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City Outlines Systematic Approach to Improve Health and Safety Downtown and in Neighborhoods

At last week’s Public Safety Committee, City administrators outlined the City’s efforts in investing in facilities and services to address housing instability, as well as its approach to enforcement of existing ordinances that address recent comments about health and safety in downtown Grand Rapids and its neighborhoods. The staff committed to monitoring the focused approach on these initiatives as well as to future engagements with the City Commission and Public Safety Committee around what additional investments and actions may be needed to accomplish lasting change.

The measures outlined by Deputy City Manager Kate Berens, Police Chief Eric Winstrom and Fire Chief John Lehman use city personnel, the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), mental health providers and many provisions of the current City Code to address recent concerns. With the weather turning colder, the policy uses a systematic approach to improve the health of the unhoused by encouraging entrance into temporary shelter, permanent stable housing and access to supportive services.

Grand Rapids “Safe Community” Strategy

The City’s “Safe Community” strategic priority is to make sure all people feel safe and are safe at all times throughout our community. That strategy continues being implemented across the community and includes:

  • Continued funding for homeless service and shelter providers.
  • Allocating funding and support for the Affordable Housing Fund.
  • Participation in the Continuum of Care, Essential Needs Task Force, Housing Kent and the Housing Stability Alliance and collective community-wide coordination and commitment for ending homelessness.
  • Partnership with Network180 and other social service providers to ensure we address mental and behavioral health issues for the unhoused community.
  • Continuation of the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), first created in 2020.
  • Partnership with Network180 for dedicated Mobile Crisis Response (co-response team) services to support the Police Department in responding to mental health calls.
  • Enhanced focus on downtown public health issues, with the City’s Public Works Department and Homeless Outreach Team partnering to improve responsiveness to sanitation issues.
  • Partnership with Mel Trotter Ministries to operate a storage program to reduce the accumulation of personal belongings outdoors.
  • Partnership with Downtown Grand Rapids Incorporated (DGRI) and others to make environmental design changes in public spaces to increase lighting, visibility and feeling of safety.
  • Partnership with DGRI and independent City efforts to increase private security in and around Monroe Center and downtown parks during key events and times of the year.
  • Partnership with DGRI led to the installation of a stand-alone, 24/7, year-round public restroom at Division and Weston.
  • Improvements in Heartside Park that will include year-round public restroom facilities and recently approved upgrades to Veteran’s Park historic building that will include public restrooms.
  • Funding for, and deployment of, public safety camera trailers at key times, locations and events.

In recent months, reports of problematic situations and behaviors downtown have continued with calls for additional City response. In addition, general concerns on behalf of unhoused persons have included exposure to cold weather and other hazards, as well as unmet mental and behavioral health needs. Specific behavioral concerns related to downtown safety that have been expressed to the City Commission include various health and sanitation issues, aggressive threatening behavior, sleeping in public and private places, public intoxication, assault, trespassing and littering.

After hearing directly from the public, City Commission indicated an overwhelming desire to utilize existing codes and ordinances to address recent concerns instead of creating new ordinance provisions to prohibit panhandling and siting and lying in public spaces. Following up, City Manager Mark Washington has directed City staff to use existing ordinances and resources, consistent with applicable state and federal statutes and case law, to respond, monitor, de-escalate, and – where necessary – take other enforcement actions against violations that threaten public health and safety.

“During the pandemic, the City deprioritized non-violent misdemeanor offenses to reduce COVID exposures which coincided with a higher demand for critical resources that delayed response to some of the issues being identified,” Washington said. “We are still deprioritizing non-violent offenses but now are prepared to resume more normal operations and redeploy our resources to address the more violent and criminal acts in key locations throughout the city. But let me be clear, we will not arrest our way out of homelessness and need more holistic approaches.”

Washington said more permanent supportive affordable housing supply is the key to resolving this issue.

“We have many emergency overnight shelters with approximately 1,000 beds but during the day many of those in shelters have limited places to go,” he said. “We need to rethink approaches and how we shelter individuals especially in cold weather months while seeking low barrier solutions.

Washington expressed that, while there are a number of initiatives working in the community around these issues, “It is time to assess the progress made and identify ways to increase collaboration and effectiveness. As a first step towards this, I plan to have City staff return to the City Commission and the Public Safety Committee in the new year with an overview of current communitywide initiatives intended to improve outcomes for people that are unhoused, including plans for public engagement to address many of these housing, health and safety issues. I am also encouraged by the Affordable Housing Fund Board’s recent decision to launch a request for proposal process in the first quarter of 2023 that will award up to $6 million to support various affordable housing projects.”

