Community discussions encourage new, mutually-beneficial solutions for unhoused population

Driving along Division Avenue, just south of downtown, tall buildings grow fewer and fewer between, transforming the area from an urban corridor to a broad, busy thoroughfare dotted with taquerias and world grocery stores. Elevated pedestrian walkways arch across the street and dedicated bus lanes occupy each side of the road. Traffic flows steadily most hours of the day.

The street is lined with modernized, covered bus stations. The stops resemble something like a subway or commuter train platform but are dedicated to The Rapid’s Silver Line, an enhanced bus route that loops around the city center out to 60th Street. With the addition of these new stations popping up across Grand Rapids, there has also been an influx of unhoused individuals occupying those areas, a concern among neighboring communities, business owners, as well as ridership.

Last spring and summer, Fran Dalton, southeast operations director for the Garfield Park Neighborhood Association, noticed an uptick in individuals spending extended time at the stations and began asking around, trying to determine the cause. She found that a vendor on Division in downtown that was a resource for those seeking alcoholic beverages had recently shuttered.  

“The population started moving further south on Division to find a resource for their beverages,” says Dalton. “[The corner of] Division and Burton was quite convenient. It had a resource there, plus it [offered] somewhere to be. Folks were hanging out like it was the neighborhood lounge.” 

There are 34 dedicated commuter stations across Kent County, including those for the Laker Line along Lake Michigan Drive. Each is equipped with 24-hour lighting, emergency phone lines, ticket machines, and snow-melting systems beneath the platforms. They also feature illuminated displays that list stops and arrival times.

Identifying challenges facing unhoused individuals

In the pursuit of this story, I observed a situation witnessed by many within our community. On one particular afternoon, a scene unfolds at one such station along Division Avenue. The shoulder is lined with emergency vehicles, their lights flickering, as a man staggers along the sidewalk, circled by EMTs and firefighters. According to Bill Kirk, business affairs specialist for The Rapid, they have received numerous reports of public intoxication, public urination and defecation, and general loitering. The stations also see constant visits from public safety officials. 

“Looking at these individuals, they want a place to be. They recognize Division as their place. And so they’re being at their place. They want to be able to be sheltered, obviously,” says Dalton. 

“I’m sure they would like to have a place to go to the bathroom because they’re defecating in the general area, wherever they can find a corner. So we have a population of individuals that need these kinds of amenities, and why wouldn't they want to have amenities? They’re human beings. Just because they’re unhoused doesn't mean they’ve lost their humanity.” 

One short term action has been to remove seating from the stops, rendering them less inviting for extended stays. This, however, creates an also less inviting environment for regular riders, especially those who may have physical disabilities or experience fatigue and cannot stand for long periods of time.

“What The Rapid has done, they call it managing the problem, is remove seats from the kiosks. I don't know that it’s managed the problem, I think maybe it’s just moved it to a different space,” says Dalton. “It seems like a backhanded approach to solving a much bigger problem. The customer is no longer comfortable. The individual that’s there to actually ride the bus doesn't have a place to seat themselves while they’re waiting for the bus. It didn’t even completely fix one problem, and it created another.” 

Photo by Kristina Bird
Some stations are more problematic than others. Specifically, the stop at Burton Street and Division Avenue as well as the stop at Franklin Street and Division Avenue, with their proximity to shelters and other resources for unhoused individuals, have seen constant traffic. Seats for both stops have been removed.

“Removal of infrastructure at these stations represents a temporary effort to address some of the issues that have been reported by residents and business owners in the area,” says Kirk.
“It is by no means a permanent solution, but it can be helpful to discourage loitering, public consumption of alcohol, and certain other activities that can have a negative impact on transit riders and the surrounding businesses. We understand that this is a difficult balance to strike, so we always try to work with stakeholders to be a good partner while simultaneously providing the best possible service to our customers,” he says.

