Mike Gallagher, CMF Editorial Correspondent
For those who have viewed the popular “Pure Michigan” advertisements, they paint a picture of beautiful, vibrant resort communities throughout the state, a plethora of must-see natural resources, thriving businesses and energetic people.
What is not depicted is the often stark reality of poverty, homelessness, unaffordable housing and racial equity issues that some of these same communities – and others throughout Michigan –deal with on a daily basis.
Foundation and state workers serving several of these “picture postcard” communities shared their challenges of the real story behind the scenes during a session entitled: “Pure Michigan: The Other Side,” at the 42nd annual CMF conference.
Sharing their stories, concerns and hope were Mike Goorhouse, president/CEO of the Community Foundation of Holland/Zeeland Area; Holly Johnson, president, Grand Haven Area Community Foundation; Cindy Pushman, director of human services, Otsego, Crawford and Oscoda counties; and Steve Wade, director of development at Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.
Pushman kicked off the presentation by saying numbers and dollars associated with human service needs in more well-to-do communities are often inaccurate and speculative. The number of people receiving government assistance – and the average amounts they receive monthly and annually – are often overstated, said Pushman, but the needs of these families and individuals are significant.
“If they receive this assistance, they are required to work,” she noted. “But the notion that they receive $30,000 or $40,000 annually in cash assistance is just not true.”
While usually only a fraction of the total populace, those in dire need of cash, food, utility and other assistance rely on this help to survive, but they are sometimes overlooked in areas that are doing well financially, Pushman warned.
Poverty, Homeless Reduction Focus Of Traverse City Area
Discussing the work of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation and its poverty reduction and homeless initiatives was Wade, who said, “I’m reminded of the line in A Tale of Two Cities: it is the best of times. It is the worst of times. And I think that is really defined in communities like Traverse City.
“One of the reasons poverty is addressed here is that about 10 years ago people started having a conversation about it and what could be done to address it.
“And one of the best things that came out of these conversations was our bringing the power of our collective knowledge and energy together to prevent and reduce poverty by inspiring, advocating and connecting through convenings and incubation.
“Make no mistake, poverty is present here,” said Wade. “And poverty is expensive for an entire community. But local understanding provides local solutions. It has been proven that people can – and want to – exit poverty, but sometimes can only do with a helping hand.”
Holland/Zeeland Faces Affordable Housing Challenge
Describing the positive elements that make the Holland/Zeeland area such a wonderful place to live, work and visit, Goorhouse said a 2012 Ottawa County Community Needs Assessment and American Community Survey opened his eyes to the problem of affordable housing and its related issues throughout his foundation’s focus area. Findings in those studies showed:
- 18,500 households in Ottawa County – representing 19% of all homes – are owned by persons in the very low-income bracket.
- 50% of all county residents earn less than $23,950 and four-person-or-greater households have a combined income of $34,150 or less.
Equally disturbing, noted Goorhouse, “is that in 2012 49.7% of all households paid greater than 30% of their household income for rent and that figure appears to be growing.
“That’s not sustainable for a community that wants to grow and thrive,” said Goorhouse.
“The survey findings show that from year 2000 to 2012 the median monthly mortgage increased 19.5%. The median monthly rent increased 22.5%. But median income increased only 3.77%,”he said. “This brings into focus the need not only for plans to address housing in our area…but an overall economic development strategy to deal with job creation and living wages.”
“This is one of the things our foundation has to help address,” he added.
Racial Equity Goal of Grand Haven Area
Racial equity is one of the main issues facing the Grand Haven area as the city has a 97% white population and has maintained that percentage for the past 50 years, according to Johnson.
“We’ve gathered a lot of people around the table to discuss this issue which I can tell you can be very emotional, very raw. It can be very gut-wrenching at times to talk about racial equity,” she warned.
“We held sessions with the community where many leaders of our local businesses took part in racial equity training and awareness seminars to address biases we may have,” said Johnson.
“We had members of our government and leaders of our organizations go through the training. We partnered with our schools. We know we need to attract top talent here and top talent comes in many, many different colors.”
While the work of creating racial equity is ongoing, Johnson said the city and area is moving in the right direction. “You can’t realize positive change until you do the hard work of looking at an issue, find solutions and move forward. It is tough work, but the goal of a more diverse community is worth it!”
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