GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Tents lined alongside the fence at Heartside Park in Grand Rapids show just a part of the homelessness issue in the city.
“We go as far south as 29th Street where we’ve discovered camps and people down there, and as far north as Ball, Perkins, and beyond,” said Capt. Michael Waldron.
Waldron is a 17-year member of the Grand Rapids Fire Department who is now part of the city’s “Homeless Outreach Team.”
The group formed in the spring, originally to educate people experiencing homelessness on the coronavirus, but its goal now is to bring the resources they need to them.
“We have more than a handful of people that we don’t see anymore because they’re in apartments, or now they’re in housing, or now they’ve gotten the help they need,” said Waldron.
“There are so many struggles as far as having to go to an office to get the work done,” said Waldron. “That’s actually having to leave all their stuff behind when they go that day or they have to carry all their stuff with them. Making contact on the phone, as you know, especially during the pandemic, the lines on the phone get longer, and longer, and longer, and the phones that they have have limited minutes, or they’ll be borrowing phones, so we’re able to bring the services right to the street and put them in touch with the services, it makes all the difference.”
Including Waldron, eight people make up the team. Two of each from the city’s fire and police departments, plus mental health specialists and addiction coaches from Network 180. However, that number could soon grow to 10 people.
Tuesday the Grand Rapids City Commission’s fiscal committee will vote whether to appropriate $138,000 from CARES Act funding to add another firefighters and police officer to the group.
“The way that we can create a more robust team, almost every single day of the week, is by the addition of these two people,” said Grand Rapids Fire Chief John Lehman.
Lehman says the expansion allows for a full team Monday through Saturday until June. While the team currently operates six days a week, Lehman says for four of those days, HOT works with only half its members.
The committee will also consider using $798,500 to pay for police and fire overtime costs given each departments involvement in the program.
Lehman believes it’s worth the investment.
“To have a fully functioning team, [it] would definitely improve our ability to create better outcomes to contact more people, to provide better services, and to to really make this team something that's responding to the need out there in the community,” said Lehman.
If the budget ordinance is approved by the fiscal committee, the city commission will vote on it during their meeting Tuesday night.