Community corner: Helping the homeless

By Drew Johnson

I was invited to attend a meeting of the Vicksburg Rotary this past weekend to see Mary Balkema, Kalamazoo County housing director, speak about the work that the County is doing to improve housing availability, primarily using funding from the housing millage. It was a very informative presentation that left me thinking about South County Community Services and our role in preventing homelessness and assisting people with their basic needs.

For those of you who don’t know, the nation (and Kalamazoo County) is in a severe housing crunch. According to Balkema, Kalamazoo County is currently short approximately 7,500 units, meaning that there is simply not enough housing to go around. This squares with what we see too — over the past few years at South County Community Services we have seen a large increase in the number of people reporting homelessness. We can help with rental assistance for people with income who can find units, but for those who can’t we don’t have a lot of options short of referring to homeless shelters in Kalamazoo.

SCCS does have two housing-focused initiatives that we are planning for 2023—we will be working with the Village of Vicksburg to administer a $500,000 grant that it received from the Vicksburg Foundation and the County to provide safety and weatherization home improvements for low-income families within the Village limits, and will be expanding our Safe At Home program (originally piloted with Vicksburg Rotary) which provides low-cost, safety-oriented improvements for seniors. Both of these programs are important parts of reducing the cost burden of housing and improving local housing stock, but don’t increase the number of units available for people to live in.

Mary Balkema was frank about the problem — she said that the County Housing Department was open to any solution that helped incentivize developers to create affordable units and that they are willing to help with upfront costs, which is where most of the housing millage goes. She also said that she was focused on working with people who lived near potential development sites and is not interested in ramming something down the throats of current residents. Unfortunately this can be a barrier to getting housing built, and Balkema mentioned at least one project that had to be scrapped due to neighbor complaints.

My thoughts following the presentation didn’t lead to an easy conclusion. Housing is such a big problem that it takes a lot of work in a lot of different areas to fix it, even just for one family. It’s not an impossible problem — our work and the work of many other organizations in the County show that. But it is one that requires new, creative ideas and open-mindedness to all potential solutions.

Drew Johnson lives in Kalamazoo and is the Director at South County Community Services. He has a small quarter acre homestead with chickens, bees, and hops (and more!), a wonderful wife, and three energetic children. He can be reached at 649-2901 or

For more information on South County Community Services, please check out our Facebook page at or our website:

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