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Undercover in Heartside - Part III: Observations and conclusions

Dégagé Ministries

Dégagé Ministries /Michael Tuffelmire

Underwriting support from:
Guiding Light Ministries

Guiding Light Ministries /Michael Tuffelmire

Mel Trotter Ministries

Mel Trotter Ministries /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 are things I learned during this project and how I prepared to play the part.



I first thought about doing this experiment when Nick Manes and I were writing our series on the Heartside Neighborhood. I jokingly stated that it would be fun to go undercover to see what was really true. That joke became more of a reality when I talked to a friend of mine who is a psychologist. He shared that when he attended a seminary in Chicago in 1968, all young men who wanted to be priests were initiated by surviving on $5 for five days on the inner-city streets of Chicago.

I felt that if I could go undercover in Heartside, I would learn what really goes on. I brought Peter on board so I would have someone to assist me where needed. Justin is a patron I have hired for many community events. We met up at Dégagé and discussed his role, and he was excited to help in this project.


Who are the homeless in Heartside?

There are four distinct groups of patrons down in Heartside. The first is those with mental illnesses, or the “crazies” as Justin calls them. They have fallen through the cracks of state social services and have no place to go. They are small in number but can be seen tattered and walking the streets, some urinating on themselves.

The second is those with substance abuse problems. They come from all socioeconomic levels, but their habits keep them close to social services institutions. A number of these individuals are not homeless; many are war veterans. They have little money and use social services in Heartside. It is also where narcotics are easiest to come by.

The third is men and women who have fallen on hard times as a result of the economy or some misstep in their life. Most have some place to go but have little money and need the services provided. Some occasionally work seasonal construction jobs. Often times, their skill set is in manufacturing, a poor fit in the age of the service industry.

The fourth group is teenagers and young adults. There are several of them down in Heartside, but most stay at Weston or Morton House.


A society of patrons

Patrons have a close-knit society. This made eating at the shelter enjoyable. Patrons, for the most part, hold great conversations and are very amicable. I believe that with few other life distractions, they just have one another. It reminded me of my time in the army because of the camaradarie soldiers feel for one another during wartime. The patrons live a socialized lifestyle. They pool their money together in order to get things they want such as beer or cigarettes. The night we were at the camp, they gave us food and beer. Justin knew that relatively, I was well-off, but he still spent what money he had so I could partake at the camp.

Throughout the first and second parts of this series, I mention two low-grade bottles of wine and two 24-ounce cans of beer split between Peter and myself. The decision to drink during this experiment was an intentional one for many reasons, first that since we were unknowns in Heartside, it helped us fit in by showing patrons and narcotics dealers that we could not possibly be the police. Patrons can easily fit in four large meals a day from social services, but we used our panhandling money for Mad Dog 20/20 to show what the majority of panhandlers could afford.


Self-endangerment not an issue

Grand Rapids has an extremely low crime rate for a city this size. While living on the streets, I did not experience any sort of danger. Those on the street either left me alone or greeted me and went on their way. Having been on the streets for much longer, Justin has had to hold his own against drunks and aggressors from time to time.

A few times when I was at Pekich Park, Justin pointed out some aggressive patrons and shared some of the run-ins he and his friends have experienced. These aggressors generally leave the public alone and only focus on weaker patrons who cannot fend for themselves.

Heartside Neighborhood has many nice shops and resturants. People should not feel put-off by patrons. Many of the major assaults and murders in Heartside have occured outside nightclubs that no longer exist and have not involved patrons. This does not negate the fact that places like Pekich Park and Heartside can be intimidating places where families do not want to be. This could be, and has been, easily solved with increased police enforcement.

During my experience, I was hoping to incite the police into reprimanding me. I drank several times in parks and alcoves, I slept on sidewalks and private property. At no point did police care until the movie crews started filming Monday morning.


Being considerate of Heartside customers and patrons

I am happy movies are being filmed in Grand Rapids, but we need to think about the disruptions they cause and how to work around city life. The Division business district in Heartside already deals with difficulties associated with an up-and-coming neighborhood. During filming days for 30 Seconds or Less, customers found it nearly impossible to access businesses.

The film shoot became a variable in our experiment. I did not know about it till the day of the shoot. It made it very difficult for patrons to access social services. Many of the patrons complained about the unfriendly treatment they received from the movie crew and police. This was their home, but for two days, they were moved. It was the only time during my two-day experiment that the police addressed intoxication and did not let people sleep in alcoves or urinate on buildings.


