Lack Of Housing, Fallout From Trauma Are Hard Realities For Program Helping Homeless | WMUK

Lack Of Housing, Fallout From Trauma Are Hard Realities For Program Helping Homeless

May 13, 2021

From left, ISK workers Ahja Surratt, Thomas Cass and Brandon Mion in the parking lot at the Lodge.
Credit Photo provided by Joel Bissell /

This week, we’ve been reporting on a program in Kalamazoo that uses two hotels as temporary shelter for people who were homeless. The organizers want all of the guests to be able to move somewhere permanently. And many have. But the program is likely to end with some lodgers heading back to the streets. Others never left them in the first place. And the program is up against a couple of problems it can’t easily fix, as we report in our third and final story in collaboration with MLive and the Kalamazoo Gazette.

The first problem – and the biggest one, according to housing advocates in Kalamazoo – is simply that Kalamazoo does not have enough affordable housing. Demand outstrips the supply by as much as a few thousand units.

“This is the result of our housing policies that we have had for last couple decades,” said Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson, who works for Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, one of the groups leading the hotel project. (Anderson is also on the board of the LIFT Foundation, which owns the Lodge – one of two hotels recently used as temporary housing.)

Anderson says Kalamazoo, like communities across the country, faces a housing crisis a long time in the making.

“We have not invested, as a people, in really deeply affordable housing,” he said. Specifically, in subsidized housing, “the kind of housing that allows people of all incomes to have a place to live.”

Some hotel guests have found a permanent home they can afford. Others have signed up for housing subsidies, often known as vouchers. These will help them pay the rent when they can find a place. But affordable units are scarce, and would-be renters often have to wait for them. It’s one reason some will likely leave the hotel program without a place to stay.

Open Doors Kalamazoo Director Stephanie Hoffmann also worries about the housing shortage. Though she says more people could afford a place if their jobs paid adequately.

“It’s not just about creating units of housing that are affordable, but what would it look like if we could reduce the wealth gap. What would it look like if we could increase families’ and individuals’ pay,” she said.

As for adding affordable units, Hoffmann says that’s especially difficult now when construction costs have soared. But some affordable housing is getting built in Kalamazoo. The Lodge, a motel, is set to remodel into 60 affordable units. The Creamery building on Portage Street is adding a few more. There’s even a plan to build six tiny houses on the North Side this summer.

For some in the hotel program, there’s another barrier to finding housing, one that’s more personal. Ahja Surratt is with Integrated Services of Kalamazoo. We first met her yesterday in her office at the Lodge. Surratt says many of the people she works with have been through terrible experiences.

“They go through so much. They’ve got so much trauma,” she said

Surratt says therapy can help.

“But following through is not so easy for everyone when they’re used to doing things their own way all the time,” Surratt said.

She added, some people can be persuaded, if they trust you. But that takes time.

“You’ve got to keep going, keep trying, knock on their door every day, ‘hey I’m down here, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.’ But you can’t force anybody to do anything. I think that’s a lot issues we were running into too, people who weren’t completely ready to submit to ‘hey’ or be humble and say, ‘I do need help.’”

With the Lodge about to close, roughly a third of residents will head back to the streets or the encampment. Surratt says ISK will do its best to support them, and help them keep looking for housing.

For Alejandro Rodriguez of the Urban Alliance, supporting the campers means meeting them literally where they are – in a big open field on the east side of the Kalamazoo River. On a recent visit he stood by the street side, getting ready to pick up a friend who lives here so they could go pay his phone bill.

Rodriguez, who’s 27, agrees with Surratt that trauma leads people here.

“Brokenness, hurt, rejection, you know, all that kind of stuff,” he said.

He said he knows because he’s been there himself, explaining how his mom fled his abusive dad when he was a baby. He said growing up he looked for someone to take his father’s place.

Alejandro Rodriguez of the Urban Alliance at the homeless encampment in Kalamazoo.
Credit Photo provided by Joel Bissell /

“I went to the streets, I went to the hood, and so everyone that I grew up with was either selling dope, cooking dope, involved with dope, cooking dope or doing this or doing that, and I was like, okay, that’s what a man is? I want to be a man.”

Rodriguez got busted for drug dealing at age 16. Went to juvenile detention, then prison. But things changed for him when a former rival reached out. They became friends. It changed how Rodriguez thought about masculinity. He stopped believing feelings were for the weak. He confronted hard things from his past. And now he’s in a good place.

“That’s why I come back to the same places that I can relate to, because if I can do it, they can do it,” he said.

Rodriguez added that when he helps campers run errands, or takes them out to eat, he’s paying forward the love that saw him through.

This series was reported in collaboration with MLive and the Kalamazoo Gazette. For more from MLive’s Ryan Boldrey, click here.