Community leaders look to leverage resources to identify solutions

Finding solutions for such a nuanced situation has been challenging. Detering unhoused individuals from one area only means they’re forced to relocate. The group then simply moves elsewhere and the root of the problem, homelessness as a whole, is hardly solved.  

“I want to make sure we’re never criminalizing poverty, that we're never criminalizing homelessness,” says City Commissioner Milinda Ysasi. “There's a lot of reasons why people experience homelessness in this city. The solution to homelessness is housing — to have enough adequate housing in our city and our community.”  

Photo by Autumn Johnson-Pierce

There are immediate resources available for those facing homelessness, many located in the Heartside District and along the South Division corridor. These include Mel Trotter Ministries, Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids, Heartside Ministry, Degage Ministry, and a number of others. However, these living situations come with restrictions and rules in place for the general health and safety of residents and staff, which deter those seeking to continue prohibited activities within the shelter.  

“There [are] a number of resources further north on Division that have been there forever, and they're not necessarily where people want to be, because they are not allowed to do what it is they want to do there,” says Dalton. “But also, take a tour of any one of those locations and see how interested you are in spending time there. So that’s why they’re out in the street or in the parks, wherever they can be.” 

Various initiatives at the city level have leveraged federal grants and other funds to provide services, including Community Rebuilders and the Rapid Rehousing program. During the final city commission meeting of the year, officials approved a budget amendment that supports the city’s homelessness efforts. 

Items include supporting an additional emergency shelter for five months through a partnership with Mel Trotter Ministries to lease 250 Ionia SW, allowing for inclusive sheltering capacity for individuals and families with appropriate physical distancing. 

Other approved items included an extension of the Homeless Outreach Team for six months, with services now running until 8 p.m., as well as retaining a dedicated eligibility specialist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the Eviction Prevention Program in the 61st District Court.

“We know what the solutions are but we’re also living in a pandemic. We're also living in the reality of a budget,” says Ysasi. “Our budget for the city is going to be reduced because of our revenue reduction since we’re not having events. We’re not only in COVID but also an economic recovery.”

The Homeless Outreach Team provides aid to individuals facing homelessness and is composed of members of the police and fire departments, as well as clinicians and social workers, seeking to support those who may need other resources like social services and mental health support or addiction support. The goal is to specifically assist individuals instead of simply relocating them. Another effort to take assistance directly to those affected, a public bathroom was installed in the Heartside District earlier this year on the southeast corner of Weston Street SW and South Division Avenue.

Photo by Kristina Bird

“It’s important to remember that these are public spaces we’re dealing with, which means that everyone has a right to utilize and access these spaces, as long as they’re not breaking the law or causing harm,” says Kirk. “That said, our efforts to strike a balance between responsibly managing public infrastructure and providing safe and comfortable service to our riders will always be based in partnership. We’ve been encouraged by on-going discussions with multiple partners that are working to strategically address systemic issues, as opposed to one-off, temporary solutions that generally won’t solve the real problems.”

“I think we’re not looking at what we've got and addressing it in a real, intentional way. We don't snap our fingers and this population of individuals goes away. They just don't. I don't know that we’ve thought of a holistic way to address this as a community issue,” says Dalton.

With a vast collaboration and discussion to solve the city’s homeless situation, creative ideas have come in many forms. Dalton was recently part of a panel to review concept designs from students at Kendall College of Art and Design who were tasked with creating spaces to assist displaced individuals in the Heartside area. A suggestion presented by one of the students was a facility that not only provided temporary shelter but amenities like laundry, phone charging access, and food.

For her, seeing new, out-of-the-box ideas was inspiring. “The idea that there was a design in place to address this population and it wasn't simply an effort to show people how to manage that population, but it was in fact providing a service to that population, a needed service, I thought it was a cool concept. Folks need a place to be,” says Dalton.

About Ricky Olmos: Ricky is a freelance writer, musician, and photographer living in Grand Rapids. When he’s not writing for Rapid Growth Media, he writes about music for Local Spins, plays keys with Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery, and drinks copious amounts of espresso. 
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