Grand Rapids HOT Team helping those experiencing homelessness

GRAND RAPIDS, ME. — Living on the streets of Grand Rapids was never a part of Coty Shearer’s plans. But, after an unexpected chain of events, it became its reality.

“I ended up moving in with my wife, and when I got with her, her house went into probate court and ended up losing the house,” said Shearer.

He took shelter at the Bridge Street Market and lived out of his van, even during the dead of winter.

“I didn’t have no clothes really, and I didn’t have hardly any blankets. I had a sheet,” said Shearer.

His family tried to help, but was unable to give much relief. He tells FOX 17 his mother has multiple sclerosis, and it was hard for her to help him out. But strangers gave what they could.

“Sometimes people would help me. I mean not all the time, but sometimes,” Shearer explained. “They’d give me change or stuff like that… I didn’t beg for it. I’m not the type that will beg for it.”

Each year, 1% of Kent County’s population experiences some degree of homelessness. In 2020, more than 8,000 people were affected. But a special task force in Grand Rapids is working tirelessly to reach those who need it most.

For two years, the Homeless Outreach Team — also known as the HOT team — has been hitting the streets of Grand Rapids.

“It’s about bringing humanity back to people. Meeting people where they are, and having a real conversation with them,” said Andrew Asdell, a social worker with Network 180.

It was a response to the pandemic back in 2020 and only expected to last a couple of months. But they soon realized the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, and neither was homelessness.

“We’re out there six days a week, 10 hours a day, and they know us from a distance. They call us on our phones,” explained Michael Waldron with the Grand Rapids Fire Department.

The group is made up of four individuals who bring their talents to tackle the task of helping people on the streets. A firefighter, police officer, social worker and recovery coach.

“We are able to bring Network 180 services directly to people where they are. Whether that’s in the shelters, or under bridges, or encampments, we can go in there and conduct full screenings and assessments,” said Asdell.

Helping those experiencing homelessness connect directly with treatment providers like rehab — and doing follow-ups to help them stay on track.

“When I stopped drinking, there were some physical complications, and so I can really relate to somebody that is maybe having been in the hospital with pancreatitis or liver issues, and be able to understand what they’re talking about,” said Marsha Mooney , Recovery Coach at Network 180. “We can get them into treatment or make some changes to help stop that.”

So what does that treatment look like?

“Often times, we will send someone to a long term treatment facility for three months or six months, but when they get out of that, they can go into recovery housing,” said Mooney. “It can give them a chance to have a few weeks to get a job and get back on their feet that way, and in most recovery houses, they can stay as long as they like.”

The group also helps those battling mental health issues avoid jail.

“Just taking people to jail is not the solution,” said Sgt. John Wittkowski with the Grand Rapids Police Department. “First of all, it’s costly. And number two, people are just not getting the services that they need… we can arrest our way out of anything that just does not work.”

It’s a relationship built on trust, understanding, and small wins that make a big difference.

“First time in recovery? that’s a win; they’re excited that they’re about to get employed and they’re on top of the world? And that’s a win,” said Waldron. “We don’t see wins every day. It’s an ongoing thing. If we did, there’d be no more homeless.

“We want to be that constant positive voice in their lives, we want to have breakfast with them, we want to take them to their appointments, we want to hear about the good things that are happening in their lives,” explained Sgt. Wittkowski . “We want to know about their successes. We really want to be family as best we can, and we want to be part of their growth and their recovery, and their success.”

FOX 17 will be sharing more of Coty’s journey through homelessness next week.

If you would like to get involved or know someone who is in need of help, you can contact the HOT Team at 616-456-4240.

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