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Undercover in Heartside - Part I: Down-and-out on Sunday, Aug. 15

Peter and me on cardboard that we used as a bed.

Peter and me on cardboard that we used as a bed. /Justin

Underwriting support from:
Picture showing how I looked taken at night.

Picture showing how I looked taken at night. /Paul Thompson

Picture of campfire at the homeless encampment. This is located in the middle of the city.

Picture of campfire at the homeless encampment. This is located in the middle of the city. /Paul Thompson

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.


Sunday morning

11 a.m.

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.


Sunday Afternoon

1 p.m.

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.

3:30 p.m.

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.

5 p.m.

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.

6:30 p.m.

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.


Sunday night

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.  

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thanks for tackling this difficult issue.  Your choosing to do this will undoubtably shed new light on the issue of homelessness and things people take for granted everyday.


Reading this became like listening to a fascinating story.  I think this absolutely encapsulates the potential of the Rapidian.  I love that you are shining a light on the darkened corners here.  i like that you're just relating your experience, what you heard and saw.  i am very much looking forward to the next installment

Compelling and interesting article. Looking forward to reading more. 

Mike, this is 10x better to read than I imagined when you told me the idea a few months ago. You're an awesome member of our great city and I am honored to have you on Radio Show today to discuss this article. Thank you for all that you do.

I was asked to make my comments here by Nick Manes, above, in response to his linking of this article. I appreciate the lengths you are going to to try to touch the surface of the homeless problem in Grand Rapids, and as a person who has, in the past, spent significant periods of time homeless here, I think I can add some valuable insight.

Here is the cull in its entirety:

  • Jerome Arre:
    Bet I could add some stories about the not so pleasant side of homelessness. Not all "patrons" are good guys who just had a bad break, but I suppose if you want to endear people to the plight of the homeless, you can't really show them the ...piss, shit, vomit and blood that is the real image of what it's like to be homeless.
    The truth here in Grand Rapids is that it is incredibly easy to get yourself spoiled rotten with all the social services here. It's disheartening to see how enabling G.R. assistance can be.
    How's the saying go? "Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day, but teach that man to fish, and you can feed him for life" There are alot of free fish in Grand Rapids, but a lot fewer teachers of fishing.
  • Nick Manes:
    you're totally right Jerome. It's really easy to get spoiled and that is at least touched on a little with the sheer number of meals served. I can't think of a person who has access to 6 or 7 meals a day. I sure don't.
    At the same time if you want to talk about "good" homeless v "bad homeless, I think the popular mythology is that the homeless people on Division are all lazy bums who just don't want to work. I think it's important to do something to dispell that myth.
  • Jerome Arre:
    Oh, to be fair, there is no good or bad homeless, just homeless. The truth is, after having been homeless in quite a few cities, there is a definitive difference in GR versus most other major cities.
    You know I am one to advocate for the homeless, obviously, as I currently live in a manner that is a testament to the fact that not all economically challenged individuals are lazy bums who get drunk all day. I know the travails of a hard turn of events in life, and have the utmost sympathy for someone who truly has had life give them the shaft.
    My issue is more with how we deal with homeless people, especially here. There are too many crutches to demotivate people that would otherwise be good contributing members of both society and the economy.
    Why bother going out and getting a job when you can not only eat 6 meals a day, but quite easily get all kinds of gov't "assistance" as well as subsidized housing?
    It's an issue that is close to my heart, and not one I am trying to diminish by any means. Being brutally honest, I don't think it's possible to even begin to understand what actually being homeless is like in just a few days. That is nowhere near enough time for the despondency to set in, and the little pains and discomforts that start to accumulate from the lifestyle of living under the bottom of the barrel."

I do find it refreshing that anyone is willing to immerse themselves, if even for a few days, in the underbelly of our modern richness. It's very difficult to capture the real, visceral, daily fears of hopelessness that tend to be fostered by neccessity to cope with this lifestyle, rather than a choice to emulate the "lifestyle".

Until you've had all your pitifully meager belongings stolen from your stash spot, or been beaten up for thinking you had the same squatters rights as others already there, or been intimidated to the back of the service lines at places like God's Kitchen, or been robbed at knife point when another homeless person finds out you got paid for some day labor, it's hard to really convey how dark that underbelly really gets.

When things like that happen to you, it has a way of stealing hope, and such things happen much more in the dark places of any big city than people think. These examples are some of the less disturbing side.

At the end of the day, I really don't have the answers, otherwise I'd probably be shouting it from the roof tops, but I do know that all the food in the world can't fix xomeone who has lost all hope. "Outreach" tends to be alot more introverted here,  as opposed to some cities I've been to where there are programs that actively seek out the disadvantaged and try to offer them solutions.

"At the end of the day, I really don't have the answers, otherwise I'd probably be shouting it from the roof tops."

I love this quote, Jerome. Mike and I talked about this a lot as we sat down and edited his third and final piece, to be published tomorrow. What is the answer to the tension between pedestrians and patrons? At the end of the day, I'd say he agrees with you: There are no easy answers. Having gone through this doesn't make him an expert strategist, but it does increase compassion.

Be on the lookout for this week's Catalyst Radio. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts, Jerome. Our guest is Sarah Scott of Heartside Gallery and Studio, and a number of their participants are Heartside social services patrons.

Thanks for posting this! I was tempted to intrude on the FB convo and encourage you to share your thoughts on The Rapidian, whether through comments or an article. So glad you have!

Thanks Jerome.

I didn't get the sense at all that Mike was trying to pull any heart strings or garner any undeserved sympathy for the plight of the homeless. In fact, I found myself feeling less empathy after reading this, which is unusual as the homeless are a frequent media darling for heart wrenching stories.

I used work with a large homeless population in another state in a city well known for its disproportionately large homeless population, and the truth of the matter was that many chose to be homeless for a huge variety of reasons... everything from legal trouble, to habitual drug use, to not being able to operate within societal bounds, etc.

I think this article did a good job of showing that in reality, most homeless are fairly well cared for (if they choose to be) and have access to a wide variety of social services. Their choosing to utilize, or even take advantage (in a negative sense) of these services is ultimately up to them, however, and the appeal of a life of free meals with little or no effort is too hard for some to resist.

Can't wait to read part II & III... Part I left my mind racing and eager for more.

 i like this article a lot. I admire Mike's work and his sense of obligation to others in his community. 

I don't think he is trying to glamourize the homeless, or soften their image. It would be interesting to see the problems involved from the homeless like the above commentor said. They do have an element of "bad guys" just the same as other demographics, and that is a serious source of frustration and wasted resources that the rest of the patrons don't deserve to be associated with.

here is a vid on the Rapidian Press Pit featuring Nick Manes and Mike talking about their collaboration series that leads into this article.

Just for the record, I didn't intend to imply that he is glamourizing homelessness, I was just trying to balance it with my own experiences, and I have to reserve my full opinions till I get to read the next installments ;) 


I really do hope he experienced at least a bit of that darker side of things, at least from a witnesses point of view, and relates it to us with the same succinctness that he has begun with.  I'm also looking forward to the read.

Mike! Great job! What a great story!