Taken for granted

Things I found difficult were things we take for granted. I had a hard time keeping track of time. It was difficult to find water, especially on two consecutive 80-degree days.

Access to bathrooms was tough, and businesses will not let patrons use them. On Sunday, everything is closed, and social services are only open during certain hours. If you have to use the bathroom, there are a few portable toilets around Heartside that can be used.

I am a larger man who grew up in the city and do not have to deal with cat calls. Walking in Heartside, I saw men heckling women. It does not happen every minute, but it is common. I observed that those who did it were either drug dealers or intoxicated individuals, but the majority of patrons were nice to everyone they encountered.


Dressing the part

Look was important to me. I wanted to look like a man with severe cognitive issues who cannot fully take care of himself. I have eaten at Dégagé prior to this undertaking, and I have noticed that the “crazies” are usually left alone. I grew out my beard for three weeks. I did not trim my fingernails or cut my hair. I took an old pair of ripped up jeans and my army jacket and put them in the compost pile. I felt that if I smelled and looked mentally unraveled, people would not want to get too close.

I wanted to feel how it was not to have anything. I took what change I had laying in the dresser and bagged up a pack of cigarettes I had bought to trade. I also brought a notebook and two pens.



Patrons said that those who are most successful at panhandling have done it for a while. I concentrated my efforts away from Heartside, deeper into downtown. I knew people in that area would be more naive about inner city matters. I believe that I was extremely unsuccessful because I did not reflect enough desperation; I am not starving and have no substance habits to address. Justin told me the most frequent panhandlers he knows use it for beer. In my experience, I do not feel that people should give to panhandlers.


Swallowing our pride

The most difficult thing Peter and I grappled with was our pride. Many individuals looked down on us those two days. I would overhear people making fun of us and some cars even tried to speed up to hit us.

I can easily imagine my own friends playing the part. I looked rough, and pedestrians did not take time to talk to me. They just looked at me as though I was below them. Peter and I have social lives and friendships. We care about our image in the community, so when people were unkind, we were upset.

I imagine many of the homeless men and women in the city have been psychologically beaten down by this. Some patrons have worked their whole lives and describe their current homelessness as a rough patch. They tend to feel resentment and know that soon enough, they will be back on top, fully accepted by society again. The adolescents we ran into talked about how much money they hoped to make someday. They are young and idealistic and have not had their spirits dashed like older patrons. Most disturbing, the majority of patrons seemed to accept this treatment as the way things are.  


I hope this article will prompt people to look deeper into the homeless issue in Grand Rapids. Citizens of this city should understand that anyone can fall into impoverishment.

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I am not sure "conclusion" is the right word. The answer to solving this is long, complex, and open ended. This, however, is a great start in educating the majority public on all the issues swirling around homelessness and the fact that "homeless" does not denote on single subculture, but that the homeless population is equally as diverse as the majority population. Great work.

 glad to read this final part of the story. tied a lot of ideas together nicely. 

spending a lot of my time in the heartside neighborhood, both as a volunteer and costumer of local businesses, it's nice to see issues like this being brought up in such an honest way.

i think a lot of the emotions that were felt and situations that you put yourself in would have been magnified or better understood had you been out there for a week, or even longer. two nights seems like a very short amount of time to truly understand the life style of the patrons. but alas, it is no easy task to take a week out of your normal schedule to do that. on the other hand, a week is nothing in comparison to patrons spending their entire life in that situation.

overall, a great start to a much needed conversation. the first two parts were also a conversation starter among patrons at heartside gallery this week!

 First of all, thank you to Michael for sharing your experience. 


I am a frequent visitor to downtown and Heartside so I often come in contact with these patrons. From my experience, most are asking for spare change or cigarettes. Some folks have even been blunt enough to tell me they just want to get a drink with my money. I will always spare a cigarette or two if I have any, but I never give change. Someone I met who had worked with and advocated for the homeless in another city once told me that this was one of the worst things you could do, as most will use the money to buy drugs or alcohol, as Michael stated. 


With that being said, I try my best to be kind and respectful, but as a female, that can be hard. More times than not, at a couple men are whistling and hollering as I walk or ride by on my bike. This can make extending a friendly smile or not seeming like I'm "looking down on them" rather difficult, as most often I try to avoid eye contact and look straight ahead so as not to encourage harassment. Don't get me wrong, if someone stops me for change and wants to have a  friendly chat, I am more than willing to oblige, but some take even the most neutral and friendly gestures as encouragement to check you out and make inappropriate comments. 


