City adopts two ordinances to maintain safe public spaces for all

Published on July 25, 2023

City seal on the wall of the City Commission Chambers

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The Grand Rapids City Commission this evening adopted two ordinances designed to maintain safe public spaces for all. City staff considered relevant law and constitutional considerations and comments made at the public hearing prior to presenting the proposed ordinance changes for City Commission final consideration.

In one ordinance, the Commission amended the city code to prohibit loitering in public or private buildings after being asked by the owner or representative to leave, or in doorways in a manner that blocks the functioning of the door or entry. The same ordinance prevents repeated contact with a person while engaged in commercial or other transactions in a way that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened or intimidated. The penalty for violating this ordinance remains unchanged and has been established as a misdemeanor which is typically enforced by the Grand Rapids Police Department.

Specifically, this ordinance:

  • Adds definitions of “loitering” and “accost”
    • “loitering” means lingering or hanging around in a public area without any apparent purpose for being there.  Loitering includes, but is not limited to, intentionally blocking or interfering with others’ ability to safely use public spaces and rights-of-way
    • “accost” means repeated nonconsensual conduct directed to another person in such a manner as would cause a reasonable person to feel harassed or intimidated or that a commission of a criminal act was about to occur
  • Prohibits loitering in public buildings or private premises, or within doorways
  • Prohibits accosting another person while
  • Operating an ATM
  • In any public transportation vehicle or stop
  • In any outdoor dining area or outdoor food/beverage space
  • At special events

A second ordinance focuses on providing clarity and rules around personal property being stored in public rights of way and on other public property. The City has engaged in efforts to work with unhoused individuals with large amounts of personal property to ensure that property can be safety stored and accessed, without blocking streets, sidewalks, doorways and enjoyment of parks space. The changes approved by the Commission tonight will make those rules very clear, defining the acceptable amount of property that can be kept in public places at any given time, as well as providing for a clear process for impounding property in violation of the rules. City staff will make efforts to seek voluntary compliance in implementing these changes. If voluntary compliance is not achieved, City staff will coordinate the appropriate civil enforcement strategies on a case-by-case basis.

Specifically, this ordinance:

  • Improves protocols around identifying and. storing personal property
  • Adds definitions around property, excess property, essential property, storage, etc.
  • Prohibits storage of unattended or excess personal property on public property, including rights of way and parks
  • Allows the City to impound, with or without prior notice, depending on situation, personal property
  • Requires storage and an opportunity to reclaim impounded property
  • Aligns with and strengthens, current efforts to manage property in public places

Both ordinances will go into effect in 30 days.

“I believe this is a balanced approach that is narrowly focused to address the concerns that we continue to hear. It is also coupled with our ongoing efforts to improve the system that we know needs to achieve better outcomes for individuals experiencing homelessness,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said.

“Our City’s objective in developing these new ordinances was to clarify rules and expectations around the use of public spaces, not to criminalize the unhoused,” she continued. “When rules are clear, we have greater success in working with people who are enjoying our public spaces to use them in a way that respects all users’ ability to enjoy clean, safe facilities and spaces. Again, our intent with these ordinances is to clarify rules and in implementation, to seek voluntary compliance.”

City Manager Mark Washington added, “The ordinances approved by the City Commission today better define some previously undefined conduct. The changes made by the City Commission give City staff clear policy direction, embed due process and other constitutional considerations into our City operations to ensure overall public safety. The City of Grand Rapids remains committed to housing-first solution-based collaboration related to the regional housing issues and other public safety concerns.”

These actions were the most recent in a series of measures and investments intended to address persistent concerns around public health and safety. In late 2022, concerns about increased nuisance behaviors downtown prompted calls for additional City response, including increasing patrols and additional ordinances prohibiting certain behavior. The Commission referred the topic to the Public Safety Committee for further review. The Public Safety committee received feedback about nuisance behaviors, particularly in and around downtown, and heard from the public general concerns on behalf of unhoused persons. Those advocates expressed concerns about the unhoused’s exposure to cold weather and other hazards, as well as unmet mental and behavioral health needs.

The new ordinances are just a small part of the City’s overall approach to meeting the needs of the community with respect to health and safety, and to meet the needs of the unhoused.  The City has increased investment, either financial resources or staff time, or both, in a variety of other initiatives:

Support for more housing resources:

  • City’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget includes more than $9 million in investments in affordable housing, street outreach, homelessness prevention, eviction prevention, rapid rehousing and other housing stability supportive services
  • In June the Commission approved an additional Rapid Rehousing investment of $500,000 above what was adopted in the FY24 budget, with other community partners anticipated to add to that investment

Support for additional supportive services and system improvements:

  • The City’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), homeless outreach coordinator and Community Development staff all support community services and programs designed to address affordable housing need and stability services
  • Contracts with Network 180 provide mental health professionals to work in co-response teams with HOT and with GRPD
  • A commitment to align street outreach efforts around a Housing First approach with transparency and accountability
  • Focused effort on housing readiness by partnering to expand a “fusion center” at Crossroads Bible Church
  • Participation in the regional Continuum of Care and Housing Kent – both leading broad system improvements ensuring that gaps in the community safety net around housing and housing stability are quantified and filled
  • Funding for personal property storage at a downtown location in partnership with Mel Trotter

Additional efforts:

  • Pro-active cleaning program in specific corridors, parks and parking ramps
  • Coordinated complaint referrals for public health issues through 311
  • Additional investment in private security with partners downtown and in City parks
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