Can Grand Rapids end homelessness?: Part 2, Not all who wander are homeless

According to both clients and business owners, many of the individuals who congregate and use services in Heartside aren’t homeless at all. Part 2 of the homelessness series explores the stigma around the transient residents of the neighborhood and the complex issues they face.
According to both clients and business owners, many of the individuals who congregate and use services in Heartside aren’t homeless at all. Many are residents of nearby permanent housing provided by HUD-backed developments like Dwelling Place, or are former Heartside residents who have permanent housing in nearby neighborhoods, but who come back downtown to spend time in the community they’ve built.

A resident of Dwelling Place’s Verne Barry Place, who goes by the name of Zander, confirms this. “There’s not that many people [on South Division Avenue] who are truly homeless. Lots of people come down to hang out; a lot of the people who are seen do have homes.”

Zander has been a resident of South Division Avenue for 11 years, 10 of which he spent running the needle exchange unit for the Red Project as a volunteer. He emphasizes the need to de-stigmatize residents of South Division.

“There’s a lot of stigma—that we’re all drug addicts, or prostitutes, or so on,” he says. “But the truth is I’ve met a lot of smart people [who are low income or on the streets].”

According to Reb Roberts, former co-owner of Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery at 140 South Division (next to Degage Ministries), some of the individuals who congregate on South Division are adult foster care clients who become displaced by house rules that dictate they leave during the day. Roberts, who operated the Gallery with his wife Carmella Loftis for over 18 years, expressed concern that these individuals tend to be most susceptible to the kind of predatory illegal behavior for which Peckich Park, which stands across the street from Dégagé, has become infamous. Because adult foster care rules vary from household to household, pinpointing the scope of this problem would require an independent survey outside of the scope of this series. Yet the prospect of adult foster care clients getting displaced daily is concerning to the Heartside community.

Some who frequent the Heartside Neighborhood, according to the accounts of several downtown residents, are transients—“undesirables” from other cities, cast off by way of a one-way ticket to Grand Rapids by their families, churches, and even other cities’ police.

Still others are chronically homeless—many of whom suffer from mental illness, serving as a lingering reminder of the US’s policy in the ‘70s and ‘80s of dumping the former inhabitants of closed mental institutions into downtown districts with enough cash for one night’s motel stay. Kent County’s 2017 Point In Time (PIT) count tallied 108 chronically homeless.

And, finally, according to both business owners and community members: some are drug dealers who come in from other areas to prey on vulnerable populations.

James McCoy, a former resident of one of Dwelling Place’s permanent residences, now resides in the Franklin neighborhood but says he comes down to Dégagé nearly every day to be with his community. He lost his residency at Dwelling Place when he was falsely charged and jailed for five months for selling drugs—a charge which he says the police have since acknowledged was false. The activity that prompted his arrest: sitting outside in the cold smoking a cigarette, in an area known for drug trafficking.

“I don’t know who these folks are, or where they came from,” McCoy says, as he sits near Dégagé’s doorway, gesturing generically to the drug dealers he says he’s seen an influx of lately, “but they can get out of here.”

Defining homelessness

Sociologist Michael Ullman, a Ph.D. with over 20 years experience in the field of homeless services, which includes an 11-year tenure as National Development and Program Evaluation Specialist for U.S.VETS, who is currently the Coordinator of the National Homelessness Information Project, offers a different perspective on Grand Rapids’ PIT data. Ullman, who emphasizes that his analysis of the data comes from a liberal point of view, compares Grand Rapids’ total homeless count to the count of individuals who are unsheltered (912 compared to 61), and observes:

“I would actually have to say that GR does NOT have a large homeless problem. Really, over 93 percent of the people called homeless are living in a facility—emergency or transitional housing . If you want to call that homeless—as the federal government does—well, that’s a somewhat arbitrary interpretation. Certainly, people in transitional housing where you can stay up to 2 years and you have cooking and private hygiene facilities and a key to your unit should not be defined as homeless. I am sure the count can vary, but the bottom line is the level of street or unsheltered homelessness in Grand Rapids is below average for a large city. The 2005 and 2006 unsheltered “street” counts were only 26 and 41, respectively.

“This is the least understood problem of the numbers, which is a political definition,” Ullman adds.

“GR has poor people—some of which will take a free place at a shelter. We must monitor those still on the street and get them off to the best of our ability. That should be the number one priority. The shelter facilities should all be converted to permanent housing. Telling someone who seeks shelter that they have to leave as soon as they enter because of some arbitrary time limit has been a fatal flaw of homeless services since the 1980s. Saying the problem is less acute than some advocates may say does not mean it is not a problem and that more funding for people on the street with serious mental illness is needed. More funding is needed for housing for seriously mentally persons who are homeless and to support the safety net of services that GR does offer.”

As Grand Rapids continues its dialogue about our “homeless” population, Ulman notes that it is important to keep in mind that the large majority of those individuals and families who are counted as homeless are not in fact on the streets, but rather utilizing the emergency shelter services of ministries.

Jim Talen, Kent County Commissioner and former Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) System Administrator, balks slightly at Ullman’s interpretation of the data. “PIT counts don't give us the full extent of homelessness. We know there are people missed in the counts, particularly those who aren't in shelters. Some go out of their way to avoid being counted and some are simply hard to count because they move around a lot.”

