Grand Rapids plans to clear the homeless camp in the park after the overflow shelter opens


GRAND RAPIDS, MI – For nearly 40 minutes on Tuesday night, residents slammed Grand Rapids elected officials over rumors that police were planning to clear a homeless camp in Heartside Park the next day.

It turns out that the rumor that this would happen on Wednesday, December 16 was not true.

However, the city plans to clear the tent camp, where around 50 to 100 people live, after opening an overflow shelter.

City officials say their first priority is to shelter people, not clean up the camp.

“The schedule is fluid at this point as the city will not enforce the ordinance banning camping in city parks until the new refuge is open,” said Tammy Britton, outreach coordinator. homeless in the city at MLive / The Grand Rapids Press. Wednesday.

“This is the first step, to ensure that the alternative shelter is available before anything else. “

The city wants to move people living in the park to shelters, including the new shelter opened across from Heartside Park which is expected to house up to 100 people, before any enforcement is made.

Britton said the shelter will likely open “soon”.

Mel Trotter Ministries opens the shelter, with help from other organizations and $ 165,000 in financial support from Grand Rapids. Dennis Van Kampen, president and CEO of Mel Trotter, previously told The Grand Rapids Press that the number of homeless people has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Related: Dozens of homeless seek refuge in tents at Grand Rapids Park camp

Those in the camp who do not wish to be accommodated will receive “safe alternatives”, but will eventually have to leave the park.

“For people who don’t want to go to a shelter, what we can say is that they won’t stay in Heartside Park, but we are working very hard with community partners to provide them with safe alternatives before anything. let that be happening there. ,” she said.

It was not immediately clear whether the city planned to close other smaller camps elsewhere in the city. Heartside Park is the city’s largest camp.

A demonstration against the withdrawal of people from Heartside Park was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Britton said the city believed the encampment was unsafe for those living there due to freezing temperatures and unsanitary conditions amid the pandemic. Low temperatures reached 23 degrees with a wind chill of 11 degrees Tuesday night in Grand Rapids.

“We do not believe that living outside or in the tent at this time is safe for the sanitary conditions of the people who live there, and we seek to provide a safe and warm alternative by opening a new shelter and adding capacity. accommodation to the community, ”she said.

Related: Urgent need leads to creation of emergency shelter for homeless people near Heartside Park

Some of those who called for the city commission meeting on Tuesday noted that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends allowing people to live in settlements as long as “individual housing options” do not. are not available.

“Do not clean up encampments during the community spread of COVID-19 unless you have real-time access to rooms or individual units for ALL households in the encampment and a clear plan to transport those households safely,” indicates CDC guidelines. “Clearing camps without these measures in place results in people dispersing in the community and severing ties with service providers, increasing the potential for the spread of infectious diseases. “

Britton said she was unsure whether the city defined collective shelters as “individual housing options.” Collective shelters “are not ideal,” but are a safe housing option, she said.

Instead of cleaning up an encampment, the CDC recommends encouraging social distancing and working to improve sanitary conditions, such as providing toilets with running water and soap – which Courtney Meyers-Keaton, Coalition coordinator of the Grand Rapids area to end homelessness, said it should be done before clearing a camp.

But how to keep people in the camps safe from freezing temperatures is unclear, she said.

“These are all steps that can and should be taken,” Meyers-Keaton said of the distribution of masks, the spacing of tents, the provision of hand washing stations and more. “The one thing I don’t know how to specifically address, however, is how to limit exposure to extreme weather conditions in a camping environment, as a tent and sleeping bag can’t do much. “

Although there are portable toilets open to those who live in Heartside Park, the city has cut hand washing stations due to the cold weather, Britton said.

Meyers-Keaton said there are many reasons a person may choose not to stay in a shelter.

Some may be separated from loved ones, others are uncomfortable sharing so many close people or unwilling to live under someone else’s rules, and even more may have had previous traumatic experiences. , she said.

Meyers-Keaton said the city has promised to keep the coalition informed before any camp clean-ups so that service providers can stay in touch with those they help when displaced.

“They have the same objectives as the coalition, which is to say that they want to make sure that people have the possibility of accessing housing and having access to resources,” she said. declared.

The coalition is tracking the number of homeless people in the county as well as the space of the shelters.

With 440 beds at Mel Trotter, 40 at Degage Ministries and up to 100 more in the new shelter, the county should have enough beds to house all those who need them, Meyers-Keaton said.

These beds are in addition to 88 families staying in hotels, which Kent County has helped fund with federal coronavirus relief dollars.

The best way for people looking to help or donate items to people who are homeless is to contact the agencies that work with them, Meyers-Keaton said. Often these agencies know what is needed most and where it is needed.

A list of some of these agencies is available here.

Read more:

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