Current City Ordinances

The following are a list of current ordinances, policies and provisions that are available to City staff to address the health and safety concerns downtown.

Chapter 152 “Disorderly Conduct” of the City Code includes multiple provisions that regulate many of the reported types of problematic behaviors. They are as follows:

Section Offenses
9.132(1) Commit an assault or battery upon another person
9.132(2) Molest another person
9.132(4) Willfully obstruct free or uninterrupted passage in any street, on any sidewalk, in any public place or in any other place to which the public is admitted
9.133(1) Trespass upon the premises of another or unlawfully remain upon the premises of another to the annoyance or disturbance of the lawful occupants
9.133(2) Prowl about the premises of any other person in the nighttime without authority or the permission of the owner of such premises
9.133(3) Lurk, lie in wait or be concealed in any business, yard or other premises with intent to commit any crime or offense whatsoever
9.133(4) Willfully, wantonly or recklessly damage, destroy, alter or deface public property or the property of any other person
9.133(5) Take or remove or attempt to take or remove any property not his or her own
9.133(6) Obtain goods or money by fraud, trick or under false pretenses
9.133(7) Meddle with, tamper with, interfere with, move, damage or disconnect any property not his or her own
9.133 Willfully, wantonly or recklessly damage, destroy, alter or deface public property or the property of any other person
9.133(9) Expectorate, urinate, defecate or perform any other act which creates a hazardous or deleterious condition in any public place or upon the property of any other person. (This section shall not apply to public restroom facilities.)
9.134(1) Be in a state of intoxication in a public place endangering directly the safety of another person or property
9.134(2) Be in a state of intoxication in any public place in a manner that causes a public disturbance
9.136(1) Engage in peeping in the windows of any inhabited place
9.136(2) Make an indecent exposure of his or her person
9.136(5) Loiter in any public building or in any other building or premises owned by another person after having been requested to leave by the lawful owner or occupant or a representative of the owner or occupant
9.137(1) Create or engage in any disturbance, fight or quarrel in a public place

 

Other existing code references relevant to the reported problematic behaviors include the following:

Section Offenses
Michigan Vehicle Code
257.676b (1) A person, without authority, shall not block, obstruct, impede, or otherwise interfere with the normal flow of vehicular, streetcar, or pedestrian traffic upon a public street or highway in this state, by means of a barricade, object, or device, or with his or her person…. (4) A person who violates this section is responsible for a civil infraction.
International Fire Code
1003.6 Obstructions shall not be placed in the minimum width or require capacity of a means of egress component (such as a doorway)
City Code, Chapter 25 “Solid Waste Management”
2.6 Litter and Accumulation – No person shall throw or deposit any Garbage or Rubbish upon or into any street, alley or other property, public or private. It shall be the duty of every occupant of property and of every owner of unoccupied property at all times to maintain the Premises occupied or owned by him or her, in a clean and orderly condition, permitting no deposit or accumulation of Garbage or Rubbish upon such Premises.
City Code, Chapter 41 “Parks and Recreation”
3.8 It shall be unlawful for any person, except those persons authorized by the Director of Parks and Recreation, to enter, be in or remain within the public parks after sunset on one day or before sunrise on the following day
3.14 No person shall start, accelerate, furnish fuel to or approach an open fire in any public park (does not apply to cooking food in a grill)
3.24 No person shall consume, possess, or bring into any City Park or other area under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Department any beer, wine, liquor, malt or any other alcoholic beverage (unless permitted by the Director in designated locations)
3.25 No person shall camp, conduct or participate in an overnight outing or any similar activities in a City Park or other area under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Department. The use of tents, trailers, motor homes is not permitted in City Parks.
City Code, Chapter 151 “Nuisances”
9.92 No person shall throw or deposit litter in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public place within the City except in public receptacles
9.98 No person shall throw or deposit litter in any park within the City except in public receptacles
9.108 Personal property of any kind, including but not limited to personal belongings, interior furnishings and equipment, shall be deemed to be abandoned, of no value and unlawful if placed at or left for more than twenty-four (24) hours on any public right-of-way or on any part of a property lying between the principal building and a public right-of-way, except as specifically permitted

 

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