The eviction of the homeless community in Grand Rapids' Heartside Park last December angered many members of the public. Outrage is the intuitive and correct response, of course, to the cruel removal of people from what little homes they have. Even more heartless is the fact that this was done only four days before Christmas, when all people should be able to relax and enjoy whatever stability they have.
Our homeless neighbors are often overlooked. In the past 18 months of uncertainty from a deadly global pandemic, not everyone has had a place to safely rest their heads at night. The city of Grand Rapids should allow the formation of a sanctioned area where the homeless may set up tents and have a stable place to rest. A quick Google search shows that there are plenty of empty lots for sale in the greater Grand Rapids area, any of these will do. Not only would having a sanctioned, legal tent city provide some much-needed stability for our community's least privileged, it would also lessen the number of tents and people sleeping on the street everywhere else. This will satisfy our less compassionate neighbors - ahem, right-wing evangelical conservatives - who dislike the eyesore that is the crisis of homelessness.
As Grand Rapids citizens, I think we've all noticed the increasing number of shelter-less people on the streets. Affordable housing is only harder and harder to find. This is a very large problem that requires a very large solution. Tent cities are not the solution. They can, however, be a transitory answer for people to find stability, healthcare, and some peace of mind. The number of people who need these things continues to grow alongside the economic impact of the pandemic.
Legally allowable areas for homeless encampments aren't a new idea. There is a camp in Austin, Texas named Esperanza Community, which with the support of a nonprofit, the camp operates like a transitional neighborhood. Community members have access so social work, case management, and even on-site showers. They feel safer from COVID in their tents and outdoors than they would in a homeless shelter. They've even established their own leadership committee to help resolve conflicts between residents. For the less-fortunate individuals in Austin, this neighborhood works.
We have a greater demand for affordable housing in Grand Rapids than supply. Even the available housing is often cost-prohibitive for families most in need. We must sanction a piece of land and pay for phone-charging and warming tents throughout. We must ensure that people have access to the medical and social support that they need.
Housing insecurity is scary. Much of the homeless population has mental health issues and/or substance use disorders. Any amount of stability in their living situations will only help them grow and move forward. It's hard to keep in contact with a therapist if you're sleeping in East Town one night and on Monroe the next. It's hard to see your doctor if/when you start to experience COVID symptoms if you lost your insurance card when the city evicted you and confiscated your tent. When they confiscated your home. When they confiscated possibly every belonging you have.
"But we would be enabling a lack of initiative if we allowed this!"
"But who's going to pay for this?!"
"What's next, free healthcare?"
The arguments against supporting the homeless population in this way are weak. It's cheaper to fund preventative and supportive measures than it is to respond when problems get out of hand. Harm-reduction does not enable unwanted behavior, it supports individuals and creates an environment in which lives can improve.
Folx, we all are part of our community. All of us, you, me, and the woman sobbing as the city forces her out of the small home that she made at Heartside Park. The global pandemic highlighted the need for support and cleaner living conditions for the homeless, but the fact is, they always need those things. It is our responsibility, our moral imperative, to do what we can to ensure that each member of our community receives support and basic respect. We will move in the right direction when we allow those in the homeless community to set up their tents in a legally sanctioned and socially supported space. It's a matter of basic human rights.
Let's do better for each other. Let's be better.