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Dégagé Ministries. That name sounds like salvation to some individuals. To others, that name can invoke feelings of animosity. Dégagé has been a source of contention among many in the Heartside neighborhood. The purpose of this piece is to show the positive and negative effects that Dégagé has on the neighborhood.
Dégagé is a nonprofit Christian ministry that provides a variety of services and tangible items to impoverished individuals. Dégagé provides these services in an effort to raise individuals to a level where they can obtain employment and financial self-sufficiency. Although Dégagé does not hand anything out, if you are unable to pay, you can be placed on a work crew and be rewarded with clothing and hygiene items or food vouchers. Dégagé is not a shelter. The only individuals permitted to stay overnight are a small group of women for safety reasons; they risk being sexually assaulted while staying on the streets. Dégagé offers food donated by places such as Grand Rapids Community College, Gordon Food Centers and Bobby J’s. The rates are extremely reasonable and the food is of good quality. Where else in the city are you going to receive a massive double bovine and cheese combo with fries for two dollars? Dégagé also offers other ancillary services like: resume writing, law issues, rehabilitation assistance, hygiene services, laundry services and counseling for numerous needs. There are many individuals who have received services from Dégagé and gone on to live productive lives.
There are a few positive results Dégagé lends to the Heartside Neighborhood, which is becoming home to many artists and specialty shops. The businesses in the neighborhood are not owned by corporations but residents of the city. These small businesses exist and compete in downtown because the rental rates are low in the area. Due to the numerous homeless shelters in the area, property values are low.
This dip in property values has created an incubator for small businesses and contributes to the wave of progressivism. Since we have not reached a level where the patrons respect the local properties yet, some people believe that if Dégagé and all the shelters closed tomorrow, Heartside would be saved.
However, Dégagé and the local shelters keep the patrons in a centralized loitering area. Although none of the charitable organizations have enough money to hire more staff to end loitering in front of their buildings, for the most part, they are able to keep the patrons away from local businesses. If Degage and the shelters closed tomorrow, there would be patrons sleeping in every alcoves and business front in Heartside. The police would not control the situation and anybody trying to leave or enter Heartside would have to walk through a gauntlet of patrons asking for money or using foul language to threaten and intimidate the local merchants.
Dégagé also attracts gang members from Eastern and Jefferson. The gang members are not homeless. They are attracted to the shelters because many of the patrons have substance abuse issues and it is easy to exploit people down on their luck. These individuals walk up and down Division Avenue between Wealthy and Oakes with concealed sacks of crack-cocaine and pistols that they will not hesitate to pull. They sit in front of Degage and other buildings selling narcotics like clockwork.
Along with the sale of narcotics the gang members also extort homeless veterans (they make up the majority of all Dégagé patrons) every first of the month when they collect their check at the homeless veteran’s office on Wealthy and Division. The patrons who are threatened with bodily harm have no one to go to for help, so they usually inform Dégagé staff. Gang members profit because if they only terrorize the less fortunate and leave the local merchants, hipsters and artists alone, the police do nothing to stop it.
Heartside keeps attracting more local startups, and the progressive movement is strong in the neighborhood. Buildings are being constructed, rehabbed, and businesses are sprouting up and down Division. Urban renewal is pushing up property values. Eventually the ministries and missions that call Heartside home will close because the increasing property values will yield higher rent. The community can help the Heartside neighborhood by continuing to shop at local businesses, not by handing out money to people who are panhandling.
Disclosure: I went to school at St. Andrew's School and am a long-time community volunteer with different organizations in the Heartside neighborhood, including Dégagé Ministries. I grew up in the inner city, I understand the inner city. I keep my ear to the streets.
Revision: I recieved a letter from Dégagé Ministries that voiced some concerns over the article. Dégagé Ministries has programs enforced within thier organization that strives to deal with issues such as loitering, illegal narcotics trafficing and use, and has hosted many events for different groups of individuals including Veterans. They also were contributers in this years ArtPrize.Degage does all it can within its means to make Heartside Neighborhood a better place.
Degage Ministries owns the building on Cherry & Divison. Some of the buildings down in Heartside are owned by Dwelling Place. These buildings are tax designated as low-income housing. However, there are a majority of buildings down in Heartside that are designated affordable housing. The progresive push will eventually see the phasing out of the local support service organizations.
My name is Michael Tuffelmire. I was born and raised in downtown Grand Rapids. I am a father, decorated veteran and community advocate on issues of community violence, smarter government, and neighborhood revitalization. I am a community organizer and Aquinas graduate with a Masters of Management. I am set to graduate from Aquinas with my Masters of Sustainable Business in 2014. I have been writing for the Rapidian since its infancy in October 2009 and received the 2010 Volunteer of the Year award from the Community Media Center for my writing – an honor for which I am extremely proud. My hobbies include bicycling, camping, paddling, historic preservation, travel, reading, and enjoying the sights and sounds of the city.
Reports on: Inner-city neighborhoods,progresive urban issues, local politics, environmental issues, local events