Grand Rapids City Commissioner Lisa Knight at the commission’s meeting on July 11, 2023. | Anna Gustafson
One by one, the people who waited for hours to speak stepped up to a microphone in front of the Grand Rapids City Commission on Tuesday. Do not, the overwhelming majority of them urged, support two proposed ordinances they said would target unhoused people and further harm some of society’s most vulnerable members.
The two proposed ordinances – one which would penalize a person for “accosting” someone by an ATM or while they are eating or drinking outdoors and another that would permit the city to confiscate what they deem to be “excess” or unattended personal property kept in parks or on sidewalks — essentially criminalize homelessness, residents told commissioners. The vast majority of the 50-plus people who spoke during the two public hearings on Tuesday urged commissioners to reject the changes, with many saying the ordinances would give carte blanche to Grand Rapids police to remove unhoused people from spaces where wealthy residents do not want to interact with their neighbors who are struggling.
“There is an alternative universe where the topic of the unhoused is being handled in GR with true balance and compassion, with leaders who have the guts to point the finger at those creating the problem and take action to curtail them … in and then there’s the timeline we all live in,” Grand Rapids resident Lucas Leverett said during the commission’s public hearings on the two ordinances that stretched for nearly five hours on Tuesday.
City leaders said during the meeting that the proposed ordinances are meant to deter harassment, ensure public safety and help business owners who have cited issues with public urination, physical intimidation and other behavior they said has left workers and customers feeling unsafe.
“It’s not just that people are standing there, and they scoop them up; there are conditions to it,” City Attorney Anita Hitchock said following Tuesday’s public hearing. “It isn’t just that they ask someone for money and get arrested. The conduct has to be repeated, non-consensual conduct. It has to get to a level where the person feels harassed or intimidated. They’re not going to be scooped up for asking for money.”
Under one proposed ordinance, penalizing a person for “accosting” someone by an ATM or around an outdoor dining space could result in a fine of up to $500 and jail for up to 90 days. The other proposed rule would allow the city to confiscate “excess” personal property – which is now defined as anything that can’t fit into a 32-gallon container.
The proposed changes, which the commission has yet to vote on, follow the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce; Mel Trotter Ministries, a nonprofit that works with unhoused people; and other downtown businesses asking city officials in December to specifically ban panhandling and outlaw people sitting or sleeping on sidewalks. Those organizations had originally called for fining people who sat or slept on sidewalks. City officials ultimately opted not to enact those changes.
Josh Lunger, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of government affairs, on Tuesday thanked commissioners for considering the ordinances currently before them.
“These ordinances that are being brought forward are narrow, and they’re targeted toward behavior,” Lunger said. “I know there’s overlap. I know that housing is a huge issue – it’s one of our top priorities, and we’re working on it constantly.”
Others who echoed Lunger’s approval of the changes were Sam Cummings, the managing partner of CWD Real Estate Development, and John Helmholdt, president of the Grand Rapids-based public relations firm SeyferthPR.
“These ordinances … have nothing to do with residential status, and they have everything to do with respectful behaviors,” Cummings said.
But many of those who spoke during the public hearings said it is the police who are harassing individuals who are unhoused, not those who are unhoused causing harm to anyone else. Residents said commissioners should, instead of backing these ordinances, focus on addressing housing insecurity in Grand Rapids, and speakers on Tuesday said class discriminations were embedded in the proposed ordinances. One person asked why it was that politicians repeatedly asking for money – which they called “high class panhandling” – would not be deemed as “accosting.”
“I find it shocking to be sitting here in this city that is becoming a carnival for the rich,” Grand Rapids resident Martha Cooper said. “And you all have not discovered any way to peel off any money from anywhere to actually rehouse people. … I’m looking and saying, ‘Who’s harassing who?’”
Courtney Myers-Keaton, who is the director of the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness but spoke as a resident of Grand Rapids, said the ordinances would further harm already marginalized people.
“The language remains ambiguous and subjective,” Myers-Keaton said of the proposed changes. “And I suspect there are certain individuals who are more likely to be on the enforcement end of these proposed changes. These would include, but are not limited to, people who already face discrimination, such as Black and brown individuals, persons who are assumed to be unhoused and members of our LGBTQ+ community.”
Dayja Tillman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, reiterated her organization’s statement issued last week that the proposed changes are unconstitutional.
“These amendments, while framed as necessary for public safety, would likely disproportionately affect our unhoused residents,” Tillman said.
“One really concerning aspect of the amendment” is defining “excess” property as anything that doesn’t fit in a 32-gallon container – and the city being able to then confiscate that, Tillman said. While individuals would be able to retrieve their confiscated items from the city, a number of residents and advocates said unhoused individuals often face transportation barriers and may not know they can have their items returned.
“Imagine trying to fit your entire life, your clothes, your bags, your papers, your food, your memories, your home into a container that’s the size of a trash bag,” Tillman said.
She added that the ACLU fears “these new measures, with their vague and overbroad definitions, could lead to discriminatory enforcement and further marginalize our most vulnerable communities.
