Eight years ago, Ja-Quari Moore-Bass was crashing at friends’ places because he had no permanent home. He knew several other teenagers also facing homelessness.
“Most of my classmates were couch-surfing,” said Moore-Bass, who was a student at Crossroads Alternative High School in Kentwood. He had also attended an alternative school in Kelloggsville. “They were staying at their neighbor’s house, a distant relative’s house. They weren’t living at home with parents.”
He drew the attention of Lauren and Jon VanKeulen, youth group leaders with CityLife Church in Grand Rapids, who dropped him off at the place where he was crashing.
They asked Moore-Bass if they could help in any way, and the answer turned out to be a broad one.
“The three of us found time over the next series of weeks to talk about the overarching issue,” he said. Many young adults needed a roof over their heads paired with guidance for navigating everything from budgeting to gaining employment.
“It’s more than just me,” he explained.
Moore-Bass and several others in situations similar to his own met with the VanKeulens. “We all came together to talk about things we felt we needed, as well as things we felt people didn’t understand about our situations.”
Building Trust, Dispelling Misconceptions
The group started to create a blueprint for a youth housing program. The most concrete need was shelter, but other needs were more nuanced and complex.
“Overall, we needed a place to stay that did not have a large amount of restrictions, but had a guideline,” Moore-Bass said. They needed mentorship in finding and keeping jobs and maintaining and building relationships.
But that required understanding. “Some of us just need to talk to someone we know isn’t thinking the worst of us,” he said. “Oftentimes people assume you and your parents are fighting and you ran away; you are on drugs or have been drinking; you have a violent history or you chose the situation, which is not the case in most situations.”
Moore-Bass, for one, was finishing up high school credits when he became homeless. He was 19 and his mother was moving out of state, and he chose not to join her.
After she left, he soon ran out of money and found himself couch surfing. “From there it just continued. I didn’t have anything, a phone, address, nothing. Getting a job was the biggest thing, but I couldn’t get a job without an address or phone.”
He knew many homeless youth faced the same problems. Issues surrounding homelessness snowball and many youth lacked support.
A Blueprint Created With Youth
The 3:11 Youth Housing Program took shape, opening its first house in 2013. Moore-Bass was one of the first residents. Having a stable living arrangement made it possible to find a job, which he did in the first week of living there.
The program was serving needs in a unique way because it was based on what youth indicated they needed most, Moore-Bass said.
“We are in a spot where people are realistically spending 80 to 90 percent on housing. We see the crisis of homelessness continuing to grow, especially for youth and families.”– Lauren VanKeulen, co-founder of 3:11
The program is for youth ages 18 to 24, to transition from homelessness to stability. They focus on that age range because it’s when people are entering adulthood. It now consists of eight rehabbed duplex-style homes in Grand Rapids, each with room for three to four youths and a mentor or mentor couple.
“Eighteen is when you first get out of foster care. It’s when you are acknowledged as an adult and the outside world expects you to know everything: the square root of pi, how to apply for a grant, how to do everything on your own — you’re an adult. Just get the job done. OK, who was supposed to teach me any of those things?” he asked.
Youth pay $250 per month in rent; $50 is saved toward their first month’s rent and security deposit when they move out, $50 pays for utilities, and $150 helps defray the costs of operating the homes. They receive at least the first month free, as they work to stabilize, find employment and get on their feet.
A mentor lives in each property, providing guidance and support. Moore-Bass also served as a mentor.
“We have housed 47 people since we started, 23 youth along with six children,” said Lauren VerHeulen, co-founder and co-executive director of the program. She added that there is no time limit on how long a person can stay. Many have aged out of the foster care system.
Demand is High
Moore-Bass, now a board member for 3:11, said he is seeing more demand than there are rooms available. “The problem is consistently growing and currently there isn’t enough money for available property for us to fix the issue.”
Skyrocketing rental prices have left people with no options, said Lauren VanKeulen, who sits on the steering council for the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness and the executive committee of the Continuum of Care.
“Homelessness in general is on the rise. The crisis of affordable housing is significant. In Grand Rapids, where you once could afford a one-bedroom on minimum wage and maybe make it work, it’s entirely impossible now,” she said. “It creates real problems for any kind of affordability in trying to maintain your life.”
“Eighteen is when you first get out of foster care. It’s when you are acknowledged as an adult and the outside world expects you to know everything: the square root of pi, how to apply for a grant, how to do everything on your own.”– Ja-Quari Moore Bass, co-founder of 3:11 Youth Housing
The general rule of thumb is that one shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. “We are in a spot where people are realistically spending 80 to 90 percent on housing,” she said. “We see the crisis of homelessness continuing to grow, especially for youth and families.”
Moore, who now works at the retail store Hot Topic and at a pizza restaurant, lives in a Wyoming apartment with roommates. He graduated from Crossroads in 2012 and attended GRCC for a while, but going to school full time made it difficult to pay the bills, he said. He plans to go back to college and eventually study psychology or psychiatry.
Through 3:11 Youth Housing, Moore has seen people get on their feet, getting jobs, promotions, raises, driver’s licenses and cars. He’s seen them move out to new apartments and buy homes.
“It’s an amazing experience to be a part of the growth of other people… just seeing people achieve things that they didn’t think were possible … achieve things that hadn’t crossed their minds before. It’s amazing.”