Emergency Shelter and Addressing Unsafe Conditions in Heartside Park

Image of the City of Grand Rapids official Memorandum header, which reads

DATE: December 28, 2020

TO: Mark Washington, City Manager

FROM: Tammy Britton, Homelessness Coordinator
James Hurt, Managing Director of Public Services

SUBJECT: Update on Emergency Shelter and Addressing Unsafe Conditions in Heartside Park

Following multiple weeks of outreach by City staff and social service partner organizations, the City addressed unsafe conditions in Heartside Park beginning the morning of Monday, December 21. As part of the preceding multi-week effort, individuals staying in the park were informed that camping is not allowed in City parks, received consistent outreach, and were additionally informed that shelter capacity was being added to the community. This outreach was done by officials from the Grand Rapids Homeless Outreach Team and officers from the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD). The health and safety of individuals staying in the park, and of the broader community, were the City's primary considerations as employees from multiple departments worked to transition those individuals staying outdoors to indoor shelter ahead of the coldest winter months.

The City coordinated with community partners to arrange for safe, warm, and sanitary alternatives following COVI D-19 safety protocols for those who were staying in the park. The City took the unprecedented step of helping to secure and paying for a 5-month lease of the former "Purple East" building at 250 Ionia Avenue SW - across the street from Heartside Park - at a cost of $165,000 for use as an emergency shelter. Mel Trotter Ministries agreed to operate the facility, following proven COVID-safe shelter protocols.

A December 18 assessment of Heartside Park by the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) identified significant health risks to the individuals staying there, and to the community, including dangerous fire and fume inhalation hazards, inadequate ventilation, improper disposal of drug paraphernalia, open human defecation and urination, litter and burning of trash, non-compliance with COVID-safe protocols, soiled and damaged clothing and bedding, and general unsanitary conditions. These risks, combined with the forecast of sustained belowfreezing temperatures during the second half of last week, provided compelling public health and humanitarian reasons to move forward with the transition of individuals to indoor shelter and with the associated park maintenance.

Following the multi-week outreach effort and establishment of the nearby emergency shelter, a "notice to vacate" was posted at the park on Friday, December 18. (The City provided more than the required minimum 48-hour notice prior to the start of work on December 21 .) The work included removal of litter and abandoned items, relocation or storage of tents and other belongings, and encouragement of individuals to move to the new emergency shelter facility across the street or to the variety of other shelter options available to meet a person's particular circumstances. When City staff arrived to begin work, conditions in the park were observed to be consistent with the KCHD assessment. COVID-safe protocols were not in place for those living in the park. Empty food containers, used needles, and numerous other refuse items were on the ground and throughout the park. City staff and police officers spoke with individuals asking what items they would like to keep and those they wished to discard. Only unclaimed items and those items individuals wished to discard were removed by City employees and contractors. Mental health professionals were available as needed to help identify solutions.

The work to address the unsafe conditions in Heartside Park was substantially completed by noon on Wednesday, December 23. The following outcomes were achieved:

  • Fifty-six (56) individuals stayed overnight at 250 Ionia on December 27 representing a continued increase since it opened.
  • The entire park was cleared of litter and discarded refuse items.

Some recent media reports and correspondence from members of the public contain misunderstandings of the process the City followed, and of the care that was taken to protect the individual and property rights of the persons experiencing homelessness staying in Heartside Park. The following information is provided to clarify these misunderstandings:

Voluntary Compliance

The Public Safety departments have prioritized education over enforcement. No tickets have been issued or arrests made in our efforts to address unsafe conditions in the park.

During the initial 24 hours, the vast majority of individuals staying in the park, vacated of their own accord and sought alternative arrangements. Over the next 36 hours, City staff, including support from the Homeless Outreach Team and community partners, worked with those individuals that remained in the park to help assess their circumstances and find relocation solutions, none of which required GRPD to take enforcement action. This compassionate, person-centered approach ensured the unique individual needs of those experiencing homelessness were accounted for while preventing criminalization.

CDC Guidelines

The health and safety of the individuals experiencing homelessness in our community is a high priority for the City. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines acknowledge that "Outdoor settings may allow people to increase physical distance between themselves and others. However, sleeping outdoors often does not provide protection from the environment, adequate access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, or connection to services and healthcare. The balance of risks should be considered for each individual experiencing unsheltered homelessness."

The City took into consideration a variety of risks associated with living in the encampment at Heartside Park, including COVID-19, the significant health risks identified by KCHD, and increasingly cold weather. After working with our community partners to ensure there were safe, healthy, and warm options consistent the latest CDC and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines for sheltering - including isolation facilities for those that test positive for COVID-19 - we made the determination that the encampment had devolved to the point of being dangerous and we could no longer allow individuals to reside in those conditions.

Personal Property

City staff and police officers, with support from the Homeless Outreach Team, spoke with individuals regarding personal items. Storage for personal belongings was made available by Mel Trotter Ministries. Only unclaimed items and those items individuals wished to discard were removed by City employees and contractors. Several unclaimed tents and associated items were relocated to a separate City location where they are being stored and may be claimed during the subsequent 30 days.