“We have to remember that homelessness is not a crime; it is a complex, societal issue that demands our empathy, our understanding of systemic action as a community,” Tillman said. “Criminalizing or penalizing behaviors fundamental to the experience of being unhoused only pushes our neighbors further into the margins of society, exacerbating their struggles.”
A number of speakers echoed Tillman’s concerns and questioned what happens if medication, identification documents or other necessary items were confiscated by the city. Prior to the public hearing, City Commissioner Milinda Ysasi asked city officials about this.
Deputy City Manager Mary Kate Berens told commissioners that the city has a “Housing Outreach Team” that will work with unhoused individuals on where they can store excess property, including at Mel Trotter, individuals would be given notice that their property is going to be confiscated, and people will be able to retrieve their belongings from the city.
“We also are aware of those kinds of critical pieces of property being mixed in with property we may impound,” Berens said. “…It will not be perfect; I have to say that. But we will do our best.”
Jeff Smith, a Grand Rapids resident who is a volunteer organizer with the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union, said the proposed changes are “deeply problematic and cruel” and “will not solve the much larger problem, which is housing insecurity.” He noted that the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union, a group that advocates for tenants’ rights, daily receives “phone calls, email messages, instant messaging from tenants who are under threat of eviction, who are dealing with landlords and property management companies that won’t fix or make necessary repairs, who are constantly harassing them.
“I think it’s important that while we’re talking about the unhoused people in Grand Rapids, particularly folks in our downtown, that I think we need to expand our notion about the issue of the unhoused and think about it as people who are housing insecure because there are literally tens of thousands of people in the city who are housing insecure, who are one paycheck away, who are one eviction court hearing away from being kicked out of their home,” Smith continued.
Smith went on to read a statement from the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union that has been signed by a number of local grassroots groups, including the Urban Core Collective, the Red Project and various faith-based organizations.
“We believe that housing is a human right,” Smith read. “We believe that people come before profits, before property. We believe there should not be one person unhoused in the city of Grand Rapids right now. And if any of you had spoken up against the profit mongering of landlords and financial institutions, we would not be witnessing the numbers of people losing their homes and living in the streets, in their cars or in temporary housing.
“We will not stand for your actions to cover your evils by punishing those who are poor, by unleashing the violence of the police on them, by fining and incarcerating them,” Smith continued. “Our unhoused neighbors deserve respect, support and, most of all, housing.”
Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington said after the public hearings that the city is working on expanding affordable housing. City commissioners, he noted, in June approved a $500,000 contract with the group Community Rebuilders to provide temporary housing for 15 to 20 unhoused individuals. Washington also pointed out that there is about $10 million in the city’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget for programs addressing housing and homelessness.
“There’s a lot of work that’s going on,” Washington said.
Helmholdt, of SeyferthPR, praised these initiatives.
“I believe this is another core issue that you as elected officials and city leaders are really taking a comprehensive approach to be inclusive, to put funding where it needs to be,” Helmholdt said of addressing issues around homelessness.
But Kent County Commissioner Ivan Diaz said the work being done to address homelessness is “not nearly enough.”
“I think this is completely the wrong direction to go,” Diaz said of the proposed ordinances.
Janet Zahn of the Grand Rapids Climate Coalition agreed with Diaz.
“To exclude the unhoused from downtown because their presence makes people uncomfortable is not an effective answer to a very real problem,” Zahn said. “I invite you, us, to sit with that discomfort and use it to propel us to seek solutions that do not trample civil rights or criminalize homelessness.
“The city of Grand Rapids policies have long been dominated by the Chamber of Commerce and titans of downtown,” Zahn continued. “Their vision of safe and welcoming has very real limitations.”
Others emphasized that the solution is not as simple as ensuring there is space for everyone at a local shelter. Jacob Doorn, a housing specialist at the Disability Advocates of Kent County, said the “system we have in place right now is simply not accessible” for those with disabilities. For example, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or severe anxiety may be unable to stay in a traditional shelter, Doorn said, leaving them to reside in public parks or streets.
City officials said the next steps with regards to the ordinances include potential changes to the rules following the public hearings. City commissioners may vote on the proposed ordinances at their meeting at 7 p.m. July 25. The meeting will take place in the City Commission chambers on the ninth floor of the Grand Rapids City Hall, 300 Monroe Ave. NW.
Following Tuesday’s hearings, some city commissioners said they would weigh what the public said during the hearings and their final decisions on ordinances were not set in stone.
“My ears are open; my heart is open to hearing feedback,” City Commissioner Kelsey Perdue said.
Perdue also expressed frustration following the public hearings.
“You all named everything that is wrong – the culmination of failed systems and injustice,” she said. “We have to figure out what we can do within the realm of our control with finite resources in such a divided time as this.”
Ysasi echoed similar concerns.
“It’s hard sometimes to sit up here; this meeting felt like we need to fix everything in this world,” Ysasi said. “But I can’t. I have to think about what’s in front of me and what’s in my circle of control, my circle of influence.”
City Commissioner Lisa Knight said “there are so many things we have to take into context with this whole situation.
“Should it weigh on the side of people with more power and money? No,” Knight said. “Should it weigh on the side of those who have been unfortunate? No. It’s going to weigh across the board. We need to help those who need assistance, and we need to help our community thrive.”
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