ACLU urges GR mayor, commissioners to reject proposed ordinances targeting unhoused people ⋆

Proposed ordinances targeting panhandling and unhoused people in Grand Rapids are unconstitutional and would essentially criminalize homelessness, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan wrote in a Thursday letter to Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and city commissioners.

“The city’s recent proposals exacerbate the challenges facing our unhoused residents by narrowing the already limited spaces in which they can exist and depriving them of their few possessions, rather than genuinely addressing their needs,” said Dayja Tillman, an attorney at the ACLU of Michigan. “And, while not explicitly stating so, the city again attempts to criminalize the act of panhandling.”

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, the Grand Rapids City Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance changes that would penalize a person for “accosting” someone by an ATM or while they are eating or drinking outdoors. Under the proposal, a conviction of accosting someone could result in a fine of up to $500 and jail for up to 90 days.

The proposed rules would also permit the city to confiscate what they deem to be “excess” or unattended personal property kept in parks or on sidewalks. The proposal defines “excess” personal property as anything that can’t fit into a 32-gallon container. 

The public hearing will be held in the City Commission chambers on the ninth floor of the Grand Rapids City Hall, located at 300 Monroe Ave NW. The agenda for the July 11 meeting is posted online.

The proposed rules follow the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Mel Trotter Ministries, a nonprofit that works with unhoused people, and other downtown businesses asking city officials in December to specifically ban panhandling and outlaw people sitting or sleeping on sidewalks. Those organizations had originally called for fining those who sat or slept on sidewalks. City officials ultimately opted not to enact those changes.

While the rules currently before the City Commission would not specifically ban individuals from asking for money in public spaces or sitting and sleeping on sidewalks, they “can deter constitutionally protected speech and behavior, creating a chilling effect,” Tillman said.

Downtown Grand Rapids | Photo by Anna Gustafson

The proposed changes are vague and would “disproportionately affect the unhoused, particularly those who find themselves without access to secure and legal resting spaces,” the ACLU of Michigan wrote in its letter.

“The focus on property removal and imposing more restrictions serves to hide, rather than help, our unhoused population,” the ACLU wrote. “Making homelessness less visible does not end homelessness, and packaging punitive measures with limited supportive services does not make those measures less harmful.”

The ACLU called the change regarding the confiscation of personal property “one of the most concerning aspects of the proposal” and said it would leave people to essentially store everything they own into the equivalent of a “large Hefty trash bag.”

City officials disagreed with the ACLU’s characterization of the proposed changes. Grand Rapids spokesperson Steve Guitar sent the Advance a prepared statement issued Thursday “from the city of Grand Rapids.”

“The City Commission is considering and accepting public comments on proposed ordinance changes designed to maintain safe public spaces for all,” the statement said. “The city staff have considered relevant law and constitutional considerations in presenting the proposed ordinance changes for City Commission consideration. 

“The proposed changes seek to better define some previously undefined conduct,” the statement continued. “The proposed changes are intentionally content neutral. The proposed changes also embed due process and other constitutional considerations into City operations that are aimed at ensuring overall public health and safety. The focus of the available remedies in the proposed ordinance changes are civil and not criminal in nature. Despite the mischaracterization of the proposed ordinance changes, the City of Grand Rapids remains committed to solution-based collaboration. We welcome public input and will conduct a public hearing on the proposed ordinance changes on Tuesday, July 11 at the City Commission’s 2 p.m. meeting.”

The seven city commissioners did not respond to requests for comment.

Instead of entertaining these changes, city officials should “invest in real beds” and “focus on solutions that will address homelessness, not criminalize it,” Tillman said.

Homelessness, the ACLU of Michigan wrote in its letter, is not a “criminal behavior” but rather a “complex societal issues that demands empathy, understanding and systemic action. Recognizing the inherent dignity of every person, regardless of their housing status, is vital. Marginalizing the unhoused contributes to a cycle of despair, making it harder for them to escape their circumstances.”

Rosalynn Bliss

The city has previously drawn criticism for its approach to homelessness, including when it evicted unhoused individuals living in tents in Heartside Park in downtown Grand Rapids in December 2020. At that time, the ACLU also sent a letter to Bliss, city commissioners and other Grand Rapids officials asking that they not remove unhoused individuals from the park unless the city was able to provide individual housing at a time when the spread of COVID-19 was a significant concern.

The city of Grand Rapids has an ordinance banning people from camping overnight in public parks. That ban, the ACLU said in its Thursday letter, is also unconstitutional. 

“For the unhoused, tents often represent the most reasonable and accessible form of shelter,” the ACLU’s letter said. “In a city that annually averages 40 inches of rain and 76 inches of snow, and has winter temperatures below 20 degrees, it is unreasonable to expect anyone to sleep outside without a form of shelter.”

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authored by Anna Gustafson
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2023%2F07%2F08%2Faclu-urges-gr-mayor-commissioners-to-reject-proposed-ordinances-targeting-unhoused-people%2F

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