GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The footprints of the homeless have hardpacked a narrow trail that leads to a bank of the Grand River.
Around a bend, colorful tents emerge from the ankle-deep snow like flowers blooming too soon.
It’s hard to believe there are people inside the tents, especially under a Code Blue, a designation in which Grand Rapids shelters open their doors to all homeless people to protect them from bitter cold.
The temperature has reached the single digits at night.
A small Coleman tent along the Grand has been home for a year to Rowan Chwalek, 26, and her boyfriend.
“This is my first winter out here,” she said from inside the tent. “It’s rough. I’m telling you that. It’s not too bad, but you have to stay buried under the blankets or you start getting cold.”
They have no heater. Her nose and hands are red. Frost coats the inside of the small tent.
“That’s from our breath freezing to it,” she said.
“It’s a good question,” she said when asked why she was living in a tent. “I like being outside; I like camping; I like doing it. I didn’t necessarily want to be out here in the winter, but.”
Also, she said, in her small cluster of tents there are no rules, like at Mel Trotter Ministries’ shelter, and she doesn’t have to deal with other homeless people.
Like many of the other homeless, she chooses cold over shelter, despite the Code Blue.
During a Code Blue, teams of homeless advocates spread out to encourage the homeless inside. Shelters are open to all, even those who had been banned because of rules violations.
“This is dangerous,” Beth Fisher, Mel Trotter Ministries spokeswoman, said of the bitter cold. “Certainly we don’t want anybody out there, so yes we’re doing all things to say, ‘Come on in here where it’s warm; we have space for you, and we would love for you to be inside as opposed to outdoors in the elements.'”
“We do still have quite a few individuals that are choosing to stay out of the shelters, stay in tents, staying out of the downtown area,” Grand Rapids Police Department Officer Jenny Rood said.
Karen Tyson lived in the so-called tent city at Heartside Park before the city recently shut it down. Now she’s living in a tent on the river a mile or so away. On Monday, she ventured into Heartside, where she ran into Rood, who is a member of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team.
“Why do you decide not to stay inside?” Rood asked the homeless woman.
“‘Cause I don’t like rules,” the woman said.
She said she uses a generator and a propane heater to stay warm. The officer warned her against using propane in a tent but knows her words likely won’t matter.
This past weekend, Rood and other members of the Homeless Outreach Team tromped through snow to reach the tents on the river. They counted about 15 and checked on the half dozen or so people they found living in them.
“It was very cold for me, so I can only imagine what it was for them out there,” Rood said.
On Monday, near Heartside Park, Rood responded to a homeless woman who was too intoxicated to get inside. The woman leaned against a wall outside of the old Purple East, which has become an overflow shelter for Mel Trotter.
“AMR is here to help you, OK,” Rood told the woman as paramedics gathered around her.
“We find that more individuals are drinking to keep themselves warm and obviously can’t make the best decisions at that time, so we do worry that we may find individuals that might not survive the cold weather,” Rood said.