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In this series, I posed as a homeless man living on the streets in Heartside neighborhood from Aug. 15-17. I use the term "patrons" to refer to the homeless men and women in Heartside, derived from their patronage of social services. My friend, Peter, accompanied me in this endeavor. One patron, Justin, served as my guide in Heartside. All names have been changed at the request of the participants.
In spring 2010, I co-authored a series on development in the Heartside neighborhood. The story covered three different viewpoints: the homeless, business and social services perspectives. For this series, my intent was to deepen my understanding of the homeless experience in Heartside. My experience is only a slice of the diversity of homeless life. The following is an account of my first day on Sunday, Aug. 15.
On a beautiful sunny morning, I met my Heartside guide, Justin, at Veterans Park. Justin is a Flint native who worked for a long time in manufacturing. Due to Michigan's economy he was laid off. Now, he takes whatever odd jobs he can find. Justin was one of seven patrons I hired to help clean up at Bikestock, a downtown event I organize annually. When I came to him with this assignment, he was thrilled to be part of it.
Justin fell into alcohol and crack and eventually found himself without a home. He still drinks but has been clean for three years. He has been a patron of social services in the Heartside Neighborhood for over a year. Justin said that he came to Grand Rapids because we take care of our homeless needs better than anywhere in the state.
Justin doesn’t look homeless. He and his friends look clean and have good clothes. Some of them even have cell phones. Many individuals in this city imagine the stereotypical vagabond with patches and tears in his clothes. That is how Peter and I were dressed. We were lying next to Justin, who was sitting on a bench. We wanted people to write us off so they would stay away from us and we could observe.
Justin has a daughter who just graduated from high school and will attend Michigan State University. He keeps a picture of her in his wallet.
“I told her how proud of her I was. I said, 'you do well so you never have to live under a bridge like me,'” Justin exclaimed.
We talked to Justin for a while about his life and the state of homelessness in the city. He detailed the meal schedule--six per day, seven on Sundays--offered at social service institutions in Heartside. He tipped me off about where to get shoes, showers, lockers, counseling, and other necessities in the area. We talked about where the good places to sleep and hang out were.
As Justin drank his 24 ounce can of Steel Reserve malt liquor, he looked around the park to make sure the police were not around.
“Down in Heartside five men can smoke crack in a doorway and the police don’t care, but in Veterans Park they will give you a $200 open container ticket,” Justin said.
If patrons are caught sleeping in public, they are fined $150 or sent to jail. Patrons do not have money to pay these tickets, so the fine increases, making it more impossible for the patron to pay it. It also costs taxpayers a lot of money in an already distraught economy in this state. Every time a ticket is written, it costs the time of a city employee to file and track the fine. As of 2007, it costs an average of $52 a day to house an inmate. The Kent County Jail can only house 1,094 inmates at a time. At the end of a patron's stay, Kent County bills them for the time they spent there.
Justin has been through the criminal justice system before. It has just left him broker and unchanged. He knows he and his friends are breaking the law. Justin and his friends don’t own private property to have a beer on and people are not calling to hang out. They hang out in whatever shade they can find.
Justin had to go pick up some money from a man that had hired him for a job. We agreed upon our next meet up time and Peter and I went exploring.
Peter and I set out. We wanted to see how we could make some money. I only had $4.32 in assorted change and some cigarettes for trading. Neither Peter nor I brought anything on this journey. We had no wallet, cell phone, or ID. We walked around downtown looking in any trash can we could find for bottles or other precious materials. As we looked through trash cans, the people we bumped into gave us dirty looks or walked away from us. Some people completely ignored us. We found only four bottles. Patrons later told me that there are professional can hunters who get a jump on downtown at around 5 a.m. everyday.
As we walked around, other patrons would nod their head at us. On Sunday, there is little for patrons to do. They mostly utilize the parks and green spaces in the city. Most, including us, do not have watches or phones to tell time. Time does not have a place. The only times to care about are meal times.
We arrived at God's Kitchen and met up with Justin and his best friend Ryan. Ryan is also a local patron who helped me with Bikestock and knew of my endeavor.
