The Rapidian

Is ArtPrize hurting our homeless population?

As an outreach worker to homeless youth here's how I saw ArtPrize impacting our homeless community.
The city from afar

The city from afar /John Rothwell

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As ArtPrize 9 is underway the streets of Grand Rapids flood with thousands of art-lovers pushed into every over-pass, under-pass, crevice and walkway in hopes of viewing art that will inspire and entertain. To the average Grand Rapidian or tourist downtown is nothing but beautiful this time of year, but for me it’s difficult to look past the differences ArtPrize brings to our streets.

I recently left a career working as a street outreach worker for youth experiencing homelessness in Grand Rapids. I spent the better part of three years walking these same under-passes, crevices and walkways daily building relationships with young people experiencing homelessness and sleeping outside. At any other time of the year if you look closely you will see that these spaces serve as homes for our residents who don’t have permanent addresses. This comes in many forms; beds under overpasses, whole communities of people in tents hidden behind some trees, and park benches. As Grand Rapids “cleans up” for ArtPrize our homeless community is displaced from these spaces resulting is some very real consequences. I have compiled a short-list of the most common responses I have seen over the last few years

·         We sweep:  “Sweeping” is a term used on the street to describe police officers physically removing homeless encampments from public and private property. In the best case scenario police officers are able to give a notice to people that they need to move their things, in the worst people come back to the place they slept last to a loss of everything they owned  including vital documents and life-saving medications.

·         We ticket: People who are sleeping on private property or in a public space after it closes are likely to receive a ticket this time of year. It is safe to assume that people experiencing homelessness don’t have the resources to pay these tickets. This creates complicated situations which often results in additional legal issues and lengthy bans from public parks which are the only community spaces available to people without homes.

·         We ignore: You might remember an exhibit last year named “E-M-O-H” meant to highlight the issue of homelessness. This was installed across the street from Rosa Parks Circle and featured an artist who slept overnight over-night in a piece he built. The popularity and fanfare of this exhibit created an especially heartbreaking irony for our homeless community, who themselves were being kicked out and ticketed for falling asleep in public spaces just feet from there.

·         We push: We push people who are homeless further out of the city, away from the resources they rely on for daily basic needs. People are sleeping outdoors because for many it is the safest available option our community provides. Contrary to popular belief Grand Rapids does not have enough safe shelter to accommodate our homeless population. As an outreach worker it was common for me to end my shift with an adult- teenager or a family with children who just simply couldn’t get into a shelter for the night. When we push people from their outdoor homes and away from downtown we put pressure on already precarious situations and isolate people from the few resources available to meet their daily needs.

While any of these issues highlighted exist year round, ArtPrize creates a pressure to enforce these laws at a higher rate. So while ArtPrize doesn’t create homelessness, it absolutely amplifies and already existing community issue; the criminalization of homelessness in Grand Rapids. As it is now the GRPD has made concerted efforts to improve the way in which these laws are enforced during the ArtPrize season, but this doesn’t change the fact that every September when ArtPrize rolls around there’s a segment of our population that will continue to be displaced unless we as a community act. 

I have chosen to use the word “we” throughout this article because these are our laws and our responsibility to create a safe and equitable community for those who are experiencing homelessness. We are all responsible for our community’s response to our neighbors without homes during ArtPrize and throughout the year.

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