Being a female and having been amongst these patrons on a very surface level, I can only imagine how much different Michael's experience may have been if he were a she. I imagine that safety would have been much more of an issue. I am wondering what life is like for the women of Heartside. How do they stay safe? Is rape commonplace? Violence? Trading sex for drugs or money? I truly have no idea, but this article has raised many questions for me not only about homelessness in general, but more specifically, the female homeless experience. 

i'm glad you mentioned that "anyone can fall into impoverishment" gives me gratitude to stop and think about how well i really do have it. 

First off, thank you for this view into the downtown homeless problem. After reading parts 2 and 3, I think you were much more invested in the story than many would be in the same situation.


I think you did good job encapsulating a small portion of the psychological abuse that gets levied on most of the underprivileged patrons of the heartside district. In particular, I think you did fine job of classifying the different groups of people. When I was writing my initial response here, I almost made those very same classifications myself, but with the addition of transients, who, while not a major segment of the GR homeless population, are a significant part of the homeless pop. nationwide at this point.


It's hard to know who fits into which category, especially in the current economic climate, and as long as people don't make that distinction, there will continue to be that classist animosity between patrons and "people".


I watched a special on genocide a couple nights ago, produced by one Daniel Goldhagen, called Worse than War, and one of the things they talked about was the inherent tendency of majorities to possess an "eliminationist" attitude when faced with anyone different. I think this idea was far more universal than was implied by Mr.Goldhagen.


It is no secret that those with power will do anything in that power to maintain that power, and in this country, especially so in GR, the chasm between the haves and the have not's has grown significantly in the last few years.  As that chasm grows, the attitude towards "patrons" will continue to become more filled with animosity.


Part of the problem is that most fiscally solvent people automatically equate homelessness with both the "crazies" and the drug addicts. They assume that there are no circumstances beyond those two factors that would create a lack of financial resources.


I would argue that, at this point in time, seeing folks in those dire straits scares people to death as they worry about their mortgages, credit cards payments, student loans, cell phone bills, cable, tuition for their children, car payments, and all those compounding debts that keep people enslaved.


As long as that personal fear exists, people will continue to overcompensate and be dismissive, if not outright condemning of anyone who embodies those fears. They will continue to "throw the dog a bone" rather than offer opportunities to undo that which life has done to those patrons.


If you take an individual, and remove his social support structure,i.e. family, friends, coworkers, and such, what is left to that individual beyond the support of others without that social support structure? It creates a new social support system that is grounded in creative solutions to those "taken for granted" needs that everyone has, but few think about till those things are gone from your daily life.


Your final section really begins to touch on the biggest roadblock to getting out of such circumstances. Pride, or the lack there of, is one of the hardest things to supplement for people who have had their sense of self-worth stomped on continually by everyone they see around them. In my experience, it doesn't matter how well you start out thinking of yourself. When you are told either verbally, or through obvious body language that you are subhuman, eventually, you will agree.


The biggest irony in all of this, is the fact that the people who need jobs the most, are considered the least capable of doing those jobs by the people who can provide the work. There are some programs in GR that will provide job skills training, but they are invariably coupled with some unstated sense that the people who are going that route don't require training in a real trade. The organizations that provide these services are often, much like the lunch line at Mel Trotter, designed to force religion down the throats of those patrons, due to some sense of pride in being more pious than the patrons.


Real help comes from the heart not the pulpit, and in GR, that's almost a nonstarter as this city is so deeply rooted in religion.


Honestly, I really think that if everyone had to do that initiation you spoke of regarding would-be priests in Chicago, the entirety of our society would be more accepting, or at least understanding of the plight of those patrons.Throughout the entirety of human history, the "long walk", or some form of forced independence at the mercy of the environment, has been a major part of the social maturing of all adolescents. That idea has died in the modern world, or at least here in America, and until we reawaken that thousands of years old tradition, our children will continue to take everything they have for granted, and that separation will continue to grow until the haves really do consider the have nots to be lesser humans. At that point, the possibilities for what could happen become quite disturbing taking the rest of modern history into account.


Thank you again Michael for the peek into the "untouchables" of our modern American caste system, and here's hoping it can enlighten a few people about the similarities they share with every other human on earth regardless of race, religion, politics or economic standing.


