Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen said the area, directly across from the new downtown market, is where the homeless have found shelter for years and that people have been leaving behind their food, garbage and even dirty syringes.
“This area was basically impassable for people who would walk on it,” Talen said. “I don’t know how to describe it except to say I wouldn’t feel safe walking through here without boots on.”
Talen even pointed out a burn mark that was left on the sidewalk where he said a piece of carpet was set on fire.
On Friday, the Michigan Department of Transportation fenced off the property near the top of the bridge where people were staying, a move they’ve done in the past.
“There’s an area along the S-curve, 131 and Wealthy Street and then also on West River Drive,” M-DOT representative John Richard said.
Approaching the problem from this angle isn’t just something happening in West Michigan.
“This is kind of a procedure they do all over the state,” Talen said. “The issue is, can they do it in conjunction with local service providers to make sure the people that are displaced likes this are finding other housing?”
Robert Stahl has been homeless for roughly a month and is one of the people who lived under the bridge.
“I was right up there in that corner for about a week,” Stahl said. “They said we had three days to get out of here so we all left.”
Stahl also said he agrees with the choice made to fence off the area.
“I think it was an excellent choice. I’ve seen several issues. I’ve seen carpet burning on the sidewalk, I’ve seen abandoned cars here for two, three weeks,” he said.
And although Ionia Street beneath the bridge is back to being walkable, Jesica Vail with the Coalition to End Homelessness said there’s a much bigger issue out there.
“The heart of it, is that no one should have to live outside,” she said.
Vail went on to say that M-DOT is working with the coalition to seek out those living on the streets and offer them help.
“You can fence this off, but what we really need to do is address that as a community concern about housing,” Talen said.