Reliability of PIT data notwithstanding, re-evaluating common held definitions of homelessness has the potential to shift the conversation from one that reacts to a large-scale problem, to one that responds to nuance.

One thing is clear to scholars, residents, and government workers alike: the fate of transient, low-income, sheltered, and unsheltered homeless communities in Grand Rapids is inextricably linked to the fate of the downtown ministries which serve them.

The plight of South Division businesses—and their patrons

The rate of storefront turnover on South Division—between Fulton and Wealthy—has always been quite high, with this last year being no exception. Some, like retail boutique Woosah, relocated down to Wealthy Street, while others have simply closed—most notably: Roberts’ and Loftis’ Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery.

“Over the 18 years [in business], Carmel and I have been really involved in how to make that a safe area…neither of us are naive to what’s going on in that neighborhood,” Roberts says. In addition to the 200-plus organizations the duo has collaborated with on art projects during the gallery’s time on Division, “Carmel worked for God’s Kitchen, and at the Mental Health Foundation, until the last couple of years.”

Roberts refers to walking past the former gallery’s storefront two weeks ago. “In that door there was a whole bunch of stuff going on; there was a half gallon of vodka, a couple of guys making a drug deal right in the corner, there’s another guy who’s got piles of money…There’s six people in that doorway, and every one of them is doing something illegal.”

Roberts echoes McCoy’s frustration with a perceived increase in drug dealers and other illegal activities perpetrated by, according to local community members, individuals who come to South Division Avenue from outside the neighborhood specifically to prey on individuals receiving services from ministries.

“Our frustration was going to so many meetings that were about public safety, or promotional for the neighborhood, or task force meetings. We’d talk about the elephant in the room, and nobody would acknowledge it.”

Before the gallery’s closing, Loftis had been working with other community stakeholders— including representatives from ministries, businesses, and residents themselves—to turn Peckich Park into a community garden, which could be of use to local residents, including those at Verne Barry and others. This direction was based on other models which have been working in places like Austin, Texas, and Billings, Montana.

“As the community comes together, and has this dialogue about how we’re going to activate that park differently,” recalls Roberts, “at some point you say ‘we’re going to start here with [the park], and take that risk,’ and the response we got from the people who really could make an impact was ‘good luck.’”

In 2012, an economic Retail Market Analysis funded by the Downtown Development Authority concluded that the retail areas of the East Fulton District, South Division District, the Ionia/Commerce Corridor and the Government/Monroe Center Area “currently have a pent-up market potential to support…up to $205.5M in annual sales at maturity.” The study further found that the South Division District specifically could generate up to $34M in annual sales by 2017, “only if the district adopts generally accepted urban planning and retail industry management practices.”

The obstacle to realizing this potential has been, and continues to be, a frequent topic among downtown workers, residents, and retail owners.

Businesses, such as Vertigo Music, Mos Eisley’s, Parliament Boutique, and Rockwell’s Republic have been located on South Division for years, and continue to operate, but finding human feces on business doorsteps and witnessing drug exchanges remain common complaints of many business owners in the area.

“Customers will simply choose another shopping district since there are alternatives where you are not subjected to harassment, drugs, alcohol intoxication, panhandling, and other undesirable activities,” sas Joseph Niewiek, owner of the building at 139 S. Division Ave., in a recent Mlive article about Heartside Ministry’s proposed one-block move down Division.

“No shopping corridor can survive if customers are asked to face a gauntlet of harassment,” says Niewiek.

Other business owners, such as Harris Building owner’s Bob Dykstra, have blamed “the increasing amount of homeless and disadvantaged people who now frequent the street.”

In light of PIT count data over the last decade, however, it’s not clear at all that there’s an increase of homeless, and if there is an increase in disadvantaged people, they’re not accounted for by any formal data intake.

Nationally, the data indicates that the influx of homelessness derives from moderate to low income individuals and families in the area who are unable to access affordable housing. HUD’s “Opening Doors” accounts the “significant increases in the number of people living in poverty in the US, including many families with children and people with disabilities,” to the climbing number of households paying more than half their income in rent, and rising rents outpacing growth in paychecks or benefits among those with the lowest incomes.

No simple solutions

“One size solutions are doomed to fit no one,” warns Dwelling Place Chief Executive Director Dennis Sturtevant, emphasizing the need for a multi-pronged approach to tackling issues of homelessness, poverty, and affordable housing.

Given the interlinked relationship between downtown’s ministries, the clientele they serve, nearby low-income and permanent supportive housing, and the predators which this vulnerable population attracts, it’s clear that what’s happening is much more complex than a ‘homelessness problem.’ It’s a complex socioeconomic ecosystem which has been entrenched in downtown for decades.

The homeless may be the most visible part of this ecosystem, but they are by no means the most influential.

Stay tuned for more in this series on homelessness in the coming weeks. In part three, we’ll discuss:

Beneath the hood of homelessness ministries: who are they, what do they do, how much do they cost—and are they helping, or hurting?

Marjorie Steele is a poet, journalist, publisher, and boomerang West Michigander. Currently teaching at KCAD of FSU, Marjorie’s works can be found at and

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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