Do Good: Heartside Neighborhood Collaborative Project helps keep downtown's heart beating strong

Kate O’Keefe is passionate about the Grand Rapids Heartside district. In April, she and her husband moved to the area from the suburbs. On purpose.

“I love working and living in Heartside because of the energy and diversity,” she says. “It just feels like home.”
The Heartside Neighborhood Collaborative Project is a catalyst for collaboration in the Heartside Neighborhood. HNCP helps create relationships and teamwork among all stakeholder groups by inviting them to craft win-win solutions to help make Heartside-Downtown a place where all people are welcomed and respected.
Indeed, it’s a perfect fit. O’Keefe is the program coordinator and project assistant for the Heartside Neighborhood Collaborative Project (HNCP), a ministry of Bethlehem Church, located at 250 Commerce Avenue SW. The organization provides a place, in-kind support, and services to folks in need. Financial support for the project comes from grants from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Dyer-Ives Foundation, the Amos Fund, as well as individual and congregational gifts.

On the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, Heartside comprises the area south of Fulton to Wealthy Street and east from Grandville Avenue to Lafayette Street. Some people call the area “SoFu.”

Although rich in history, not too long ago the area hosted ramshackle, neglected warehouses way past their prime, derelict hotels, and vacant storefronts. In the early 1990s, local developers began renovating some of the buildings, and with the erection of the Van Andel Arena at 130 W. Fulton in 1996, the area went wild with several restoration and development projects.

Unrecognizable from two decades ago, Heartside now offers hip shopping, new office space, trendy condo and loft living, eclectic dining, and a variety of art and entertainment options. It’s an animated amalgam of intricately decorated 19th-century buildings and sleek, modern architecture. In a word, it’s transformed. Young people like O’Keefe are flocking in droves to live and work there.

Who knew that South Division could be so cool?

All of this is offered as background to a conundrum that the HNCP works to address. Despite all the positive change and upward mobility, there are still concerns about racism, poverty, and injustice.

With inner city development comes gentrification, which generally pushes out low-income residents who can no longer afford to live there. Any time this happens, communities lose vitality – a diversity of people is what makes cities vibrant. While pricey condos and lofts now populate the Heartside District, the negative effects of gentrification have been mitigated by the existence of 600 affordable apartment units for low-income residents. Many units are brand-new.

“HNCP exists to be a catalyst for collaboration in the Heartside-Downtown Neighborhood,” O’Keefe says. “We seek to create relationships and teamwork among all stakeholder groups by inviting them to craft win-win solutions to help make Heartside-Downtown a place where all people are welcomed and respected.

“When we began HNCP in 2010, we discovered that although agencies were aware of each other, they were not necessarily familiar with the services each offered. Thus, some services were being duplicated unnecessarily.”

For example, more than one agency provided daily meals, which created waste and didn’t utilize agencies’ time and expertise to their fullest advantage. “Since that discovery, there has been a merger of weekday meals on behalf of God’s Kitchen and Guiding Light Ministries,” says O’Keefe.

On the first Monday of nearly every month, HNCP facilitates a meeting of nonprofits in the area to share news and updates from their organizations, learn about neighborhood concerns, and to take action steps. Topics run the gamut from housing and food issues to health issues and other matters.

Once everyone began communicating, they realized that they all wanted the best for the area, and they began working together to provide services that were most desperately needed.

“People think that everything is black and white,” says O’Keefe. “It isn’t. We ask all stakeholders to take a step toward the middle. We’re a community. We need to work together.”

The HNCP has many exciting projects in the works. The “Real Change, Not Spare Change” project and “Community Outreach Court” are just two worthy of note.

Real Change, Not Spare Change educates people about panhandling and offers alternative, more effective ways to help,” says O’Keefe. The initiative also shares information on how to respond to panhandlers. “We realized that most people just don’t know what to do.”

Real Change, Not Spare Change uses plain language to get the message out. Businesses can put initiative-related donation boxes in their office and posters in their windows, and there are handouts to share with people. Real Change, Not Spare Change is just one example of how the collaboration of social service agencies, businesses, and churches can make a huge difference. The organizations active in this initiative are: Catholic Charities of West Michigan, Degage Ministries, Dwelling Place, Family Promise of Grand Rapids, Guiding Light Mission, Heartside Ministry, Mel Trotter Ministries, and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.

Community Outreach Court, a collaborative effort between the 61st District Court, Cooley Law School, and social services providers, helps disenfranchised folks overcome unresolved, non-violent misdemeanors and/or civil legal challenges that keep them from moving forward with their lives. An arrest record or even losing a driver’s license can pose huge obstacles for someone who is homeless. Among other things, it restricts opportunities to obtain employment and agency assistance.

“When an individual is entered into the Community Outreach Court, the 61st District Court suspends charges, bench warrants, costs, and fines,” O’Keefe says. “Individuals then work very closely with the court and a community advocate to create an action plan, which is an alternative to probation, and can include obtaining housing, insurance, or employment; volunteering to pay down fines or costs; and/or working on sobriety.”

Community Outreach Court is held every other month at Mel Trotter Ministries. Judge Donald Passenger and his staff come to Heartside for a two-hour court session, so individuals don’t have to worry about finding transportation. Court participants give an update on their progress and receive encouragement to keep moving forward.

“It’s inspiring to see people and organizations working together,” says O’Keefe. “We are really making a difference.”

Every donation to an agency or the Community Heartside Fund helps. For example, the Real Change, Not Spare Change website says that $1 can provide a meal; $2 can provide a pair of warm socks, a haircut, or locker rent for a week; $5 can provide bus tickets; and $10 can provide a State of Michigan I.D., which is a must-have to secure permanent housing, find sustainable employment, or receive benefits of any kind.

Get involved:
-   Donate to Real Change, Not Spare Change.
-   Volunteer or donate to your favorite charitable organization or church. If you don’t have a favorite, here are some from which to choose:
Access of West Michigan
Catholic Charities of West Michigan
Community Legal Services
Degage Ministries
Dwelling Place
Family Promise of Grand Rapids
God’s Kitchen
Goodwill Inc.
Grand Rapids Red Project
Guiding Light Mission
HealthNet of West Michigan
Heart of West Michigan United Way
Heartside Gleaning Initiative
Heartside Ministry
Heartside Business Association
Mel Trotter Ministries
Street Reach/Pine Rest

Download a pdf of places that need donations and volunteers.

Victoria Mullen is the Do Good editor for Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird
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