ACLU: Emergency homeless shelter is a COVID risk

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The American Civil Liberties Union is sounding the alarm on a possible CDC violation after the City of Grand Rapids cleared out a homeless encampment Tuesday.

Grand Rapids police officers stood at Heartside Park as city crews loaded tents and other personal belongings onto a garbage truck.

“Look at this right here,” said Susan Mulinix Wade as she watched crews work. “That’s everybody’s possessions right there from the inside of the tent. Goodbye! His whole life is gone.”

Mulinix Wade was one of about 100 evicted from the park Monday. Many are now looking for another place to live. 

“These tents aren’t hurting anybody. They’re keeping people warm. Every city in the country has homeless shelters but you know what? Nobody in this country has ever experienced a COVID epidemic that’s lasted a fricking year,” Mulinix Wade said. 

Susan Mulinix Wade

Mulinix Wade spent the morning trying to salvage things that people could use: boots, hats, coats and food. She says lots of the things she grabbed were donated by community members in the last few days.

Now she fears the items have been wasted.

“I mean, look at this stuff: North Face coats, brand new. This is ridiculous,” she said as she rummaged through a syringe-filled tent.

Mulinix Wade says many of the people who live in the park struggle with mental health issues or drug and alcohol addictions.  

In response to the issues at the park, Mel Trotter Ministries made Purple East — a building across the street from the park — into an overflow shelter. The overflow holds up to 100 people in congregate-style housing, meaning there are no individual rooms. Additionally ,Mel Trotter’s main shelter building on Commerce Avenue can hold more than 400 people. Some of those spaces are for a single individual. 

About 50 people from the encampment slept at the Purple East shelter Monday night, while others say they are weary of sharing a space with so many during a pandemic.

“I can’t imagine any of you all for the holidays sleeping in a shelter with your husband and your children and your wife, sleeping at Purple East with 60 other people with the same air filtration systems. You’re all going to get COVID. We don’t know who has COVID,” Mulinix Wade said. 

The ACLU sent a letter to the city over the weekend echoing similar concerns. 

“Both the CDC and health department are very clear that you should not clear encampments, unless there’s individualized housing available,” said attorney Miriam Aukerman. “Clearing (the park) not only puts people in that camp at risk, but the entire community at risk.”

A Grand Rapids police officer explains why a homeless community at Heartside Park must leave their tents. (Dec. 21, 2020)

Grassroots groups like The Citizens Leadership Council and Family Over Everything say they have spent the last few days taking surveys of the needs of the people living at the camp

“These are human beings that we’re talking about. These are not cattle, these are not dogs,” said Al Willis, President of CLC. 

The organizers say the move to tear down the encampment, despite COVID concerns, shows city leaders are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground.

“On your lunch break, when you get to work, come down here and speak to people,” said Trevin Gibson with FOE. “If you don’t know a story, you don’t know how to help.”

Gibson and Willis credit much of the city’s homelessness to a lack of affordable housing. They’re now working to provide resources to many who plan to continue avoiding the shelters.

“There’s been a lot of outpouring from the community but it’s just getting the resources placed,” Gibson said.

While at Heartside Park, people told a News 8 crew they needed hot coffee, blankets, prepaid cell phones to call family, hotel rooms, playing cards, board games and hot food. Organizers say those experiencing homelessness also need to know that they matter.

A homeless encampment has been growing at Grand Rapids’ Heartside Park. (December 2020)

“We see you. We hear you and we stand with you,” Willis said. “We’re not going to let you go alone and even when we do leave this park, we’ll continue to provide long term resources and apply pressure.”

News 8 received the following statement from Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss on the homeless encampment:

“The City has been actively working with our non-profit partners to ensure there are safe and warm options for individuals experiencing homelessness.  The additional shelter space that is being managed with Mel Trotter Ministries and Guiding Light is important to ensuring everyone has healthy and safe alternatives.  This is even more important now as the temperatures drop and we enter the winter season.    

In addition to this added shelter space, the city has invested more than $2 million in expanding efforts to address homelessness including a project with Community Rebuilders for rapid rehousing, creation of the Homeless Outreach Team and adding a Homeless Outreach Specialist.  

Our focus remains on locating safe, warm and healthy environments for those in our community experiencing homelessness. We will continue to collaborate with community partners on outreach to help those living in camps find safe shelter alternatives through outreach and by connecting them with appropriate resources.”

Police say there is no official plan or operation for further enforcement. They have not made any arrests so far and say they plan to continue working to convince people to leave the encampment on their own will. 

Grassroots organizers say those who want to help can reach out to them via Facebook or email. They say they need trailers and volunteers to help move some of the city’s homeless to another area. 

Additionally, they are planning to turn a storage area into a community pantry and closet to provide resources long term. They are accepting warm clothing, food and other essential items.

Organizers at the Citizen’s Leadership Council can be reached at willisgroup.biz@gmail.com or on their Facebook page at facebook.com/citizensleadershipcouncil.

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