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Continued safety issues cited as reason for bridge abutment fencing

Putting up the fencing was the only solution, say city leaders.

/Dallas McCulloch

Over the last few months, several community-led cleanup efforts have attempted to keep the Wealthy Street overpass abutment clean. Underneath the overpass, the sheltered spot is a favorite for the city’s homeless, choosing the abutment as a place to set up mattresses and camp out of the way of weather. 

However, the clean up efforts fell short, and MDOT says after repeated issues with garbage, broken glass and other serious health issues such as syringes, they took action. Increased foot traffic in the neighborhood was cited as a reason that the fencing went into place at this time. Putting up the fencing outraged some in the community who believed there were better solutions than simply adding fencing and blocking a place for the homeless to sleep out of the elements.

“A few weeks ago, we met with several outreach programs.: The Salvation Army, Mel Trotter, The Michigan State Housing Development Authority, The United Way, The Downtown Market and also the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness,” said John Richard, Communications Representative for the Grand Region of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “We all met, and decided we were going to put up the fence.”

Richard called this an issue of safety for all involved. He said the organizations came together to communicate with the people living under the overpass and offered them alternatives. Since then, they have worked to offer a more concrete path to long-term housing for them also. 

Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen has been working on this issue in the South Arena district for some time and he says he saw this coming. He had spoken with others about the need for a solution.

“Over the summer they were kind of out of sight, out of mind, but I knew they wouldn’t be like that for too much longer. So I asked [then head of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA)] Jay Fowler if there was anybody that could work with those folks to get them relocated before the [Grand Rapids] police would just come and kick them out.”

Talen, who is also a member of the Downtown Development Authority board, believes the city has to take a stand against this kind of makeshift housing, if for no other reason he said, because it doesn’t meet basic standards.

These kinds of encampments are not an unusual thing across the area. John Richard said MDOT has encountered problems like this before, most notably one on U.S. Highway 131. He said a fire was started inadvertently by a group of people living under a bridge abutment. 

“It’s definitely an ongoing issue, but as long as there’s not an immediate heath or safety concern, we’re not going to kick anyone out,” he said. “We’re not in the business of kicking people out; we’re in the business of making and maintaining roads and bridges. But when it becomes an issue we have to take the appropriate action.”

For his part, Talen hopes this issue brings about healthy discussion about the housing crisis facing West Michigan. He notes that there's plenty of room in overnight shelters for immediate housing needs.

“Why is this community arguing about whether or not to shut down what everyone should agree is a deplorable situation to live in?" says Talen. "We ought to be talking about how to fix the problem of housing options for these people, so that they don’t have to live in an unhealthy, unsanitary, no-heat kind of place. That’s what I think the conversation ought to be about.”

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