GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — From aggressive panhandling to public defecation to harassment and occasionally assault, business owners and even some homeless advocates are calling for something to be done about homelessness in downtown Grand Rapids, saying it’s a safety issue for everyone.
“The challenge has been more about the bad behavior than it is about people’s housing situation. That’s what we’ve been trying to get people to talk about,” Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rick Baker said.
In December, the Chamber sent a letter to city commissioners, signed by several business owners, community member and homeless advocates, asking the city for action. The most controversial suggestions were to create ordinances banning sitting or lying in public spaces if shelter space is available, regulating aggressive solicitation and intimidation by panhandlers and creating a zone where solicitation is allowed in the city. Critics said some of those measures would have violated rights and made being homeless a crime. The rules were rejected.
Instead, city leaders promised a report on the situation by April. On Tuesday, members of the City Commission’s Public Safety Committee heard the list of things that have been done by the city and other groups to combat the problems, like doing a better job of cleaning parks and public right of ways, setting up more public restrooms, creating more affordable housing and increasing mental health intervention efforts.
Now, the city and Downtown Development Authority plan to increase the use of private security in public areas where the homeless congregate. City Manager Mark Washington said the idea is to make people feel safe.
“And asking for compliance: If they see something, they’ll say something. They’ll ask people to comply. But if it’s something that requires the enforcement of a police officer, obviously they’ll engage our local police,” Washington said.
Several members of the Public Safety Committee expressed frustration over continuing problems.
“I’m asking, and I guess challenging, the administration to come up with a plan to maybe look at some other policy gaps that exist. And are there things that we as the commission should consider for future consideration to address this in the short term?” Safety Committee Chair Jon O’Connor, who represents the 1st Ward, said. “There’s a long-term plan in place in Grand Rapids, I think, to address these. But there are some short-term things, I think, we need to do.”
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss suggested city staff revisit the topic and come back. The city manager said he would present more information at the committee’s May 5 meeting.
“I’m glad that today that they’re talking about some real change,” Baker said. “Some accountabilities within different departments and different organizations that are serving the population we’re talking about.”