GRAND RAPIDS, MI – About 50 to 100 people experiencing homelessness have found shelter in tents pitched at Heartside Park.
A farm worker, a woman kicked out by her parents for being transgender, a self-described “gourmet chef” and a young couple were among those homeless and temporarily living in the city park.
The encampment and rising rates of homelessness prompted the development of an emergency shelter at the Purple East building, 250 Ionia Ave. SW, in the Heartside Neighborhood. According to shelter officials, the coronavirus pandemic has increased homelessness in Grand Rapids and other areas.
On Tuesday afternoon, people were scattered throughout Heartside Park — a narrow strip of green space between Ionia Avenue SW and U.S. 131. Some groups were gathered around picnic tables, and a couple of people collected around a fire pit to eat their lunch.
The “chili man” had just stopped by and dropped off some hot meals. That happens “all the time,” Ralph Rinvil said.
Rinvil moved to Michigan in the summer to work on farms. He’s been living in the park for two months.
“It’s too cool for me,” he said.
A couple dozen tents are set up along the fence in the park with small touches like a Christmas tree and an American flag stuck in the ground. One of the tents belongs to Ann Maxlow, a Grand Rapids native who’s been living in the park for about a year and a half.
“It’s freezing. It’s really thin. Rain gets in there. Snow gets in there. It’s just really horrible. And it’s freezing. It’s just a nightmare,” Maxlow said. “We could really use some help, a place to stay.”
Mel Trotter Ministries, Guiding Light, the city of Grand Rapids and Kris Elliot, the owner of the Purple East building, worked together to develop the emergency shelter to meet the increasing demand in Grand Rapids. COVID-19 restrictions have limited the capacity of Mel Trotter, and the temporary shelter can house up to 100 people a night.
The Purple East facility will house men and women, but most of the beds will be for men.
“We just know that the male population is higher in the park,” said Dennis Van Kampen, the president and CEO of Mel Trotter.
The city of Grand Rapids said the emergency shelter is one way to help people experiencing homelessness. They allocated $2 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to support these efforts, which includes $165,000 to support renting the Purple East building for five months.
The approaching winter weather and the impact of COVID-19 have created “a lot more need and a lot more people that are staying outside,” according to Van Kampen.
“COVID has only escalated the number of people entering homelessness. And when you combine that with the fact that due to social distancing, we can’t house as many people in the shelter as we could normally,” Van Kampen said.
Even with the facility set to open by the end of the week, one couple said they don’t want to separate in order to stay in the shelter.
Anna Mateo lives in the park with her boyfriend, Justice Harper. The two having been dating for nearly a year.
“A lot of us are out here because we want to be with our significant others,” said Mateo.
The Purple East facility is not the best suited for couples, said Van Kampen. But the organization is figuring out how to house couples at their main shelter on 225 Commerce Ave. SW by utilizing some of their family rooms.
Mateo and Harper plan to continue living in the park unless they’re able to secure a spot in a shelter together.
“It’s a lot of community that comes around,” Mateo said about the encampment. “We get along.”
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