GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sometimes all it takes to change a person’s life is to start a conversation. That’s what the Grand Rapids Homeless Outreach Team tries to do every day.
On July 19, Grand Rapids Fire Department Capt. Michael Waldron was out on a patrol for HOT in the area of Burton Street and Division Avenue. He came across a car, filled to the brim with clothes and bags, sitting in a parking lot. Waldron and his teammate decided to stop and start a conversation. They found out that the driver was living in his car and needed some help. After talking, HOT was able to offer some supplies and useful information. The man drove out of the lot parking knowing where to look for help.
HOT was created to provide homeless people with access to services during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus spread, many public facilities like bathrooms, parks and shelters were closed or had limited space. So on April 4, 2020, then-GRFD Chief John Lehman and City Manager Mark Washington reached out to Waldron an told him it was time to start a homeless outreach team.
At the time, the team was made up of four people: two police officers and two firefighters. The goal was to have the program run for four weeks. But as the team worked with the community, it realized hygiene, health and safety would be ongoing concerns.
HOW HOT WORKS NOW
Many things have changed in the three years since HOT launched.
“The team has transitioned to an ongoing, active homeless outreach unit in the City. Its mission is ‘to preserve health and safety and improve outcomes for homeless persons and our community,'” Washington, the city manager, said in a statement.
HOT does that by operating as a boots-on-the-ground response team that goes around the city engaging with people who are homeless, as well as businesses.
“We talk a lot about how to interact with people that are in the homeless community, how to be able to treat them like people and how to treat them with dignity,” Waldron explained. “And we also sit down with people in the homeless community and talk about how to treat businesses and residents with dignity. It’s trying to build that relationship and that level of respect from both directions.”
People may call HOT when there is a problem involving a homeless person. If someone sees a person that looks like they need help, the team will start a conversation and offer help and connections to resources. If there is a conflict that involves someone with a mental health problem, the team’s mental health specialists respond. If there is a conflict between a business and a homeless person, HOT will sit down with both to try to find a solution.
It works on diverting people from emergency rooms and jails. In certain instances, HOT will go to the scene instead of law enforcement or EMS and assess the needs of a person. Based on the team’s assessment, it may help a person into a mental heath program or deescalate an intense interaction, saving someone a night in jail.
HOT was given over $1.4 million this year to help fund its efforts. That’s up from about $1.3 million in 2022 and about $969,000 in 2021. Next year, the city expects to give HOT $987,000. That includes $383,000 in federal coronavirus relief dollars available for the Network 180 partnership with HOT, $615,000 in federal dollars for the fire department and about $81,000 for police staffing.
Trying to offer more services and meet more needs, HOT has grown to eight members with different skill sets. It stressed that even though it is made up of some city workers, it is not a branch of law enforcement.
There are three firefighters in HOT, bringing teamwork and the first responder experience. They’re trained to respond to emergencies involving medical care and circumstances requiring rescue, giving the team adaptability.
There is one police officer on the team. The police have experience in engaging with community members, helping to develop relationships and enforcement. Officers also provide safety for the team while they are out on the street.
Network 180, the county’s mental health authority, contributes four staff members to help address situations where a mental health professional is needed and also assists in situations involving substance use issues. With two social workers, a peer support specialist and recovery coach available, the team can offer help on the spot rather than referring them to another organization where there may be a waiting period.
While the team is made up of members from different practices, they respond to each situation as a group, working together to come up with the best solution for whatever issue may arise.
Every morning, the team gets together to discuss situations involving homeless people and how to properly respond. It also canvasses the city daily, looking for people in need of help and directing them to services. It promotes hygiene through education and resources, in addition to providing education about fire safety and carbon monoxide dangers, among other things.
The group’s headquarters includes a stock of emergency items like clothing, hygienic supplies, shoes and blankets that they hand out to people when they are out on the street responding to calls. The team has two trucks loaded with those types of supplies. It even has bikes for people who may need transportation.
“It’s things that people need right now that aren’t an entire list or an entire day’s worth of things. Waldron said. “It’s just (about), ‘What do I need right now?'”
BUILDING A NETWORK
HOT’s headquarters is downtown off of Monroe Avenue in the Belknap Park area. The base of operations has separate spaces for police and fire, social workers, recovery coaches and peer support staff to do their work. It has a large conference area for meetings with other agencies about on new ways to approach problems.
One main function of HOT is to refer people to community partners that can provide them with even more resources. Several organizations provide homeless individuals with tools and opportunities geared toward getting them back into housing.
Crossroads Bible Church, Mel Trotter Ministries and Degage Ministries provide legal representation, housing, assistance with vital documents and medical services. The Masonic Temple and Plaza Towers help with snacks and hygiene needs. LaGrave Church gives water donations and 70×7 Life Recovery helps with re-entry and family support.
HOT is always looking for more organizations to work with and expand its partnerships with city department to provide a comprehensive community network of service to people who are homeless.
“I’d say that goal is continuing to develop. It was tricky in the beginning because we were the new kids on the block. And we thought we knew how to pull this all together,” Waldron said. “But we’ve had some incredible outreach from other groups. We’ve had Pine Rest (Christian Mental Health Services) outreach with us. We’ve had access (for other groups) to work with us. We’ve had the parks department work with us because we got to work in that area. We’ve had public works work with us. We’ve had different areas, different business associations. Are we the hub? We’re going be. We’re still getting there.”