The Rapidian Home

Grand Rapids' Homeless Outreach Team to expand, launch public data dashboard

With the addition of another police-firefighter pair, the HOT aims to engage more people experiencing homelessness within the city. Its eventual launch of a data dashboard will track its outcomes.
Fire Capt. Mike Waldron, HOT member, talking with a pedestrian on Division Ave. S.

Fire Capt. Mike Waldron, HOT member, talking with a pedestrian on Division Ave. S. /City of Grand Rapids

The City of Grand Rapids’ Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) is amplifying its efforts to help area individuals experiencing homelessness, through an expanded team and eventual launch of a public data dashboard.

Starting in March, an additional police officer and firefighter will be joining the team, Sgt. John Wittkowski from the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) said. The team currently consists of two pairs of one police officer and one firefighter, with by-request assistance from two social workers and two addiction and recovery specialists from Network180.

“That will increase our teams from two teams to three teams,” said Wittkowski, who is the HOT supervisor on the police side.

Since the HOT’s formation in April of last year, it has been building relationships with the city’s homeless population, connecting them with social services, and educating them on COVID-19 mitigation.

Monday through Saturday from 6am-4pm, the team canvasses the community to find these people where they are and offer their support. Their boots-on-the-ground work has taken them from downtown to tent encampments along the Grand River and beyond.

“Although we do respond to calls for service, it's very proactive; it’s self-initiated,” Wittkowski said of the effort. “We're going down to the encampments along the river. We're going to those spots where folks are living or hanging out. We're talking to those businesses that are impacted by homelessness.”

According to Dec. report by the City of Grand Rapids, the HOT visits 15 or more locations throughout the city each week, making contact with people experiencing homelessness at about 80% of the site visits. Sites with higher need are visited multiple times in a week.

The HOT’s pairs will listen and respond to people’s issues, whether related to mental health or substance use, or otherwise. Sometimes the outcome is merely a check on their wellbeing, while other times it can be connecting them to housing service providers, or continuing to encourage them to seek shelter, particularly with the freezing winter temperatures.


Wider coverage

With the addition of another police-firefighter pair this March, the HOT aims to interact on a daily basis with more people experiencing homelessness. There’s been a limit to the team’s work, according to Grand Rapids Fire Department’s (GRFD) Chief John Lehman, as the number of hours worked by its current-sized team has meant only one pair a day most days of the week.

“They basically only overlap on two days of the week,” said Lehman, who oversees the HOT a whole. “And then we only have one team that covers those other four days of the week. One team covering that amount of area within the city, they just don't have the amount of time or capacity [needed].”

Funding for the expansion of the HOT was approved by Grand Rapids city commissioners in Dec., using federal CARES Act funds. According to a city press release, $798,000 was approved to cover overall HOT expenses through the following six months, including the expansion.

The HOT has so far only received funding through CARES Act dollars allocated by the city, as it formed last April to respond to homeless-related emergency needs brought on by the pandemic. As 2020 progressed, the team transitioned to an ongoing, active homeless outreach unit.

In total, $1.7 million has been appropriated through June 30, 2021 to cover the HOT’s formation, transition, and expansion, as reported by the city’s Homelessness Coordinator, Tammy Britton. This includes $261,874 for a contract with Network180 to provide recovery coaches and social workers.

“The HOT team concept was a plan even prior to COVID hitting,” Chief Lehman said of the team’s transition to sustained outreach. “It just wasn't a front burner kind of issue. With COVID, it kind of moved it up the chain a lot.”

“While that’s the initial reason that we were able to start,” he added, “there’s been great value in the continuation of the kind of activity that they’re performing right now.”

Lehman said the GRFD and GRPD will be meeting with City Manager Mark Washington in March to discuss ongoing funding of the HOT beyond its six-month extension through CARES Act funding. Adding more hours of operation for the team will also be explored.


Sharing data

Demonstrating the value of the HOT’s efforts to the public, and publicly tracking outcomes, is a priority for the team, Sgt. Wittkowski said. Up to present, its successes have been mostly relayed to the public anecdotally and through media reporting by outlets such as WOOD TV8 and FOX 17.

“Certainly quantifiably and anecdotally we've got a lot of success stories,” said Wittkowski. “We do create reports, but they tend to be in the narrative fashion.”

To ramp up publicly-accessible data on outcomes, the HOT is getting assistance from the city’s Engineering Department and Homelessness Coordinator Britton. Together, they’re working on launching an online dashboard in the near future that will better capture and communicate the HOT’s ongoing work.

“We recognize the importance of sharing data community-wide and are building the process to provide quantifiable data related to HOT,” Britton said. “We are not yet operating on a specific timeline, but I anticipate compiling the first report in April 2021, quarterly thereafter.”

The dashboard will present data points that illustrate the number of interactions the HOT has with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, the number and types of referrals to community services, and number of contacts made with businesses and social service agencies regarding homelessness, among others.

“How many folks are you really helping at the end of the day?” Wittkowski asked rhetorically, regarding the kind of questions the dashboard aims to answer. “How many people are you getting into housing? How many people are you getting jobs? How many people are you getting into treatment?”

Among internal data the dashboard will incorporate are the GRPD’s daily reports and weekly summaries, along with information from social workers that meets HIPPA regulations and doesn’t infringe upon people’s sensitive information.


Contacting the Homeless Outreach Team

Any Grand Rapids resident, business, or organization can contact the HOT directly by phone at 616-456-4240 or email at [email protected].

The HOT only responds to issues regarding street homelessness through the aforementioned channels, with the team’s online FAQ page recommending people call 2-1-1 for those experiencing housing instability. HOT members can make referrals for people seeking shelter, but recommend calling 2-1-1 to access community resources.

More information about the HOT and 2-1-1 services are available on the team’s FAQ page.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.