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Undercover in Heartside - Part II: Down-and-out on Monday, Aug. 16

My bedroom the second night of the experiment.

My bedroom the second night of the experiment. /Paul Thompson

Underwriting support from:
This is a picture of me unsuccessfully panhandling.

This is a picture of me unsuccessfully panhandling. /Paul Thompson

This was our bathroom while we conducted our investigation.

This was our bathroom while we conducted our investigation. /Michael Tuffelmire

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 second day on Monday, Aug. 16.


Monday morning

6 a.m.

I was awakened by the train roaring past the homeless camp. Even though I slept on the ground, I got sufficient sleep. My back hurt somewhat; a cardboard box is a far cry from a quilted-top mattress.

It is hard to find bathrooms to use when you are homeless. We ended up using portable toilets in front of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

We headed to to Pekich Park on the corner of Cherry and Division and sat in the park with about 20 patrons. They were either sleeping, hanging out waiting for breakfast, or drinking.

Justin met us in the park with William and Ted. Justin is a local patron who acted as my guide during this endeavor. He was sharing a beer with his friend and advising me on what to do that day. As we sat and talked, Justin told me that one of the most pressing issues for patrons is not having the resources to find work. Patrons used to be able to acquire bus passes from the social services. This service is no longer offered, and they find themselves confined to the downtown area. Justin feels there should be more programs helping with unemployment at the missions.

“Even if they have to cut funding from another program, I feel that this employment issue is a major downfall for the patrons,” Justin said.

The only employment patrons experience is the numerous vehicles that pull up outside the missions and temporarily hire them. I have done this on many occasions when I need cheap labor. That is how I met Justin and most of these patrons.

“There was this one guy who was paying a few patrons with drug problems just enough to get a fix. He would promise to pay them later and put them in the hot sun all day and never return,” Justin said.   

7 a.m.

The most unexpected thing happened. Heartside was taken over by a movie set for 30 Seconds or Less. About 12 police officers descended on Heartside neighborhood and removed all the patrons from the park, alcoves and the front of buildings. The police would not let us walk across the street, and we had to walk to Wealthy Street in order to cross.

8 a.m.

We arrived at Dégagé for breakfast. Peter and I hung out behind the building till 8:30 a.m. to eat. We had to pay for breakfast at Dégagé, so we used the two food vouchers that Justin had given to us. Breakfast was an egg-and-sausage sandwich with potatoes and onions. We took the meal to go and ate it on the lawn of the Seventh-Day Adventist church on Sheldon and Oakes. After our meal, we laid down in the center grass area of the boulevard in front of West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology. Then we returned to Veterans Park to hang out on the lawn. We loitered and acted intoxicated the whole time but were ignored by both the police and the public.

10 a.m.

We went to the Grand Rapids Public Library. Justin told me that many patrons hang out at the library to read. As soon as we walked through the door, we turned right to the fiction section. A librarian followed us around for a few minutes. All throughout the library, we garnered dirty looks. The only people who acknowledged us respectfully were fellow social services patrons who also spent time in the library.  

12 p.m.

We went to Guiding Light for lunch. Guiding Light requires patrons to arrive at 11:45 a.m. to sign up for mass. The doors are locked to anyone who arrives late. When Nick Manes and I interviewed Guiding Light for our previous development in Heartside series, they told us no one had to pray to get a meal. We sat through a 30-minute mass with an opening song, testimonials, reading and a homily. The church had a life-sized crucifix and approximately 50 plastic chairs placed in rows. The preacher said some encouraging things but also mentioned that homsexuality is evil. The patrons seemed to hate sitting through this. Some of the individuals appeared to have enjoyed it, though. They were effusive about how the mission had helped them find God and made their life better. After the mass had ended, the serving door opened, and like a prison, patrons were served very unenthusiastically on a metal tray. The meal was all right but not sufficient to fill me up.


Monday Afternoon

Peter and I went to Dégagé. I waited outside while he went upstairs to get a pair of shoes. The staff person asked him some questions about his origins. Peter told her he was homeless and just arrived from Detroit. She gave him a pair of shoes that were of good quality and we went on our way.

1 p.m.

