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July 22, 2016
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Second in a series of stories examining the South Division Avenue corridor.

Matt Hanlon thinks Grand Rapids can do better.

“The community is compassionate, but are we responsible?” asked Hanlon, a community advocate and business consultant currently working with Guiding Light Mission on social enterprise issues.

Hanlon brings up social responsibility as an important part of the conversation about downtown Grand Rapids, especially the South Division Avenue and Heartside Neighborhood areas. 

As Grand Rapids evolves and changes, the city’s homeless population has changed very little — and in fact increased from 2014 to 2015. Recently, Propaganda Doughnuts on South Division Avenue closed and briefly blamed the homeless population around the entrance of the store. 

Hanlon, like South Division business owner and resident Adam Bird in last week’s Business Journal, said the neighborhood’s residents aren’t to blame for a business not succeeding in the neighborhood.

“People in the neighborhood shouldn’t dictate what happens with the business district,” he said. “That should be a component of the business, who those people are. If you have an issue with that, you cater to them or you do something about it.”

Marge Palmerlee, executive director of Dégagé Ministries, said she is always sorry to see any business close in the neighborhood, although she said she wasn’t sure what the behind-the-scenes reason for the closure was.

“I would think, though, that if it was an issue with the homeless, they wouldn’t have closed, they would have just moved somewhere else. The fact that they closed, I found interesting,” she said. “There’s a lot of dynamics that go into this neighborhood, like Propaganda. Why did they choose this area to be when you know the dynamics of the neighborhood? It’s more like, ‘How can we work together rather than pointing fingers?’”

Dégagé is no stranger to the challenges of being on Division Avenue. The nonprofit, 144 S. Division Ave., sees 400 to 500 people in need per day and served more than 50,000 meals last year, Palmerlee said. Many Dégagé clients live in low-income housing in the neighborhood.

Hanlon said many Heartside residents live in low-income housing but are considered homeless in the eyes of the public, something he would like to see changed.

“It’s a misnomer. It’s convenient for suburbanites, and I’m as guilty as anyone,” Hanlon said. “Don’t call them homeless. Are they followed to see where they sleep at night? If it’s mental illness, call it that. If it’s addiction, it’s addiction.”

The issue needs to be tackled head on, Hanlon said. Allowing people to ask for change on the street is a bad thing not for the city but for the people, as 90 percent of the money given goes to drugs and alcohol, he said. 

In Grand Rapids, panhandling increased when courts struck down a law against it, Palmerlee said. 

Pamerlee said most panhandling is masking “negative behavior” but is not the only or even the most complex issue on Division Avenue between Fulton and Wealthy streets. 

“When funds have been cut and there’s a shortage of low-income housing available, people who get Section 8 (low-income housing) vouchers — we’ve seen it time and time again — they’re just not able to get an apartment,” she said. I’d like to see a thriving neighborhood where people are respected. Nobody wants to see drug dealing, prostitution, needles lying around, people sleeping in doorways. I think mental illness is an issue.”

With so many organizations catering to the low-income populations of Grand Rapids, Hanlon said a variety of duplicated services make the situation not bad enough that people want to improve life and break their addictions.

Hanlon said Heartside has perhaps the world’s highest concentration of passionate people and great programs, but the enabling component of the city’s compassion is preventing solutions.

He said a person can get everything needed to live daily on Division Avenue, from three square meals a day to health care to a free cellphone to a place to sleep for the night. Those are all great programs that come from a good place, but there’s a catch-22. 

“The pain of getting clean has to be less than the pain you’re in, and if I can get everything I need, I’m not in pain,” Hanlon said. “An addict will do anything to feed that addiction. We do a lot of enabling down here. If I can get all the food I need, health care I need, a smartphone, a place to stay, what else do I need?”

People who want out of addiction need more help getting into recovery programs, job placement and housing while they save enough find a permanent place to live, Hanlon said.

Hanlon said Guiding Light, where he’s currently consulting, requires a clean Breathalyzer test and urine sample for men to get past its locked doors and into the program, which results in a 76 percent success rate of staying sober for a year and helping secure employment.

“It’s about dignity. Our goal is to provide people with a way to get their dignity back,” he said. “That’s why we’re focused on work. If you can work, you can get a home back, your family back, license back, kids back — your life back.”

Hanlon said there are residents at Guiding Light who came to Grand Rapids because of all the services. 

That’s true, Palmerlee said, but blaming nonprofits for perpetuating the situation doesn’t help either, as they all try to be a part of the solution.

“It’s just a difference in perspective, but I think the gist is the nonprofits are not the problem,” she said.

Propaganda’s closing has brought the discussion to the surface in Grand Rapids and ultimately, that should prove to be a good thing, said Andy DeBraber, director of Heartside Ministry. 

“The homeless people aren’t the problem. The problem is that we allow ourselves to have homeless people,” DeBraber said. “I would hope, as much as I disagree with what Propaganda had to say, that this would be a call for us as a community to come together and solve some of these issues.”

Next week: Businesses weigh in. Read last week’s special report at

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