GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Courtney Hemmer, off and on homeless for two years, begs for money on street corners but understands why Grand Rapids, starting later this week, will crack down on aggressive panhandlers.

“I don’t approach them,” she said of those who give her money. “I don’t harass them about it. I figure if they want to bless me, that’s fine.”

She said she agrees with the new ordinance that outlaws begging at ATMs, outdoor restaurants and bus stops.

It’s one of two new ordinances that will take effect Thursday to respond to the growing homeless population in Grand Rapids — laws that some civil rights advocates have argued will criminalize homelessness.

Since 2018, the homeless population in Grand Rapids has nearly doubled, from 723 in January 2018 to 1,239 in January 2023, according to the Coalition to End Homelessness. Most were in shelters or transitional housing. The number considered “unsheltered” more than doubled to 113 in January 2023.

City leaders say the new ordinances are about making downtown safer for everyone and helping business owners.

“In the city of Grand Rapids, it would be a misdemeanor to harass someone who’s in the middle of a transaction, or commercial transaction, where they really feel that is rising to the level of intimidation and they can’t really get away,” Deputy City Manager Kate Berens said.

If convicted, violators could face up to 90 days in jail.

Berens said police won’t immediately start cracking down with arrests.

“If someone has called the police department, feeling harassed and intimidated, the police have tried to remedy the situation, tried to deescalate things already, so I don’t know that you’ll see a dramatic difference on Thursday, but you’ll see us continuing to reinforce hopefully a welcoming and safe environment for everybody downtown,” she said.

The other ordinance limits how much personal property can be left in public places, like in parks, right of ways, parking ramps and on sidewalks.

“If it’s too much and it’s in a location that’s creating an immediate hazard, we can impound that right away,” Berens said. “If it’s too much property but it’s not an immediate threat to anyone, then we’re going to you give you notice that you have a certain amount of time to remove that property and store it somewhere else.”

If it’s not claimed in 30 days, the city can trash it.

Drugs led Debra H. to homelessness. She sleeps at Degage Ministries, but is spending her days on a blanket across the street with a few small bags of belongings. Down the street, a woman sleeps between two tents pitched in the boulevard.

“If you can carry your backpack and set it down somewhere, you need to pick it back up and take it wherever you’ve got to take it,” Debra H. said.

Cathy Hoag, who is homeless, understands the aggressive panhandling law, but questions the city taking away people’s stuff.

Belongings outside Degage Ministries in Grand Rapids. (Aug. 21, 2023)
Belongings outside Degage Ministries in Grand Rapids.

“People are homeless,” she said. “Where are they going to put it? They ain’t got no home or closet or friend’s house that will allow them to put it there.”

The city, however, said it has worked with Mel Trotter Ministries to provide storage.

A few blocks away, where Wealthy Street crosses over US-131, Ricky is in his usual spot, hoping for handouts from stopped cars.

“They come, stop, give me money,” he said.

Ricky, who is homeless, panhandles on Wealthy Street at US-131 in August 2023.
Ricky, who is homeless, panhandles on Wealthy Street.

The new panhandling law won’t prohibit him from begging from the curb because, the city said, drivers and passengers aren’t captive audiences.

“Generally speaking, courts have looked at people inside vehicles and said, ‘You kind of have a safe environment, you can lock the doors,'” Berens said. “‘When the light turns green, you can pull away.'”

Ricky said he makes decent money on the street.

“I just make enough for me to eat, to live on and things,” he said. “That’s it. Am I proud of it? No. Am I ashamed of it? No, I ain’t ashamed of it.”