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ACLU sends letter to the City of Grand Rapids demanding they halt the Heartside encampment evictions

December 20, 2020

Yesterday, I received a letter that was sent to the Mayor of Grand Rapids, City Commissioners, the City Manager and Police Chief Payne. The letter makes legal claims that evicting those at the Heartside encampment would be a violation of what the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have said about housing during COVID 19.

Early on in the ACLU letter, it states:

We ask that the City pause the evictions at least until plans can be made to offer safe single-occupancy accommodations, not just congregate shelter, to camp residents. We also write to alert the City that is legally required to ensure that Camp Heartside residents receive clear notice, including information about how to reclaim property, and that the City must inventory and store any seized property and provide owners a reasonable opportunity to claim it. The City should also be aware that it cannot make it a crime for people to engage in life-sustaining activities like camping unless there is sufficient housing available for those individuals.

Recent guidelines released by both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) state that an immediate moratorium on homeless encampment sweeps should be implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic unless the city can offer individual housing. The CDC and MDHHS guidelines are clear that communities should not clear outdoor encampments unless the people living in those locations are offered access to individual housing units because doing so increases the risk of infectious disease spread.

The letter does acknowledge the City’s offer for people to go to the Purple East building, but makes it clear that this is not adequate, based on what the CDC is saying:

We appreciate that the City and its partners have worked to increase shelter capacity in Grand Rapids by converting the former Purple East building into an emergency warming center and overnight shelter. But that is not the type of individual housing contemplated by the CDC. There are too few individual housing options available in Grand Rapids for unsheltered people, and congregate shelter settings can put this already highly vulnerable population at great risk for COVID-19 due to issues with physical distancing, air circulation, and sanitation. While we are sure the City and shelter providers are doing their best to provide a safe environment, congregate environments are inherently dangerous during the pandemic. Individual housing, as recommended by the CDC, is critically needed.

The ACLU letter concludes with two specific demands of the City:

  • Halt the evictions at least until plans can be made to offer hotel accommodations as an additional alternative to Camp Heartside residents. 
  • Ensure that any actions take against Camp Heartside residents or their property comport with the Constitution, including clear notice that includes information about how to reclaim property, inventorying and storing any seized property in a safe place to provide owners a reasonable opportunity to claim it, and ensuring that life-sustaining activities like camping are not criminalized absent clear evidence that the City has adequate housing available for every Camp Heartside resident.

You can read the entire ACLU letter by going to this link. In addition, if you have not read our post from yesterday, please check out what other actions people can take to support those at the Heartside encampment.

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