As Muskegon residents face layoffs and furloughs, Community enCompass forgives April rent and works to keep families in their homes

Kalon Jones lives with her three children at a Muskegon property owned by Community enCompass. The nonprofit forgave rent for all of its tenants in April. Photo by Pat ApPaul

Like many of us, Dianna Williams is taking life in the wake of the coronavirus day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. 

She is trying to keep her head up. But it’s not easy.

“I’ve been trying to be OK, but I’m really not OK,” said Williams, a mother of two young daughters and a Glenside Elementary employee who has seen her hours reduced during the statewide school shutdown. 

“I am homeschooling my kids and trying to stay positive, but it’s a hard time,” Williams said. “My pastor [Bishop Nathaniel Wyoming Wells, Jr.] passed away from the coronavirus, and my grandfather passed away a couple days after that. I haven’t been able to say my goodbyes. Everybody is at a loss, and I don’t know what to do.”

In the midst of navigating the emotional turmoil that has come in the wake of the coronavirus, Williams, like millions of other people around the state and country, is also facing significant economic hardship as Covid-19 keeps schools, businesses and other institutions closed throughout Michigan. While her job for the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District has continued during the school shutdown ordered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Williams’ hours—and thus pay—have been cut.

Dianna Williams, center, with her daughters, Ja’Naye Gresham, left, and Ja’Nyi Gresham. Photo courtesy of Dianna Williams

Fortunately, Williams still has enough food—she’s even planning on donating some of her food to a local family facing hunger right now—but she’s worried about being able to pay the rent for her apartment in the city of Muskegon. Currently, with what she’s been earning after her hours have been cut, Williams fears she won’t be able to cover her rent in the coming months—which is why she breathed a sigh of relief when her landlord, the Muskegon-based nonprofit Community enCompass, announced that the tenants in all 26 of its rental properties would not have to pay their rent in April.

“It helped because it took some worry off,” Williams said. “I feel like I’ll be able to cover my rent for the next month, but that will be all my money.”

Community enCompass’s decision to take a $20,000 hit to the organization’s budget and forgive April’s rent—an unprecedented move never before done in the nonprofit’s 30-year history—is part of a larger strategy to provide housing stability in Muskegon and comes in the wake of the staff and board members knowing many, if not all, of the approximate 70 people living in its 26 rental units are struggling. People are being laid off. Their hours are being significantly cut—tenants working at fast food chains, for example, have seen their work weeks slashed to a couple hours, said Kiara Scott, the family support liaison and permanent supportive housing coordinator at Community enCompass. Children are now home around the clock because the schools are closed—which potentially means paying for childcare if the parents still have to go to work, as well as spending more money on food and other supplies for their families. Money is tight. Or nonexistent. The last thing Community enCompass wanted, the nonprofit’s leaders explained, was for someone to have to make a decision between paying for rent and, say, being able to afford food or healthcare.

“Many of our tenants have been with us over a decade,” Community enCompass Executive Director Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga said. “These folks are not strangers to us; they’re very much our family. The conversations with our board and staff were about how we can reach out to our family. This was a way to say, ‘There’s a tremendous amount of pressure, stress, anxiety, and fear, and we ‘re going to do something about it.’”

Of course, Rinsema-Sybenga and her Community enCompass colleagues know the rent forgiveness isn’t a cure-all for their tenants, whose stories, in many ways, weave a narrative of the years of inequities and marginalization that have occurred throughout the country: jobs that often do not provide paid sick leave, hourly wages that don’t allow families to have savings, and full-time jobs that still place families at or below the poverty line, to name a few examples. But those at the nonprofit hope it at least gives individuals and families some breathing room to figure out how to make ends meet during the Covid-19 crisis—and staves off future evictions. Whitmer ordered a moratorium on evictions during the coronavirus crisis—which means that even if a tenant cannot afford to pay their rent during the Covid-19 emergency, they won’t be forced into homelessness. Community enCompass emphasized it will continue to work with tenants who are finding it difficult to pay their rent, regardless of the moratorium, and the nonprofit’s leaders are hoping other landlords will do the same. Still, leaders know that Muskegon residents could face difficult situations ahead if they’re unable to afford their rent.

Kiara Scott, of Community enCompass. Photo courtesy of Community enCompass

“There are a lot of individuals who have lost income; this is a way for them to fill a gap,” Scott said of the rent forgiveness. “They won’t have to worry, ‘Will I have a place to stay? If I get a shut-off notice, will I pay that or rent?’ For people who’ve lost income, or are struggling to balance everything at this time, they have a little security. They can save some money and put it towards their family’s needs.”

In a city where 31.8 percent of the population live in poverty, and where 68 percent find it difficult to afford basic needs, people in Muskegon have been struggling long before the coronavirus came—but the global pandemic has further exacerbated the barriers individuals face here. Everything from housing and rent to jobs, health insurance, food, and more have, for many, become even greater question marks than they were before.

At Community enCompass’s housing units—which the nonprofits uses as a way to provide affordable housing in the city—half of the tenants are considered to be part of the ALICE population. ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed and refers to households that earn more than the federal poverty level but less than the basic cost of living for Muskegon County. The other half of the tenants live on a fixed income.

“They’re super worried about basic needs,” Rinsema-Sybenga said of the tenants. “They have super limited resources and very little reserves. Many tenants have gotten to housing stability after experiencing homelessness. When this [the pandemic] happens, it pushes them back to the brink of homelessness. The last thing we want in this pandemic is to have people lose the one thing that should be stable. You need a house to be able to do social distancing.”

