“We moved around a lot. With four boys in my family, we would tear up the apartment. Then we’d get kicked out and have to find a shelter that had space to take us…”
Imagine for a moment a child moving around frequently because the family has been asked to leave their apartment, the reason being the damage that can happen to a single mom with four boys. That child is now sleeping in a shelter with their mom and four siblings. During the day they all leave the shelter with the belongings they have with them and take public transportation to another part of town for the day. One day Mom finds a new place to live but after a while, there is again damaged property, and they all have to move to another shelter. For Robert Simmons, this was the reality.
“We moved around a lot. With four boys in my family, we would tear up the apartment. Then we’d get kicked out and have to find a shelter that had space to take us,” Simmons says. “I was born in Chicago. By the time I was ten, we moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. It was an upgrade from what we had been living in while in Chicago.” The excitement of the new place didn’t last long. “We lived with my mom’s best friend at first, until we were able to get our own place. We were there for only a few months before we got kicked out,” says Simmons. “Truancy was a problem and because my mom was struggling to control my brothers and me, she sent us to my dad’s and he lived in Big Rapids, Michigan.”
Simmons says that when he was born, both of his parents struggled with drug addiction. Now his father had made changes in his life, was working in construction, and welcomed the opportunity to raise his children. He recalls his first impression as he and his brothers arrived at his father’s home in Big Rapids. “I remember there being this blowup mattress with a bunch of Hot Wheels® on it. I was 12 at the time, so I was kind of over those but at the same time thought it was lit! We didn’t have this back in St. Paul with Mom.”
About a year after moving to Big Rapids, Simmons’ grandmother died, and Mom wanted the boys to come back to Minnesota. “Mom had her own place again and had room for us to live with her. So, we moved back when she came to get us.” Simmons found life back in St. Paul to be a struggle, and by the time he was 14, he had entered the judicial system. “I went to jail for grand theft auto. While I was on parole, I violated that parole multiple times. My parole officer asked me if there was a better environment for me to be in since I wasn’t staying out of trouble. I told him yes, at my dad’s but I didn’t have money to get there. He said he’d take care of getting the ticket and I moved back to Michigan.”
From ages 15 to 18 Simmons lived with his father. By this time, there were eight kids living there along with his dad and stepmom. “I didn’t really stay there. I was out of the house, living like I was grown. I was out all night, partying, drinking, etc. I was couch surfing for the next three years.”
Simmons says that the choices he made at the age of 18 impacted his housing options today. He spent seven years in prison, with a concurrent sentence between Kansas and Michigan. For many with criminal histories, finding housing is challenging. In January 2022, Simmons thought he had found a place that would give him the opportunity to have stable housing. “I was able to get a six-month lease for $1,400 a month. A couple of months in I was struggling to pay the rent, so I reached out to DHHS for assistance. Before that was all figured out, I received a letter from the leasing office saying that based on my criminal history they are unable to lease the apartment to me and I have to move.”
In April 2014, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of General Counsel provided guidance on applying the Fair Housing Act standards to criminal histories by providers of housing and real estate-related transactions. HUD recognized that for those who have been involved with the carceral system, attaining housing is challenging. They noted that although Blacks only make up about 13% of the U.S. population, Black males are incarcerated at a rate 5.7 times that of their White non-Hispanic counterparts. Then in June of 2022, HUD released a memorandum providing clarification on the guidance from 2016, noting that background check reports can be “inaccurate, incomplete, or have no relationship to whether someone will be a good tenant.”
In Michigan, with four million Michiganders having some type of criminal background and with 10 percent of Michigan children having experienced parental incarceration, it’s an issue worth pursuing. In Michigan polling, 77 percent of those polled believe that people with a criminal record who also have access to stable housing are much less likely to commit another crime. This is a strong inducement to consider ways to increase housing access to people with a criminal background, adding increased public safety to the numerous ways that improving the housing system in Kent County will benefit all of us.
Ignoring the Negatives
In 2021 Simmons moved to Grand Rapids, after spending two years in Big Rapids with a friend’s dad. “When I got here, I stayed at Exodus Place for a while. After that, I was at Hopson Flats with someone.” That person then opted to get a separate lease, leaving Simmons on his own to try and find a place to live that would work with him.
Simmons has been living in his car since October 2022. During the day, Simmons works as an independent contractor in the environmental field. He’s been getting his income to a place where he can meet the income requirement of three times the monthly rent. At night, he sleeps in his car in front of Mel Trotter because he feels safe from harassment there.
He says that there are many barriers to the current housing system for people in Kent County. “If you need assistance and you apply for it, it’s hard to believe that it will come through. I also think that the application fees are too much. If you need to apply to multiple places and every place has a fee, you can’t do that.” With the effort of applying for a place to live also comes a lot of expense. Additionally, Simmons says that the voucher process is stressful. “When you have to reapply to keep receiving your voucher, it’s possible that you won’t get approved again. Someone is determining if you’re worthy to receive it. People are making decisions that don’t have the same or similar experience as me and they don’t seem to care about me or what I need.”
If he could speak to those at decision-making tables on what is needed to create a better housing system for all residents in Kent County, Simmons says that having support to walk through the process with someone who has the ability to access resources is critical. “They have to have the power to make things happen. I’ve talked to a lot of people who want to help but they aren’t in a position to actually make it happen.” Help with application fees or even talking to landlords about how to help those with criminal histories to get access to housing would also make an impact.
“I may not be the right person to point out the flaws in the system…I’ve trained myself to ignore the negatives. I’m going to figure it out.” But individuals such as Robert, who have struggled with the housing system as it currently stands, ARE the right people to speak about the challenges and barriers they experience. It’s not enough to speak to those who have not experienced what someone such as Robert has. Despite the challenges ahead, Simmons is looking forward to the day when he can move into the place he’d like to call home. “I want to live in the 243 Building on Market. It’s 15 minutes from the east part of town and 15 minutes from the west. It’s near family and everything downtown.” His experiences in childhood of moving often, in and out of shelters, and the progress he’s made in changing his circumstances, have taught him that eventually he will find a way to something different, something better.