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Development in Heartside - Part I: The homeless perspective

The Heartside neighborhood has been growing out of a period of urban decay. This piece is the first of a three-part series in which Nick and I will explore what Heartside residents believe are obstacl
View of Cherry and Division in Heartside.

View of Cherry and Division in Heartside. /Eridony

Underwriting support from:

A collaboration between Nick Manes and Michael Tuffelmire

The Heartside neighborhood has been growing out of a period of urban decay. This piece is the first of a three-part series in which Nick and I will explore what Heartside residents believe are obstacles that keep the neighborhood from being a vibrant business district.

The Heartside neighborhood encompasses an area between Fulton, Ottawa, Wealthy and Division. It is home to young professionals, progressive business owners and impoverished individuals. Heartside has been going through a rebirth since the installation of the Van Andel Arena in 1996. Old inhabitants are seeing new development and new inhabitants are trying to find ways to shape the neighborhood into a vibrant shopping and entertainment district.

The Heartside neighborhood began during the advent of the railroad, which provided the opportunity for growth in Grand Rapids. The extensive network of railroads that centered around Heartside was key in the development of the wholesale houses in this area. This development began on Ionia Avenue just south of Fulton Street during the early 1880s and expanded south. The neighborhood was predominantly Irish in the late 1890s.

In the 1950s, Heartside was a mix of retail and restaurants. A good number of business owners were Jewish. During the 1970s and '80s, the neighborhood suffered from the effects of white flight and fell into a state of urban decay. In 1996, the Van Andel Arena opened and served as a catalyst for a growth and renewal that continues today.

Heartside inhabitants comprise three socioeconomic classes, much as in the rest of American society: the lower, middle and upper classes. Much of the lower class congregates at social service buildings and missions, such as Dégagé, Mel Trotter, and others. In part one of this series, we interviewed two individuals from the lower class.

Caron Eisenhauer was born and raised in Texas in what she describes as “a loving, middle class family.” She was gainfully employed for a long time. Unemployment led her to Dégagé in 2007. She is still utilizing these services. She has been a regular user of the women’s shelter located at Dégagé. Caron also goes to Guiding Light and Mel Trotter for other services.

“Women who find themselves without a place to sleep or no one to reach out to have the women’s shelter available. Dégagé provides them with a nice, safe place to sleep,” Caron said.

Caron admits that there are a wide variety of reasons why many in Heartside are destitute. However, she thinks that a majority of people have substance abuse issues.

Caron sometimes feels there are too many social services available in Heartside. She think individuals addicted to hard street drugs are able to capitalize on the fact that plenty of food is available at Heartside shelters.

“Every day in Heartside, an individual is able to eat eight large meals a day, either free of charge or for a small price,” Caron said. For these individuals, the system is helping too much.

She believes that consolidating social services would make it more difficult in Heartside just to exist.

Caron explained how drugs are a major issue in the neighborhood. She pointed out that many of the individuals, in and outside of the missions, were highly inebriated and believes it was because they had received their federal assistance check two days prior.

She explained that there were many drug dealers amongst the crowded room. The dealers sell narcotics almost as though it is a full time business.

“The dealers thrive on the misfortunes of others in the neighborhood and nobody, including the police, care what is going on down in Heartside,” Caron said.

Caron has also seen a small number of individuals utilizing social services in Heartside falsify their injuries. She said they do this for various reasons that result in monetary gain.

Aubrey is another patron of the social services. Aubrey declined to give his last name during the interview. He was born and raised in England and still holds British citizenship. He was a guard at the Tower of London at one time. He has been in the US for 10 years and has been using the social services for two years due to employment issues.

“If you are homeless in this city, you do not stand a chance of gaining employment,” Aubrey said.

Aubrey worked as a security guard for DNR security till he became ill. He did not have health insurance and was forced to miss a week of work. His employment was terminated by DNR, and when he tried to collect unemployment assistance, he was met with resistance by DNR.

“It doesn’t make sense in this country that unemployment assistance, which the organization pays into, is contested by many organizations in order to deny people what they are due,” Aubrey said.

Aubrey explained that he runs into many issues in the neighborhood where businesses will not let him sit on public benches. He also explains that he is denied the use of restroom facilities on a regular basis in Heartside.

