amount of assistance, after which they can remain in stable housing,” Beech said. “Most people don’t need long-term subsidies.”
Community Rebuilders’ work includes educating landlords and tenants on their rights and responsibilities. The organization’s model also centers on choice. When Community Rebuilders begins working with a client, they talk to them about where they want to live and their housing/neighborhood needs. This approach is designed to decrease the likelihood of chronic homelessness.
Recently, Community Rebuilders prioritized incorporating social determinants of health into its approach, recognizing people’s housing situations and their overall health and wellness are inextricably linked.
The organization’s work includes demonstrating how employment and food security affect stable housing.
“What we know is affordable housing challenges and structural deficiencies within our country result in individuals becoming homeless,” Beech said. “When people are at risk, it’s difficult for them to share in their community’s prosperity and growth.”
Beech said she knew that to grow the organization’s impact, Community Rebuilders would need to partner across sectors to break data silos, share information, and track health and housing outcomes on a long-term basis.
To do this, Community Rebuilders started the Gather Resources and Align Community Efforts (GRACE) Network using the Signify Community platform by Signify Health.
The network went live in November 2019. Currently, a total of 16 organizations — including social service and health organizations — have joined together with a goal of ending family homelessness.
Besides Community Rebuilders, those involved in the partnership include Arbor Circle Youth Development Services, Cherry Health, Community Food Club, Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, Family Promise of Grand Rapids, Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, Great Start Collaborative, Head Start for Kent County, Health Net of West Michigan, Hope Network Housing Community Development, Hope Network Transportation, Kent School Services Network, Literacy Center of West Michigan, Priority Health Choice Inc., Spectrum Health West Michigan and Well House.
According to its website, yourcommunitynetwork.org/grace, the GRACE Network is an organized system of community-based service organizations that provide social care services, such as services for food, transportation and housing insecurity, as well as other community-based support services. The organizations work together to help collaboratively address basic needs, working together over a shared social record to provide better, more efficient services to the populations they serve to improve their quality of life.
GRACE Network offers the following:
- Access to software that enables efficient referrals among and between community-based organizations and others that participate in the network
- Coordination of referrals
- Creation of a common Longitudinal Service Record that includes referral history, social needs, challenges, services provided and other pertinent information to improve the quality and efficiency of services provided
- Joint evaluation of network activities for quality improvement purposes
Individuals can receive referrals through the network by contacting any of the participating organizations.
COVID-19 is unquestionably increasing local households’ risk of homelessness. Beech has already seen some changes in benefit needs. For example, whereas individuals may have only needed three months of rent assistance before the pandemic, now, that number could be six months.
Though she is concerned about the uptick in homelessness during the pandemic, Beech reported Community Rebuilders is putting a dent in the problem, leasing eight to 10 new households on an average weekly basis.
“Housing is a basic human right,” Beech said. “Individuals will face challenges, but when basic needs are met, their potential (expands).”