Homeless for the Holidays: Tent city growing in Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A lone Christmas tree stands in Heartside Park, just outside downtown.

Faded fake branches support donated gold and white garland, a few bulbs and candy canes.

Just like home.

A homeless man placed it there, right in front of his tent, his temporary home.

“It was just found in the trash, laying by a trash can, picked it up, and there it is,” he said of the tree. “It’s Christmas time. We’re down in spirit; it’s a way to pick our spirits up.”

The man, who is on parole and can’t find a job, now lives in a tent city at Heartside Park that is growing daily, backed up to the roaring northbound lanes of US-131.

Advocates blame the COVID-19 pandemic and overloaded homeless programs for changing a park into a makeshift campground.

“I’ve never seen this,” Robb Munger, president of Exodus Place, said. “It’s at a point with all the services we have, and they’re getting overwhelmed. I’ve never seen camping at Heartside Park.”

He also has watched a campsite grow to half a dozen tents directly across the river from the Exodus Place home for men.

“Once the winter conditions happen and with COVID and all the restrictions in place, there’s going to be a bottleneck for services and we’re going to end up seeing people with severe frostbite, hospitalizations, death,” Munger said.

The Grand Rapids Police Department said the first homeless tent was pitched at Heartside Park about a month and a half ago. On Thursday, police counted 28 tents. On Friday, News 8 counted 42, most of them donated.

“It has gotten worse overnight,” GRPD Officer Jenny Rood, a member of the city’s Homeless Outreach Program, said.

“Because of COVID, the CDC has advised that it is best to allow them to have their space here,” she said of the park.

Karen Tyson, 36, has been homeless much of her life; mostly, she said, because of drugs and alcohol.

“There’s my little living room over there, my bedroom over here. That’s my porch,” Tyson said while giving a tour of her new tent.

Karen Tyson just got a brand new tent, where she lives at Heartside Park in Grand Rapids. (December 2020)

She heats with propane but tanks don’t last long.

“I need some long johns and winter boots, she said.

That was just before Exodus Place stopped Friday with a van full of boots to hand out.

Camping in a city park is against the law, but police said they’re looking the other way — for now.

By next Wednesday, the Mel Trotter Ministries homeless shelter will open a 50-bed overflow center for men at the former Purple East building across from the park.

After that, police will start clearing the tents.

Until then, 18-year-old Naomi Williams and her friends will try to stay warm.

“It gets cold at night, still it’s pretty straight,” Williams said.

She stays a few tents down from the faded Christmas tree.

“For me, I won’t be spending any time with my family, so seeing a Christmas tree, is like, oh my God, it’s so cute,” she said. “Because this is my family.”

Naomi Williams stays in a 4-by-6 foot tent at a homeless encampment in Heartside Park in Grand Rapids. (December 2020)

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