These topics also were raised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a letter to the Mayor, City Commissioners, and City Manager dated December 19. The City Attorney responded to the ACLU in a letter dated December 22 in which she noted the City's compliance with applicable legal requirements.

Housing and Homelessness Initiatives

The City continues to prioritize a wide range of initiatives to increase housing availability and reduce the incidence of homelessness in the City of Grand Rapids. In addition to continuation and expansion of the Homeless Outreach Team, the following new and previously in-process initiatives were shared with the City Commission and general public in a memorandum from the City Manager on December 10:

Fiscal Year 2021 New Investments
1. Eviction Prevention Program
  • Support a dedicated Benefits Specialist from the Department $66,700* of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to administer the eviction prevention program. (cost includes coverage for October 2020 - September 2021)
2. Additional Funding for Housing Assistance
  • Through the Economic Resiliency and Recovery Work Group, consider opportunities for programing of the remaining $1 million in CDBG-CV3 in the third quarter of FY2021 based on feedback from initial investments.
Some portion of $1,120,648 CDBG - CV3 award
3. Winter Homeless Shelters
  • Winter homeless shelter 5-month lease cost

*These investments were approved by the City Commission as part of the December 15, 2020 budget amendment.

Fiscal Year 2021 Existing Plans and Work
Aligned with Consensus Priority Topics
1. Operate the Homeless Outreach Team
  • $500,000 allocated for FY21.
  • 4 Police and Fire personnel along with contractual work from Network 180 from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week.
  • HOT visits 15 or more locations throughout the city each week, making contact with persons experiencing homelessness at approximately 80% of the site visits.
  • Sites with higher need are visited multiple times in a week.
  • HOT has provided direct action on abuse and crimes committed against people experiencing homelessness.
In Progress
  • 45 temporary and permanent housing solutions provided in partnership with Community Rebuilders and Geographically Targeted Housing Outreach Initiative.
In Progress
  • Pilot alternative response strategies by July 2021.
2. Eviction Prevention
  • This 3-year program launched in Jan. 2018 and will end Dec. 31, 2020.
In Progress
  • The 2020 report is not yet available. 2019 highlights included 334 households screened with 100 receiving assistance; 69% served had children; 70% were African American households; 73.4% of eviction court cases were from 49503, 49507 and 49504; nearly 52% cited employment instability; 92% of respondents achieved some form of housing stability and 82% remained in the same unit.
In Progress
  • 227 signed writs in 61 st District Court for 2020 as of November 10, 2020.
Completed and In Progress
3. Affordable Housing Fund
  • $250,000 invested in La Lucha to support rent and mortgage assistance.
  • Working to refine the role of the Housing Fund and coordinate with existing funding sources within the City and broader community (HOME, CDBG, philanthropy, etc.).
In Progress
  • In addition to the $250,000 invested in La Lucha, funds totaling approximately $878,000 have been reserved as an initial capital investment in the Property Management Fund and Grants Fund that can be augmented by other potential sources of funding such as two-thirds of PILOT payments, first-year income tax from City-incentivized housing developments, possible proceeds from land divestments, and philanthropic investments.
In Progress
  • Designate a fund and fiduciary as well as establish a board.
In Progress
4. Homeownership Support
  • In partnership with Ml Land Bank Authority, 60 parcels have been released for development. Priorities are households earning 80% AMI or less and renters earning 60% AMI or less.
In Progress
  • Researching designs and pricing for two-family buildings to reduce barriers to small-scale development.
In Progress
  • $4.66 million invested in FY 2021 from CDBG, HOME and ESG to increase supply of affordable housing, improve existing housing, reduce blight and code violations, increase access to and stability of affordable housing, and reduce and prevent homelessness.
In Progress
  • $3.32 million invested in FY 2021 from ERRIS for housing security, housing support services and housing resiliency, including $1.5 million contract with Community Rebuilders to find shelter for persons experiencing homelessness on Monroe Center and downtown.
In Progress
  • Housing Next contracted for work that will help preserve affordable housing, support rental assistance and promote development that does not displace existing residents:
  • Direct outreach to owners of existing affordable housing to preserve units.
  • Collaboration with for-profit and non-profit developers to pursue new development that does not displace existing residents.
  • Work on community education/communication, supply at all price points, and a public property disposition strategy.
In Progress
  • Continuing Community Development Homebuyer Assistance Program (HAP).
In Progress
5. Zoning Updates
  • Planning Commission has recommended a proposed zoning amendment which would allow for residential units on the ground floor of TBA and C zoning districts when not located on primary street frontages.
In Progress
  • This includes 2,672 parcels in the TBA zone districts and 822 parcels in the Commercial zone districts.
In Progress


Anita Hitchcock, City Attorney
Eric Delong, Deputy City Manager
Eric Payne, Chief of Police
John Lehman, Fire Chief
Connie Bohatch, Managing Director of Community Services
David Marquardt, Director of Parks and Recreation
Louis Canfield, Chief of Staff