Reading this series I was struck by a few things.Grand Rapids has a ton of homeless services, with a concentration on South Division downtown. The geographic concentration of homeless services has created a non-native population seeking out these services, essentially it has become a choice destination for the down and out. This concentration of people in need of assistance and with extra time on their hands leads to some undesirable outcomes that effect the larger community, i.e. panhandling, drug abuse, etc. What if homeless services were less geographically centralized? Instead of having four or five service agencies with the same offerings in a two block area, what about spreading these services around the city?

The simple answer is the "Not In My Back Yard" Mark. Noone wants homeless/disadvantaged folks anywhere near their homes/family, as it lowers property values and the appearance of safety.

So glad to have the 3rd installment posted today, as it smoothed out most of the lumps I was feeling.  First off, great endeavor, and although hard to gain full perspective in 2 days, very glad to see you bringing new light to issues around homelessness and some of the causes within.

Today I spoke with a few neighbors downtown who expressed interest in this story, and why it began/where it is going.  Seems clear to me that you had an interest in bringing conversation to the table, and are somewhat able to speak to this based on experience.  One man I spoke with said he would have liked to have seen more in-depth coverage on the struggles of 'keeping things working'.  While I think you did this to some extent, I would continue to urge people to realize that there are many many folks downtown who are high-functioning adults who do fall between the cracks while struggling with their own issues, and are unfortunately lacking a support system of long-term friends and family.  Folks who also might not be able to hold a 9-5 paying gig, and who continue to get the run-around from DHS, Social Security, family, landlords/housing agencies, etc, until they find it hard to advocate for themselves anymore (I've experienced some of this first hand). 

I've come to know a man who was on the streets for a year due to the creeping on-set of serious mental health issues in his late 20's-- he's given the ok to share a bit of his story. During the on-set, his family and friends didn't know what to do with him anymore, as he was not the person he 'used to be'- and he could often be aggressive, moody, suicidal, all while drinking to take the edge off.  Before he could even figure out what was happening to him (mentally, physically) he got kicked out of his apartment, stayed on the streets and found staying in the missions too oppressive and cumbersome to manage.  After a year of couch and alley-surfing, and at the urging of a few new folks he met, he started to seek help. Working with the rest of the social service agencies in the immediate area, he was able to obtain counseling, meds, food, housing, dental care, mentoring groups, advocacy, rad activities to do (ok I work for an arts studio in heartside...but I am speaking for myself) and build a new support system for himself amongst folks who could speak his emotional language (and weren't afraid to).  

Some of the mental health hospitals in town, as well as the jail and a few of the MI prisons and correctional facilities have been discharging folks and sending them off with a bus ticket, urging them to go downtown for help. Usually with little more info than that. Often times, folks have to start from scratch again, especially when coming from an environment that would certainly merit needing some decent after-care. This is why I feel it's important to have services in close proximity to one another.  There are more places across town available for folks who are in crisis, who need shelter, who could benefit from art therapy, who need job training, etc. but when those places are spread out, it makes the plight of the (often car-less) struggling individuals even more cumbersome. 

So, props to you Michael for getting the conversation started back up, from a different angle. Right now, I'm all about sharing stories, when possible, and getting to know your neighbor.  I'm constantly surprised at what I learn, and how my (subconscious) stereotypes are blown on the daily.


 I work with the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness and we as a community have been working since 2004 to write, develop and implement strategies to reframe the system's response to homelessness.  The issues in Heartside and the persons served there do make up a very visible part of the homeless system, but they are not the only face of homelessness in our community.  

The BIGGER PICTURE:  Last year 5,118 persons were homeless in Kent County.  38% of those were families.  24% were children.  The number one reason people gave for why they became homeless was because they were asked to leave from being with friends/family (49%).

This is about AFFORDABLE HOUSING:  Consider, 80% of households in housing, with a lease, that were assessed at our community's central intake, reported spending more than 60% of their income on housing.     

On any given night, there are between 500-600 homeless persons in our community.  Only approx. 200 of those persons stay in Heartside.  The remaining persons are in Emergency Shelters, Transitional Housing or being served through other community based resources in our community and not visible in Heartside.  Only about 50 stay on the streets on any given night.  

