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Emergency shelter to open in downtown Grand Rapids as tent encampment grows

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Tents lined up in Heartside Park in Grand Rapids on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.

A new emergency shelter will soon open in downtown Grand Rapids, with up to 100 beds.

The shelter will be in an old retail space in the Heartside neighborhood downtown. Two existing shelters – Mel Trotter Ministries and Guiding Light, are working together to open up the space, along with the building’s owner.

Dennis Van Kampen, head of Mel Trotter Ministries, says demand for shelter has increased since the start of the pandemic, even as the shelter space has declined.

He says last year, Mel Trotter had space for up to 600 people in its shelter. Now, because of the need for physical distancing, it can only fit 420.

"We have all the resources necessary in West Michigan to make sure that no one has to stay in a tent."

Tent encampments have been popping up throughout the city, including at Heartside Park, which is across the street from the soon-to-be-opened emergency shelter. More than 30 tents were lined up in the park on Tuesday night.

“We have all the resources necessary in West Michigan to make sure that no one has to stay in a tent, and no one has to sleep under a bridge,” Van Kampen says. “So what we need is to come together collectively and have the will to make sure that the resources are available and used in the right way.”

Camping in a city park is not allowed, but the city so far hasn’t stopped the encampment at Heartside Park. Last week, local news station WOOD-TV reported Grand Rapids police were planning to clear the camp as soon as the new emergency shelter opens.

GRPD public information officer Dan Adams wouldn’t confirm those plans in an email with Michigan Radio.

"Plans are ongoing and continuously evolving due to so many factors,” Adams wrote. “The focus of our efforts, as always, is making sure that all community members are safe and healthy.”

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A new emergency homeless shelter with up to 100 beds is expected to open soon in this former retail space in Grand Rapids.

Van Kampen and Stuart Ray, who leads Guiding Light, said they haven’t been informed of any plans to clear the park. Van Kampen said he believes people would be safer indoors.

But Ray says there are worse options than a tent city.

“I would much rather have them in community than scattered in dark alleyways,” Ray says.

Van Kampen and Ray say the new emergency shelter demonstrates that organizations in the city can work together to help make sure people have a place to stay out of the cold. But it won’t be enough to house everyone.

“There’s only so much we can do. We don’t have unlimited resources,” Ray says. “We really need other partners in this.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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