We ate a large, tasty beef stroganoff meal with side salad and pasta. Meals at the shelters consist mostly of pasta because it is cheap and filling. Ryan, Justin, Peter, and I discussed drugs and where to get them in Heartside. They admit it is very easy.
“If you want to get some crack, just go to down to Heartside Park and talk to the dealers who hang out there on a daily basis,” Justin said.
Drugs are easily obtainable at Pekich Park, located on the corner of cherry and Division, but it is not as abundant. Justin and Ryan have both used crack in their lifetimes. They explained that $5 will get the equivalent of about two hits on a crack pipe. The high is a serotonin rush that does not last long. Twenty dollars will get enough crack to last for a little while longer.
“The drug dealers in this city cook the crack with a lot of baking soda and it turns out to be very low potency. It takes a lot of that crap to get you high,” Justin said.
Peter and I agreed to meet Justin and Ryan at Heartside Park, where they were going to drink in a few hours. I went outside and traded cigarettes for dollar bills. The rate is 50 cents on the dollar in Heartside, or about half of what most things are worth. The typical way cigarettes are sold in Heartside is to place seven of them in a plastic bag and sell each bunch for a dollar. I sold two bunches, becoming two dollars richer. Peter and I went up to Clarks liquor store located on the corner of Madison and State. Most patrons frequent Clarks. We bought a bottle of Red Irish Rose which, is an extremely cheap, high-alcohol wine that is popular among patrons.
We found a cozy spot to drink and take a nap in the doorway of the Division Avenue Arts Collective. We chose the DAAC because after trying out other alcoves on Division, we found it smelled least like urine. The old architecture of the buildings have indented doorways. These doorways are called alcoves. Alcove dwelling is a major complaint amongst business owners in the neighborhood. Business owners have woken up patrons who urinate, defecate, use narcotics and sleep in their doorways. The police are apathetic to the situation. This is exactly how they acted that day as Peter and I sat in the alcove drinking and sleeping. Justin had warned me that the police will not let you sleep in the park but do not mind if you are in the alcoves.
We met up with Ryan and Justin in Heartside Park. When we walked into the park, there were over 30 patrons hanging out or passed out on the grounds. In the gazebo, there were drug dealers helping customers . We met Ryan and Justin on the far side of the hill located on the north side of the park. This is where many patrons go to drink because it is out of sight for the police. We sat and talked for a while and then headed to Dégagé Ministries for the free Sunday meal.
After my meal at Dégagé, we had to find sleeping arrangements. Most men sleep at Guiding Light and Mel Trotter while a smaller group of women live at Dégagé. Justin invited us to go with his friends to their small camp, hidden near the railroad in the inner city. On our way there, we took some cardboard out of a dumpster. Cardboard is a patron’s best friend. I later found it made a decent bed.
The encampment was so well-hidden that it felt like being in the woods. We met up with Justin’s other friends William and Ted. The camp had been there for a few years. It had slowly been built up from the scraps of wood and cardboard that had been accumulated like a birds nest. Justin went to the liquor store up the street and brought back a few 24-ounce cans of Steel Reserves and pork rinds.
We sat by the camp fire smoking and joking like we were camping. Ryan and Justin talked about the corruption they see with people who have been deemed a payee for an individual taking advantage of them. They talk about how they have tried to get into the programs to become clean. The problem is that in most programs, the urinalysis test must be negative to be admitted. Most patrons have many drugs in their system. They also talked about how they hated having to sit through sermons at the missions.
“The pastors at Mel Trotter will sit there and call us all sinners and say we must repent to be saved. I am an atheist and I think I’m a good guy, I am hungry and I just want my meal,” Ryan said.
At around 11 p.m., I fell asleep slightly inebriated from the two 8% ABV malt liquors.
In the next part of this series I will describe the events of Monday, Aug. 16.
My name is Michael Tuffelmire. I was born and raised in downtown Grand Rapids. I am a father, decorated veteran and determined 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 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, historic preservation, travel, reading, and enjoying the sights and sounds of the city.
Reports on: Inner-city neighborhoods, Urban Bicycling Issues, Education, Environment, local events