GR takes new approach in helping homeless population

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On a hot summer day in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, a News 8 crew came across the unexpected: first responders handing out treats to the homeless. 

With the help of a community member, two police officers and two firefighters helped pass out necessities like bottled water and toiletries.  

“I got clothes, I got some Doritos, I got some fruit bars I’m going to give to my 6-year-old,” one woman told News 8. 

The Grand Rapids Homeless Outreach Team, which was created by the police and fire departments, is about more than just handouts but about building relationships. 

The four-person team consists of two police officers and two firefighters.  

Lt. Michael Waldron with the Grand Rapids Fire Department said it’s all about taking a new and more personal approach to helping the homeless population. 

“My dad had an amazing lesson for me early on,” Waldron said. “He said, ‘I can drink with the homeless in the gutter on my way to have dinner with the king.’ They’re all the same people,” Waldron said.

The program started in April in response to the coronavirus pandemic as the team initially set out to educate those living on the streets about hygiene and social distancing.  

Whether or not these unprecedented times have led to an increase in the homeless population is a question officials are working to answer.  

Courtney Myers-Keaton with the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness said they’re working to collect that data.  

In the meantime, she said there does appear to be more people living on the streets. 

“Part of it is the visibility,” Myers-Keaton said. “We are seeing more of it because there aren’t as many places for people to go. We’ve had a shutdown. It’s harder to access places like libraries or cooling centers.” 

For Waldron and the rest of the outreach team, it’s less about the numbers and more about meeting the needs of the individual people.  

 “My hope is that the Grand Rapids Homeless Outreach Team develops into that hub where if people need things solved, they’ll be able to ask questions and we’ll be able to point them in the right direction,” Waldron said.