GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Jay Fields and Karen Tyson were neighbors in the tent city that took over Grand Rapids’ Heartside Park last year before the city shut it down.
Now, they’re neighbors again — at a small encampment along the Grand River on the city’s West Side.
“It’s somebody else’s land, but it’s my place,” Fields, 27, said.
They’re not far from Mel Trotter Ministries‘ 75-bed overflow center, which opened two weeks ago and has averaged about 60 guests a night.
But they have no plans to go there, no matter how cold it gets.
“We’re stubborn,” Fields said. “That’s part of it. Part of it is, there’s rules.”
The encampment includes about eight tents and is home to more than 10 homeless men and women. Fields lives in a tent inside a tent inside a tent — layers that, along with a propane heater, keep him warm.
“I don’t have any rules,” Tyson, who lives in a tent about 20 yards away, said. “I don’t have anybody tell me what to do, don’t tell me when to go to bed, what I can have in there. I have no one search my bags.”
It’s a dilemma that frustrates those who run Mel Trotter, where rules are meant to keep the homeless safe.
“Everybody makes choices about how they want to live their life, right?” Mel Trotter President and CEO Dennis Van Kampen said. “So, there are people that are experiencing homelessness that really appreciate the independence. They build a community.”
Many are suffering with mental health issues, he added.
“For them, coming into a shelter environment is not what they think they can do or want to do,” Van Kampen said.
Mel Trotter worked with the city, the county and Guiding Light to open the new temporary shelter at 200 South Division Ave. Heartside Ministry runs a day center at the shelter, where the homeless can stay warm, do laundry, shower and meet with case managers.
They say keeping it open for a year will cost about $1 million.
The city paid more than $300,000 toward the project, and Guiding Light contributed $200,000. The county is expected to decide early next year how much it will contribute.
“We literally have had some of the people that are in the Heartside community, living on the streets, they’ve come in, and grown men have had tears and they’ve said, ‘We can’t believe you’ve put something this nice for us,'” Van Kampen said.
He said the temporary shelter was needed as Mel Trotter renovates its main 450-bed center at 225 Commerce Ave. SW.
Mel Trotter officials expect that the $11 million project will make the shelter more inviting when it’s completed late next year. Instead of large dorms that sleep more than 100 homeless, it will feature small dorms that sleep two.
On Wednesday, Mel Trotter hosted a Christmas lunch. For a time, the line went out the cafeteria door.
Mel Trotter officials say the need has never been greater.
“We are now seeing more people experiencing homelessness than we ever have before,” Van Kampen said.
Before the pandemic, he said, there were an estimated 10,000 homeless people in Kent County. There’s been no recent census.
“It’s not uncommon to have a family that was in a suburb a year or two ago and something happened to them that they weren’t ready for and they ended up in a place that they never thought they would be in, and that’s experiencing homelessness,” Van Kampen said.
Cherrill Baker and her two boys, Kayden and Maverick, 5 and 4, were among the guests at the Christmas lunch. They ended up homeless after moving back to Grand Rapids from North Carolina, Baker said.
“We were staying somewhere and had to leave, and so we’re staying here (with Mel Trotter) until we get into a more permanent situation,” she said.
At lunch, Kayden didn’t eat his carrots or his green bean casserole, but he loved the dinner roll. Maverick loved it all.
“This is really important I think just for the kids,” their mom said. “Just for them to know the importance of the holiday and everything, just so they know it’s not just about the gift but what you can do for other people and about what other people can do for you when you need help.”
Back down at the encampment, Jay Fields’ lunch was a Honeynut Cheerios bar.
He expects to spend Christmas at the camp.
“I’m not planning anything big, so this is my home, so this is where I’ll be probably,” he said.