City update on work to improve public health and safety downtown

Published on February 14, 2023

Deputy City Manager Kate Berens provides an update to the Public Safety Committee.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – City administrators and housing advocates recently provided an update to the City Commission’s Public Safety Committee (PSC) on their increased efforts to address health and safety issues in downtown Grand Rapids and its neighborhoods. At the February 7 meeting, housing advocates also provided a briefing about breadth of community resources that are dedicated to the unhoused and how each works collaboratively to ensure that homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.

The updates contained information on what has been accomplished since a variety of community voices requested more focus on assisting the homeless and increasing patrols downtown to alleviate nuisance activities. In recent months, reports of problematic situations and behaviors downtown prompted calls for additional City response. In addition, general concerns on behalf of unhoused persons have included exposure to cold weather and other hazards, as well as unmet mental and behavioral health needs. Specific behavioral concerns related to downtown safety included various health and sanitation issues, aggressive threatening behavior, sleeping in public and private places, public intoxication, assault, trespassing and littering.

After hearing directly from the public, City Commission indicated an overwhelming desire to utilize existing codes and ordinances to address recent concerns instead of creating new ordinance provisions to prohibit panhandling and siting and lying in public spaces. Following up, City Manager Mark Washington directed City staff to use existing ordinances and resources, consistent with applicable state and federal statutes and case law, to respond, monitor, de-escalate, and – where necessary – take other enforcement actions against violations that threaten public health and safety.

Police Chief Eric Winstrom spoke to the measures his department took in response to requests for service in the downtown area. Although the department really didn’t see a violent crime up-tick downtown, it did deploy some officers to be more present in the central business district to reach out to businesses and perform foot patrols in response to a few incidents and complaints of disorderly behavior.

The department deployed officers downtown from November 23 through January 19 and during that period, officers made contact 136 times with businesses downtown – simply by going in introducing themselves to the business staff, asking if they have any specific concerns and making those personal connections. During that period, it also issued 50 citations and made 52 arrests.

“I’ll say it again my number one priority is going to be addressing violent crime in the city,” Chief Winstrom told the members of the Public Safety Committee, “so if we’re seeing spikes in violent crime, that’s where we’re going to deploy extra patrols. I want to make sure that you know we set the tone during our patrols that illegal behavior is not going to be tolerated downtown or, for that matter, anywhere else in the city.”

Deputy City Manager Kate Berens continued the briefing by informing PSC members that the City assembled its interdepartmental team responsible for various ordinances throughout the city to look at the issues facing downtown and city neighborhoods. The collaborative team includes members of city management, police department, fire department, code compliance, community services and other departments that are part of this effort.

The team committed to continuing to use code enforcement and the fire marshal where appropriate to address some of the nuisance issues. It also committed to continuing to meet with community partners to talk about supportive services and resources that it can bring to bear to the situation.

Berens said that the City has restarted public education – particularly around who to call for assistance ­– and did commit to provide additional information to the City Commission and the Public Safety Committee. In addition, she announced community engagement opportunities being planned that the City will unveil in the coming weeks.

During her broad overview of the history of homelessness response, particularly amongst private partners and the city government and other agencies, Berens said the City is continuing to look at other ways that it can provide some permanence to some of the solutions.

“For example,” she said, “we heard quite a bit about public health and cleanliness issues. The City and its partners at Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., are exploring whether there are ways to expand the ambassador program and other services that can help. The City is also reaching out to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) for access to those rights of way that they control within the city of Grand Rapids to see whether we can partner on cleaning initiatives in those areas.”

She explained to the Public Safety Committee that the lack of housing – at all levels – is one of the root causes of homelessness, but told the committee, that the City does have other efforts underway to help alleviate homelessness. She noted that the City recently issued a request for proposals (RFP) through its affordable housing fund board for $5 million of investment in unit creation or supportive services.

The City continues to address encampments that it finds on public property or private property, where it has authorization to do so. Berens said that, as of January 24, the City had addressed and removed six of those. Eight additional sites were also being scheduled for removal.

“I want to stress that our approach to encampments does involve notice and an opportunity to relocate anyone who may be using those encampments before they're cleaned up,” Berens said. “We have a protocol that we follow to ensure that people have a place to go and are aware of that.”

“The City is committed to picking up property that is left behind and storing it appropriately. We have also been proactively cleaning in some of our corridors where there is an accumulation of trash and property and making sure that we’re staying on top of that.

“Finally,” she said, “We are again continuing to refine our communication amongst departments that have boots on the ground daily to improve our service to the community. We're not 100 percent there yet, but we're working on that system.”

Courtney Myers-Keaton, director at Kent County Continuum of Care, and Eureka People, president of Housing Kent both provided an update on the community’s systematic approach to improve the health of the unhoused by encouraging entrance into temporary shelter, permanent stable housing and access to supportive services. That presentation about each’s efforts can be viewed HERE.


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