older adults are leading change


Engaging experienced adults to end homelessness


Grand Rapids, Michigan, looks a lot like you might imagine Everytown, USA. With 190,000 people in a county of 600,000, it doesn’t quite break into the top 100 American cities, yet it is home to major industries, small businesses, craft breweries, galleries and museums, and more than 15 higher education institutions. Often ranked as one of the country’s most livable mid-sized cities, it was also recently named a top destination for visitors by the Lonely Planet travel guide. Nonetheless, like similar communities across the nation, Grand Rapids confronts serious issues, including a countywide homeless population estimated to be greater than 6,000.

In 2004, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation joined dozens of other community groups, government agencies, churches, and individuals in making a commitment to end homelessness within 10 years. Beyond making a financial commitment—more than $3.5 million dedicated to homelessness-related projects over the subsequent decade—the Foundation wanted to help mobilize area residents to be a part of the solution. The community already had a reputation for being charitable and volunteering at high levels, but the Foundation suspected one group in particular had talents and skills that were underutilized: experienced adults. Anecdotally and through surveys, the Foundation confirmed what they had suspected—Grand Rapids adults in their 50s and 60s had knowledge and experience that many of the community-based organizations working on homelessness desperately needed.

The Foundation convened a planning team with two dozen members from a variety of community organizations, including nonprofits, higher education institutions, and government; more than half of the participants were over age 50. During a four-month period, the group researched the barriers to and motivations for effective engagement of experienced adults, and began exploring strategies for mobilizing this unique resource as part of the campaign to end homelessness. In the end, they launched Experienced Adults Ending Homelessness, a three-year project helping more than three dozen nonprofit agencies learn how to access, support, and benefit from experienced adults as a resource.

Today, the organizations have defined meaningful roles for experienced adult recruits ranging from marketing, website development, and data management to construction-site leadership, energy conservation, facility management, and advocacy. Powered by this influx of talent and experience, nonprofits are increasing access to affordable housing, bolstering support for individuals and families at risk of homelessness, and building the capacity to rapidly re-house people who become homeless.




  • Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Total population = 190,000
  • 55+ population = 39,500 (21%)


  • Demonstration projects in seven agencies showcasing Encore opportunities
  • A clearinghouse connecting experienced adults with skill-based opportunities
  • A learning community helping 39 nonprofit organizations leverage experienced adults
  • Experienced adult role models participating at all partner agencies
  • Six of seven agencies providing financial incentives to experienced adult participants (stipends, paid positions)