When discussing this issue, reference to our community's efforts to reframe the way services are delivered to homeless persons, the way our systems work together to not allow people to fall through the cracks, how we are building, funding and coordinating new services - like homeless prevention - that did not exist in this community 1.5 years ago is imperative. On this topic, I believe we must - as a community - get away from only identifying the "issue" again and again, and shift our energy towards the community driven solutions that hundreds of partners and providers are working on every day. Visit for more information on the Coalition's efforts.  Thanks.

Thank you very much for your post Janay, and your efforts even more. I think the main reason the larger segment of the homeless population wasn't represented in this story is because the story is about the segment that does live in heartside, and the lack of parity with the other segments of that homeless population you refer to, i.e. the programs and efforts of people like you being focused on those that are considered the lowest common denominator, or lost causes.


As far as your statement that only 200 people stay in heartside, I have to disagree quite vigorously. While there may be only 200 people sleeping in the available beds in heartside, there are a lot more people downtown that just don't bother with Mel Trotter's, or Guiding Light.


These people do not get addressed by the community, and as long as they continue to be unrepresented, they will NOT have the opportunity to get out of homelessness, especially if they never partake of those social services because they have passed the point  of caring about whether they live or die.  As long as they are considered less of a priority than other, more "deserving" people, the problem will continue to exist.


I don't mean to sound like I am disparaging your efforts, quite the opposite in fact, but I can speak from personal experience about that disparity. If you take two people, of opposite sexes, with exactly the same background and mental history, the male will have a ridiculously lower potential to get out of that homelessness situation.


On this topic, I believe we must- as a society- identify ALL the issues that exist, not just the convenient ones. You can't solve a problem that you haven't defined, and as long as these unspoken inequalities exist, there will continue to be intolerance of all sorts.


I do think your efforts and the efforts of many people like you are a boon to our society, and yes, homelessness does go FAR beyond just the population of the Heartside area, but the fact of the matter is, the majority of those 5,118 people will not be "homeless" for more than a few days. Who is addressing the men and women who have been homeless for 5, 10, 15 or more years? Noone. All that is done for these people is to feed them out of some morally ambiguous obligation to "do good deeds". 


Until there are programs in place that actively  help these individuals, rather than just keeping them from dying of starvation in front of our lovely downtown businesses by passively giving the opportunity to eat, if they choose to, there will continue to be a growing segment of the population that will be left behind. 


Your organization appears to be on the right track, and you're more right than you know about the cost of living.  The problems lie with our current and past American culture, and our assumption that noone we love could ever be in those situations, so why think about it. As long as wages continue to be dramatically out of sync with the cost of living, we will continue to see the entire homeless population grow, and the number left behind will continue to grow as well. 


We have left behind the era of limitless resources, and it's really put into perspective how socially bankrupt our America has become. People like you who attempt to help people are hindered. The people that want to get out of homelessness by their own resolve are hindered. Our entire nation is hindered. 

Jerome -
I appreciate your response, however I respectfully (mostly) disagree. We do street counts during the year in partnership with the GRPD and there really are only about 50 people that stay literally on the streets in the summertime.  In the winter, its about 10.  The remainder of people that may be hanging out on the streets at night or during the day really do reside somewhere, whether that is with a friend/family, or in their own unit in the Heartside area.  Dwelling Place has over 800 affordable housing units in Heartside alone, and there are many more just outside of the boundaries.  

As far as your statement that no one is doing anything to help the chronically homeless, that is beyond incorrect.  This population is harder to serve, and more resources and services are needed, but that does not mean nothing is being done.  We have hundreds of Permanent Supportive Housing units, subsidies and programs available in this community for chronically homeless.  We have been working hard to increase those every year as they are available or as we fight to make more resources available.  Does that mean that there aren't people that have been literally homeless or in the missions for a decade or more, no.  Do we accept that will always be the case, no.  Systems change is not quick, its not easy and it surely doesn't change anything overnight.  Its a slow (slower than we would like!) process, but it is happening.  The Coalition is right now working with a number of systems to develop new housing for chronically homeless and those that are most vulnerable.  Those units will hopefully be available as soon as we can get through the development and funding process (which you can imagine takes years and is quite complicated).  We work with partners to advocate for additional units to be developed whenever possible. 

So, while I understand that from wherever you sit, things may not have seemed to change, they actually have quite a bit across our system, and are continuing to change as we implement more of our ten year plan.  I do encourage you to go to our website and learn more...or maybe grab coffee sometime with me and we can talk face to face about this critical issue in our community. Thanks.