We decided to panhandle. On a piece of cardboard I found in the trash, I wrote “Homeless Hungry Iraq War Veteran Please Spare Change.” Justin and I had talked about the dos and don’ts of panhandling: Ask women and never anyone with children. Ask people when they are leaving a business so they do not go inside and inform employees.

Justin does not panhandle, but some of his friends make a good living off of it. Some of them can make almost $40 a day. I went to certain spots in the city and laid there with Peter with the sign draped across me. In four hours, I collected $1.54. I found myself hopelessly unable to conjure up an adequate amount to purchase something. My hunch is because I knew this experiment had an end, my mien reflected that. It becomes an issue of putting pennies together for those who live on the streets.  


Monday Night

We went to Mel Trotter for dinner, but every corner of Commerce Street had a cop or a stage hand stopping us from entering the shoot. We told them we didn’t care; we wanted a meal. All day the patrons had complained about how the filming staff had stopped them from eating and using the social services. By the time we got around it (it took almost 30 minutes) we had missed dinner. We set out for Guiding Light but had already missed dinner. Mass began at 5:45 p.m., and we had not arrived in time to sign up; the door was locked. We finally smuggled ourselves across the street with much protest from the movie crew. A crew member asked what we thought we were doing. We told him we were going to wait behind Dégagé for them to serve dinner. He told us that Dégagé was not serving tonight. It was not true, but he figured we were just two homeless guys and did not care if we ate.

We could not hang out anywhere on Heartside. If we were on Division or Commerce, either police or stagehands would stop us. They were treating patrons worse than they were regular citizens. Peter and I walked to Clarks to kill time. We coupled our leftover change with our panhandled money and bought a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.

6:30 p.m.

We made our way, starting outside The Rapid transit center, back about half a mile into the dense underworld of the freeway system. As we walked back, we came across many shelters that combined to make almost a small city. The patrons utilize this space on a daily basis. Very few were around because they were at dinner. There was trash everywhere. Peter and I sat up against the side wall of the freeway and reflected on the day's events.

8 p.m.

We finally had dinner at Dégagé. We were treated to some great spaghetti with a red wine sauce. Two women had donated their time to play violin while we ate. For about 45 minutes, everyone felt like they were in a five-star restaurant. After dinner, Peter and I went to St. Andrew's School. As I sat on the steps of the church I was baptized in, I looked at the school I had attended as a boy. I thought about how the neighborhood looked in the 1980s and recognized the progress that has been made. St. Andrew's closed this year after over 100 years of education. The neighborhood is transforming into a giant hospital on the east side of Sheldon.

10 p.m.

Peter and I went to our favorite spot to sleep: The Division Avenue Arts Collective. When you sleep in an alcove, you do not really sleep. You fade in and out and try to keep somewhat awake so no one comes and messes with you at night. We tossed and turned until 2 a.m. on Tuesday. We walked to Heritage Hill, jumped in my car and returned to our normal lives.


Part three of this series will explain how I prepared for this story and my concluding thoughts derived from this experience.

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First of all I want to congratulate Michael on a great second edition to this series.  It's really excellent and full of amazing insight.  I also want to back up what he stated about Guiding Light Mission stating that no one is required to pray.  As he has shown, that is just not true.  I am also amazed at how perfect it was that he was down there on the day that Division was closed for the movie shoot.  I find it tragic that our tax dollars go to pay for this movie to be made, and then those involved in the making of it are deemed more important than the everyday people who call Division home.

I found this peice to be even better than the first, and I wholeheartedly second Nick's sentiment. I can't believe the police & film crews utter lack of consideration for those who call Grand Rapids and Heartside home. The police are to serve and protect, without discrimination, but apparently the out-of-town film crew gets priority over those who need access to social services for basic necessities. It is also important to note that not all who utilize social services are homeless or jobless either, so the film crew was undoubtedly turning away hard working, tax paying citizens as well as the homeless.

 I find it disturbing that the social service stopped giving bus passes. It basically cuts people off from achieving much without that opportunity to get to jobs, medical care, food etc.

I aslo found it interesting that the movie people and police can treat people that poorly without any repurcussions. You can't prevent people from living their lives or accessing PUBLIC resources for the sake of a crappy movie.