GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sharie Sumner is proud of her new home. She built it herself, 8 feet by 12 feet, about six weeks ago on a bank of the Grand River.

Sharie Sumner

She’s also pleased that she has taken care of the rodent problem she discovered when she woke to a mouse nibbling on her.

“It was trying to eat my face,” she said.

This is where the 39-year-old plans to spend the winter, among a growing neighborhood of tents that looks more like a state park campground. News 8 counted 16 tents along a short stretch of the river.

Sharie Sumner’s home

While many homeless have pitched tents in what has become a high-profile tent city in Grand Rapids’ Heartside Park, she is part of the growing hidden homeless.

“There is a lot of tents down here, and they have been popping up more and more as time goes by,” Sumner said. “The further we get into this COVID thing, the more they pop up.”

She and others among her said they have no plans to move into the new homeless shelter that opened on Friday in the former Purple East building in Heartside.

“I personally would not go,” Sumner said. “I don’t do well with other people.”

And, she said, she wants to avoid COVID.

Sharie Sumner’s house

She’d prefer to show off her home.

“I have a little light,” she said, pointing to the outdoor solar-powered security light. “I just got new solar panels and battery so I don’t have to go and charge my stuff anywhere anymore. Yay.”

The home is built of old pallets and other things she’s found along the way. It’s wrapped in plastic, insulated with cardboard and newspapers, and topped with tarps.

“I found some siding, I threw that on there,” she said while showing off the white vinyl siding nailed out front.

A toy “Frosty the Snowman” mailbox is duct-taped to the front yard tree, next to her pallet front porch.

A propane heater keeps her warm.

“I have a window over here,” she said. It’s an old ticket-taker window, with a hole for taking tickets, that she found along the road.

It gives her a view of the Grand.

She’d prefer an apartment, but says she makes just $12 an hour at her factory job.

John Washington

“I didn’t want to be here in the wintertime, but housing is ridiculous around here,” Sumner said. “It’s expensive. I can afford $500 to $650 a month, that’s what I can afford. That’s a room in somebody’s house.”

Just upstream, John Washington and his fiancée have lived along the river for three years, but this will be their first winter in a tent. They said they lost their jobs a few months back because of COVID-19.

“We call it our own community,” he said of his neighborhood. “The River Family.”

The River Family of homeless men and women take up about a half dozen tents, all on high ground.

They share a bathroom — a pickle barrel topped with a toilet seat inside an orange and white tent. “This is our family,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for three years, so we figure why we’d go to Mel Trotters when we’ve got everything we need to keep warm?”