GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If you don’t often think about the plight of those experiencing homelessness in West Michigan, Sara Schade has a message for you.

Now is the time to care.

“We’re dealing with a large population that are transient all day that are in our community that have no access to any way to do what the CDC is recommending, which is to be washing our hands, to be sanitizing ourselves,” said Schade, who operates Unlimited Alternatives, a drop-in center for people with mental health challenges. 

Before heeding public health recommendations to shut down amid the outbreak, Unlimited Alternatives served up to 140 people daily, providing meals, laundry and shower facilities. 

Normally, UA members are able to gather in the center’s main room, providing them with much needed warmth and community.  

Schade would like to see city and county leaders set up portable hand washing stations and dispatch mobile units to do health assessments on homeless individuals. “We really want those who are experiencing homelessness to really feel like our community cares and understands that these are individuals who are worthy of the right to wash their hands,” said Schade. 

While UA closed its doors, the agency is still handing out free to-go lunches and supplies like basic toiletries and hand and feet warmers.  

“Right now, there are no places for these people to go to be warm at any moment. So, they are spending 24/7 out in the cold… It’s really hard to know if your cough is because you’re sitting out in the cold all day or because it’s something you should be concerned about.” 

Unlimited Alternatives is located across the street from Fuller Park, at 321 Fuller Ave. NE just south of Michigan Street.

Schade asked the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department to turn on the water and open bathrooms at parks so UA members can wash their hands. 

But a spokesperson told News 8 the city could not turn on the water because park bathrooms are not heated, and the city could not drain the water lines to keep them from freezing.  


While some UA clients live outside in tents, others sleep at Mel Trotter Ministries, which remains open. 

The shelter in the Heartside Neighborhood is taking extra precautions, increasing hand sanitation stations “exponentially,” putting space between guests wherever possible and taking the temperatures of all staff and guests who enter. 

The mission has also designated rooms to serve as quarantine spaces should they become needed.  

“If MTM was not open and available, where would these individuals go to find help, hope, food, shelter and even medical care?” wrote Courtney O’Malia, digital communication and marketing specialist for the organization. “Last night 430 men, women and children stayed in the mission. Our MTM day center served 150 guests, and our day room at Heartside served 210 neighbors. These are all increases for this time of year.”


Meanwhile, Degage Ministries on South Division Avenue has reduced the number of guests it serves inside its facility to comply with social distancing recommendations.

Degage’s dining room usually accommodates 100 people at a time, but the agency is currently limiting capacity to 50 people. 

However, the dining room, as well as Degage’s Open Door program, remain open to women, and Degage’s bathroom, shower and mail services are still available to everyone.

Anyone who enters the facility is required to wash their hands at the portable station inside the front door.

The mission is also handing out free, take-out meals.

“We’re happy to be able to accommodate everyone with a free meal. It’s in to-go containers, so it’s grab and go,” said Marge Parmalee, executive director of Degage Ministries.


The nonprofit also expects to receive forehead thermometers on Tuesday and will begin taking temperatures of guests to screen for illness. 

The Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, a HUD-designated organization that coordinates care for the homeless community in Kent County, is meeting by phone twice weekly with partner agencies to collaborate on how to best serve the population during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“We are working really hard around the clock on this emergency. We recognize the homeless are among the most vulnerable. The last thing we want to happen is for them to feel forgotten,” said Courtney Myers-Keaton, the coalition’s coordinator.

Myers-Keaton said she’s in daily contact with Emergency Operations Centers in Grand Rapids and Kent County.