GRAND RAPIDS — It’s a long hike to the place that some call home, a hilly spot on a bank of the Grand River — a neighborhood of tents and tarps that’s been here for several years.
This is one of a series of small encampments now buried in snow, where cold wind whips through openings between tarps.
Kendra Coalter, 25, is relatively new to the neighborhood and to living outside in the bitter cold.
“Not particularly,” she said when asked if she was ready for the snow and the cold. “But the people that have been here for quite some time are showing me the ropes and everything, how to get through.”
Like, she said, how to heat her tent with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizer in an old aluminum can with its top cut off.
She tried to show how it works, but her lighter was too cold.
“I just need this lighter to get warmed up,” she said as she squatted in a mish-mash of tents and tarps under trees with branches bending under the weight of snow.
She’s been homeless for months, but doesn’t want to stay in a shelter.
“I personally have a lot of social anxiety, so I’m kind of scared to go into new places,” she said.
She was there on Friday when a church pastor pulled up with a pickup full of warm-weather gear.
“My car is full of blankets and coats, trying to give them to people as they need,” the pastor said.
Kendra got a new pair of boots.
Pastor Kevin VanWyhe, of Heritage Christian Reformed Church in Byron Center, discovered the riverside camps while on a bike ride and has been a regular visitor since May.
He doesn’t call them homeless. He calls them, “My friends by the river.”
“Just trying to share love,” he said. “Kind of finding out who people are and spending time, sharing life, sharing food; we’re starting to have some come to our church now.”
He has a list of 42 names of people who live along the river, including about 20 on this stretch on the city’s West Side.
“Some really beautiful people down here, a lot of tough things in life brought them here,” he said.
He worries about cold snowy nights like Friday.
He said just last week a woman started her tent on fire with the mix of alcohol and hand sanitizer she was using to heat it. She wasn’t hurt.
“Her tent burned completely down to the ground. She lost everything.
“Cold is part of survival, but every days is survival for them. We have hope from family and friends, and when they don’t have hope, cold is tough, but I think the lack of love and the absence of relationships is probably even tougher. “
As for Kendra, after several tries, she finally lit her aluminum can heater.
“Yeah, there it is,” she said as the flame grew.
She said she will keep the open can of flames in a kitchen pan in the middle of her tent. She said she hopes it will hold back the cold.