‘The anxiety is so high’

For Kalon Jones, another Community enCompass tenant and city of Muskegon resident, life, right now, is daunting. The mother of three children—ages 13, 10 and nine—is doing the best she can, but so much is up in the air that it’s nearly impossible to know what life will be like in just one month. After all, think about all that has transpired in just one month in the life of our country: 33,633 individuals have died in the United States from Covid-19; 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits; schools have shuttered for the year; businesses across the nation have closed their doors, some temporarily and some for good. 

In Jones’ life, her own job could be on the line. She works a full-time job as a radiology clerk at Mercy Health and another part-time job at the Chicken Coop in Muskegon Heights to make ends meet. On top of that, she’s attending school at Central Michigan University to become a domestic violence counselor—and taking care of her three children.

Recently, her hours at Mercy have been cut in the wake of the coronavirus—and she could see her job disappear entirely as Trinity Health, Mercy’s parent company, furloughs 2,500 workers. From the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her children—where she notes all of her children have beds and she sleeps in the living room—she’s trying to figure out what her future has in store for her. And, right now, that is increasingly difficult to do.

Kalon Jones, a Community enCompass tenant. Photo by Pat ApPaul

“My job is up in the air right now working at Mercy,” Jones said. “They’re furloughing 2,500 workers, and they want 2,5000 volunteers for the furloughs. If I take the furlough, I’ll have a start and end date to gauge how long I’ll be out of work, you still have insurance, and you can get unemployment. With a layoff, you might not be called back in to work, and you don’t have insurance.”

As stability becomes more and more uncertain, Jones said she is relieved to be able to take the money she would have used for her April rent and put it aside for May.

“It was very generous, and it relieved a lot of stress,” Jones said of Community enCompass’s decision to forgive April’s rent. “It gave me peace of mind.”

The rent forgiveness is the kind of community collaboration Jones said she has seen throughout Muskegon during the coronavirus—and, in spite of everything, it’s giving her hope.

“The anxiety is so high [working in a hospital]; it’s getting eerily quiet because there are no visitors; outpatient is closed,” she said. “But as far as teamwork, we all have done an amazing job to uplift each other, to encourage each other, to listen to one another. The silver lining I’m noticing is it’s creating relationships and bonds.”

“I’m noticing the same thing in the community—everybody’s going through the same thing right now; everybody is helping their neighbors,” Jones continued. “We need each other to survive.”

For landlords, a chance to make a difference

As Community enCompass workers continue to hear stories of struggle during the coronavirus, and the stories of relief following their announcement about the rent forgiveness, they are hoping other Muskegon landlords will be inspired by the nonprofit’s actions and offer some respite to their own tenants.

“This is a tough time for all of us, and we know not every landlord is going to be able to do this,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “But maybe even if you can’t offer forgiveness for a full month’s rent, you can work with your tenants and forgive late fees or work on a payment plan.”

Community enCompass Executive Director Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga. Photo courtesy of Community enCompass

“We need landlords and property owners to think about the changes they can make to stop eviction,” Rinsema-Sybenga continued. “What are things we can do now to prevent those evictions?”

As part of its work to support tenants during the coronavirus, Community enCompass too has partnered with Lighthouse Property Management, which manages all of the nonprofit’s properties. Lighthouse has agreed to reduce its property management fee for the month of April, and is also waiving late fees for tenants in good standing whose income has been negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

John Taylor, the Housing Assessment and Resource Agency Director at Community enCompass, too said he hopes other landlords will follow in the nonprofit’s footsteps. 

“We’re stressing that, ‘We know this is a crisis for you, and it’s a crisis for your tenants as well,’” Taylor said. “Work with your tenants and come up with creative options. The rent forgiveness really was important for our clients who are living on the edge.”

After all, Taylor emphasized, if there’s anything this pandemic has vividly exhibited is that “our communities are only as strong as our most vulnerable.”

“If we’re not there to help them, we’re not helping our community as a whole,” he said.

‘We want to be a part of what you guys are doing’

When Community enCompass decided to forgive April’s rent, they did so “on faith because we have no idea how this is going to pan out for us,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. After all, across the county, state and nation, the lives and works of nonprofits are being upended. Nonprofits around the country are trying to meet a skyrocketing demand on already-thin budgets and with funds from donors who too are stretched thin. 

Community enCompass’s leaders are worried, to say the least. But, so far, they haven’t had to lay anyone off. And donors continue to reach out to the Muskegon nonprofit, including as soon as people heard about their decision to forgive rent.

“We’ve already had people stepping up and saying, ‘We want to be a part of what you guys are doing,’ and those are coming in through church and individual donations,” Rinsema-Sybenga said.

It’s almost overwhelmingly meaningful, the executive director said, because she knows that everyone has been negatively affected by Covid-19—including the nonprofit’s donors. 

“That’s scary for me, and, at the same time, I feel like what we’ve experienced so far is such generosity from the community,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “The fact that people are willing to lean in at this time brings tears to my eyes. I can see people who are being generous and riding this wave of kindness and neighborliness across the country.”

And it is that wave that will make all the difference, Williams said.

“You can’t just think of yourself; we all have to reach out to others who are less fortunate,” she said. “I believe if we can come together and pay it forward, the people who are less fortunate will feel like they have some hope and won’t feel alone.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing muskegontimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Photos of Kalon Jones by Pat ApPaul. A documentary photographer from South Wales, United Kingdom, Pat is now based in Muskegon. Pat’s work can be found at www.PatApPaul.com, and he can be contacted by emailing Pat.ApPaul@gmail.com. 

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