“The city should open one of the public park facilities and have the homeless population maintain them,” Aubrey emphasized. He believes this would force them to respect the facilities.

He said that in England, the government sets “safety nets” such as the National Health Services that prevent individuals from hitting financial rock bottom.

“Unemployment assistance is a right in my country,” Aubrey said.

Patrons seem to be dealing with a few negative issues. The first is that there is an abundance of reasources that allow individuals to simply exist and use drugs. These resources can keep patrons from standing on their own two feet. The second issue is that many patrons feel unwelcome in establishments around Heartside even if they are cleanly dressed and sober.

Our second piece presents perspectives from small business owners in Heartside.

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 i look forward to the rest of the series. it sucks that the area is notorious for the wrong reasons. it should be a good thing that people can come here to get help, but it'd be nice to see the mentality (in both the people who need help AND in the eyes of the general public) that this is just a launchpad to uplift the people.

As someone who has lived in Heartside for about two years, I agree with what Caron is saying. I have seen that a lot of the homeless in the neighborhood are dealing with substance abuse problems and taking advantage of the charity organizations on the block. However, as Scott said, it is unfortunate that the people on Division Ave are looked down upon. I have never had any problems with the homeless (besides the occasional ask for money). I have had homeless people help me shovel out my car, pick me up when I fell off my bike, and be genuinely friendly on a day-to-day basis. I appreciate this series. Heartside is a complicated neighborhood, full of stories.

It might behoove persons considering this issue to do some research on this kind of statement and the history of meritocracy in this country. Though he was one of the major forces in charity, the early capitalist Andrew Carnegie also pushed forth this idea that poor or "lower class" people were there of their own deserving and could succeed and become rich, if only they would work hard. A nice pipe dream, but not a realistic one in our society. Propagating the idea that homeless or underprivileged people (or "welfare mothers", if you want to drag a hoary old cliché screaming from the 1980s) somehow deserve their fates, or are poor/underprivileged/hungry/homeless only because they won't pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, does an immense disservice to both the people we're talking about and the larger discussion; it is also a dangerous (misinformed) idea to continue to give life to, especially in a conservative community that already loathes, disrespects, and fears the homeless population as a whole.

I appreciate the "citizen journalism" aspect of the Rapidian and admire people for going out to investigate their communities, but I also wish that the articles did not rely on quite so much "well that's how I see it" and had a bit more scholarship applied. A good read is Alain de Botton's "Status Anxiety," which will shed a lot of light on the concept of meritocracy and the American middle (and "lower") class.


Incidentally, the reason I use quotation marks around "lower" is because it is no longer a term used to describe a purely financial demographic--the idea of "low class" is that it is inferior, cheap, worthless, dirty, etc., and while I don't believe the author intended it as such, it is insulting to the people of Heartside.

I am another former resident of Heartside. I landed there in 2001 as a result of being hospitalized with a blood clot. when I was released, I had nowhere to go, but to the Dwelling Place Inn, (441/2 S. Division). for the first year I attempted to find work, but due to my use of cuomadin (a blood thinner,to treat the clotting) I was passed over for employment, due to liabilty issues. I continued to search for work, until my conditioned worsened, the cuomadin caused vien collapse in my lower legs and coupled with high cholestorol, resulted in phlebitis. and then I developed seizures. that is my story. 

What I encountered , just by living where  i was..was worse. I attempted to donate plasma, so I could pay for bus tickets, to get out  into areas where they were taking applications. I was turned down , because  i shared a bathroom with other residents of the Inn (wth ?) .

I attempted to get employment at the Amway Grand, thinking  i could handle a job requiring physical labor, something Ive done all my life. yet i was turned down because I couldnt afford the price of a haircut, even at the Degage' Ministries ($ 2.00). THe HR director liked my references but my personal appearance was the deciding factor.

Lastly , the one organization I felt I could count on , Center for Homeless Veterans , would not give out bus tickets unless you had an interview. yet how are you to get to the employer in question unless you have a bus ticket ? (walking was not an was on the edge of town ).  As part of the article said, if you live in heartside  you wont starve, but  what the people there need is jobs to get them out of the neighborhood and into back in their home communities.

Just further note

I did notice its easier for drug users to get federal assistance then those who are  homeless through no fault of their own