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Guiding Light director: Proposed panhandling ordinance a mistake

Stuart Ray is the executive director at Guiding Light Mission. He says the proposed panhandling ordinance in Grand Rapids does not address the current issues, and he offers alternative solutions.

Guiding Light Mission services offered

Guiding Light Mission offers an Addiction Recovery Program, Back to Work Program and Emergency services. Their emergency shelter is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. To learn more about their programs check out their website.

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“To continue to marginalize panhandlers without addressing the systemic issues is a mistake,” says Stuart Ray, about the proposed panhandling restrictions. Ray is the executive director at Guiding Light Mission and has been working at the faith-based organization for five years.

“Panhandling is a symptom of a much larger community problem. It is not the disease,” says Ray. He believes that the problem is the lack of affordable housing and economically sustainable employment.

Ray says that he does not generally see panhandlers utilize the shelters available. He says that at another shelter, a panhandler was brought in to work. The panhandler said that he was making $150 a day on Wealthy Street bridge and could not make as much working a minimum wage job.

Ray does not feel that the proposed panhandling ordinances in Grand Rapids will provide solutions to the community’s problems.

“We are not addressing the strategic issues that plague the community,” says Ray.

“I’m assuming that people are embarrassed. We should be embarrassed that we are treating people this way. I would rather see us do something that is more strategic and something that provides more dignity to people,” says Ray. “But what we’re going to do is lock them up and fine them and incur more court costs… We are not addressing the issues strategically.”

If the proposed restrictions pass, Ray says that individuals will face isolation within their community. He says that the proposed restrictions are a kneejerk reaction and thinks that panhandlers will continue to ask for money- they will just have to do it elsewhere.

“I don’t think we’re addressing the growing social issue that we have in Kent County,” says Ray. Some of the people in need are visible on the street, while many are not, Ray says. They are living under bridges, in camps and in overcrowded houses.

“In this community, with a church in every corner, Jesus would not be happy with us. He would be asking us to embrace, and walk with and be part of the lives of those individuals,” says Ray. “By criminalizing and demeaning individuals, we are not addressing them with dignity and respect.”

There are many barriers that prevent people from getting back on their feet and moving forward, Ray says.

He says that most of the rental apartments today go through a third party credit checking process, making it very difficult to pass the process. It is problematic for people who have undergone foreclosure because they have credit records that prevent them from renting an apartment or getting a job.

For the past 84 years, Guiding Light Mission on 255 Division Avenue South has provided food and shelter to people in need. The organization offers an addiction recovery program called New Life in Christ for men suffering with homelessness, substance abuse and "spiritual destitution." Guiding Light Mission also has a back to work program that provides men with short term shelter while providing resources to find full time work. 

In the last 18 months, the organization has helped over 400 people get back to work. Guiding Light Mission estimates that 90% of them have been successful. 

“If this was one of our own children, or mother and father on the street," says Ray, "We would take a very different approach to this."

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