Homelessness in Ottawa County has experienced an uptick due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making Holland-based Good Samaritan Ministries (GSM) all the more vital.
"We'll intake about 6,000 calls this year and help from 1,110 to 1,200 people through a combination of our programs," says Drew Peirce, executive director of GSM. "All of last year, we helped about 20 families that were at risk of becoming homeless. The last 12-13 weeks, we've helped about 230 families from becoming homeless, and that work continues to grow. We sort of swim upstream and help as many people as we can from becoming homeless."
Good Samaritan's annual budget typically is $1.4 million, according to Peirce. Not so for 2020.
"We just had a revised budget that's been doubled because of the pandemic so it's gone to $2.6 million because of the incredible need that exists right now to help people through this pandemic."
Finding affordable housing is a pain in Ottawa County. And while that's always been a huge headache for cash-strapped people, the loss of wages and reduced working hours wrought by the pandemic has made making ends meet nearly impossible for an increasing number of people.
"The biggest challenge we face is there are not enough affordable housing options in Ottawa County because of the scarcity, the costs have gone way up," says Peirce. "That's what's getting in the way of helping so many people."
A solution: Third Coast Homes
Instead of scouring for shelter that's affordable for the homeless, GSM teamed up with other nonprofits, specifically Lakeshore Habitat for Humanity and Capital for Compassion, to build their own homes, which eventually gave birth to its first development: a fourplex townhouse in Holland Charter Township, just outside the city of Zeeland, known as Third Coast Homes.
Tenants first occupied the townhomes in February 2019, with an eye on breaking the cycle of poverty.
"The vision of it is we can place people in it that need affordable housing," says Peirce. "None of the people living there will pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. That's a big stabilization barrier for our benchmark because you don't want to be paying more than 30 percent of your income on housing.
Housing like Third Coast is key because 31 percent of Ottawa County households are classified as Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, or ALICE, meaning in Ottawa County, about 31 percent of the population struggles to afford basic necessities such as housing, childcare, food, health care, and transportation.
"In Ottawa County over 43 percent of renters are paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent," says Peirce. "Over 23 percent are paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent. That's just not sustainable. The challenge is these people are one crisis away from falling into poverty and hitting that crisis all at once. These are folks who are working in the service industry, working in restaurants; they may be working in manufacturing. They're hourly and as places close or cut back (in hours) their income is drastically affected."
GSM's method to helping people who are homeless, or who are on the cusp of being homeless, is to as quickly as possible transition them from crisis to stability to thriving. This often requires patient mentoring, but it's worth it.
Part of what makes GSM vital to staunching homelessness is it lives out the question proclaimed in the Good Samaritan parable cited Luke 10: Who is my neighbor?
Said another way: What does it mean to be a good neighbor?
GSM has effectively worked to assuage the anxiety people experience when homelessness becomes an all too sobering reality.
GSM was founded in 1969 as the Good Samaritan Center that offered direct services such as clothing closet, food pantry, adult literacy and tutoring services.
GSM's mission has morphed through the years, including, but not limited to, transitioning from a direct service model to a clearinghouse model in 1978 that is today known as Love INC.; partnered with World Vision's Project Home Again in 1987; and became a designated Housing Assessment and Resource Agency (HARA) for Ottawa County, making GSM key to working rapidly to re-house people who are homeless.
Church partners powerful tool
Besides a paid staff and board of directors, collaboration is a powerful tool in fulfilling GSM's mission. That's why it partners with around 100 churches from a cross section of denominations. Peirce refers to them allies. They are in fact, Christians who come alongside those struggling to make ends meet. Key to their success is keeping in mind people's personal challenges are not a one-size-fits all.
"When we house somebody who's homeless, we try to match them with a few individuals, or maybe a small group, and be the community that wraps around you as you work to stabilize your own life," says Peirce. "That's everything from checking in, to friendships, to providing meals. We've got churches that help meet some basic needs. When we provide somebody a house, we like to provide them with a welcome basket and make sure they've got some basic supplies. So it's everything from providing basic needs to the relational so you feel safe and secure and supported."
GSM also makes available to churches a resource for $20 it dubbed The Know Book, which is an index of community resources in Ottawa and Allegan counties.
"They can go to The Book and get a whole collection of community resources that exist and how to connect somebody to those," says Peirce.
Strangers who become friends
In the end, GSM is about helping the strangers among us who in reality need to kindness of friends they haven't yet met.
"Our name obviously comes from the Good Samaritan parable," says Peirce. "That's a combination of not only helping somebody who has been beat up on the side of the road and help them get taken care of and get them back on their feet, but put them on a new path toward thriving."