Flat River Outreach Ministries Director Dawn Broene in front of two East Main Street houses (501 and 504) purchased for potential use by area families experiencing homelessness

Wanted: A House We Can Afford

Ministry Works to Help Homeless, Needy Students

by Morgan Jarema  

Dawn Broene is well aware of the challenges of finding affordable housing in the Lowell area.

Breone, director of Flat River Outreach Ministries, said the organization's social worker hears from three to five families a week who are having trouble finding places to live that they can afford.

The agency is working on, if not a fix, a bridge of sorts.

FROM has purchased two homes on Main Street with the hope of offering relief to families experiencing homelessness. Whether the properties would offer emergency, short-term or long-term housing has yet to be decided.

"We knew there was a real need in the community, and these are in a good, walkable location," Broene said. The houses are within two miles of the Lowell Meijer store, a mile of Bushnell Elementary and 1.2 miles of Lowell Middle School and Cherry Creek Elementary.

Editor's Note: The Burden of Poverty: A Backpack of Heartache is a continuing series on poverty in the schools and how it affects students’ learning. We will examine not only the problems poverty creates for students and their families, but the schools and strategies that are helping disadvantaged students succeed.

The ministry's efforts toward affordable housing are of great help to the school district and its families, said Nate Fowler, the district's homelessness liaison. Fowler said the number of students with a level of need that threatens having a consistent place to live has typically been between 40 and 60 every school year.

"We haven't seen any sharp increases, but no big decreases either," Fowler said. "Most of those are families that are doubled up, or in transitional housing or in shelters, or teens who have left home for a variety of reasons, but nothing that's been long-term so far."

The city has virtually no land available to build affordable -- or any -- housing. In neighboring Vergennes Township, a 98-home project is in the works, but those homes are expected to start at $200,000. Similar prices are expected on projects in Lowell Township.

There are two apartment complexes in Lowell that offer subsidized rent, Broene said, but both often have lengthy waiting lists.

Nate Fowler'We've Been Here Before'

Broene said some of the families she hears from are people trying to move into Lowell for the first time. But others are being evicted because they are having trouble paying their bills, or live in homes where multiple families or generations are under one roof.

"Yes, there are more resources in Grand Rapids, but if you grew up in Lowell or lived here for a while, this is where your family is, where your friends are," she said. "When you are already struggling, losing that support system (by having to move from the area) is just another big stressor -- for parents and for kids."

FROM is working with the Inner City Christian Federation on a plan for one of the properties -- the other has tenants who will be allowed to remain -- but she said it could be at least a year before a plan is developed. And that still will require raising funds to renovate or otherwise prepare the properties for use, she said.

Still, Broene sees it as a step in the right direction.

"We've been here before," she said. "FROM was started by people having a hard time getting services."

Helping with Food, Bills and Backpacks

FROM is a Christian nonprofit that aims to support area families in need with food, utility bills and housing assistance, among other services. Last year it served 1,837 people, 541 of them children between the ages of 5 and 18.

The ministry also offers an annual backpack, school supply and holiday gift distribution, as well as a summer lunch program that last year fed 327 area children.

Fowler said the district's partnership with FROM has been a big support when they become aware of school families in need.

"In each of our offices we have coats and hygiene supplies, but when there are needs beyond that, FROM bends over backwards to help us," he said.

Fowler said the increasing challenge of finding affordable housing in the area is a particular stressor for families -- students included. He said the district is "planting some seeds" to create partnerships with community initiatives and mental-health agencies to bring them into the schools.

"Right now there's nothing in place, but we're moving from the idea phase to more of a planning phase," he said. "I'm very optimistic."

"All these things help promote stable home environments for families in our community," said Fowler, who also took over this year as the district's curriculum director. "We can't always coordinate access through resources in Grand Rapids because of transportation issues (and) other things.

"In so many instances we have felt so fortunate that all (FROM's) resources are in one place."

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Flat River Outreach Ministries

Submitted on: April 4th 2017

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