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Another letter calling for the criminalization of the unhoused: The failure to address the root causes of Neoliberal economic policy in Grand Rapids

September 6, 2022

During yesterday’s Grand Rapids City Commission, it was announced that they had received a letter from Matthew Wikander, CEO of Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge, a law firm located at 100 Monroe Center NW in downtown Grand Rapids.

The content of that letter is on pages 33 & 34 of the Agenda Packet for the September 6th Grand Rapids City Commission meeting.  This letter from a downtown law firm is similar to the letter the Grand Rapids City Commission received in the second week of July, a letter sent from the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, which we wrote about.

Both letters address issues of public safety, illegal activity and homelessness. This most recent letter from law firm of Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge, begins with a little bit of the history of the law firm’s presence in Grand Rapids. The letter also states they have recently renewed a lease until 2033, thus demonstrating their “commitment” to Grand Rapids. By all accounts, Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge, is a corporate law firm, which has offices in three additional cities in Michigan, besides their office in Grand Rapids.

Beginning in the second paragraph, the law firm makes a veiled threat, where they question whether or not they want to continue to operate out of downtown Grand Rapids, stating: 

With that context, developments around our building risk changing our attitude towards working downtown.  We are questioning our decision to stay.  Monroe Center and connected streets have become unsafe, unhealthy and unsuitable for client service.  I write imploring the city to proactively correct the situation (I recognize that some aspects of the situation are rooted in problems caused by homelessness, however the incidents summarized below are unrelated to homelessness or are illegal and need to be corrected immediately).  

The law firm’s CEO seemingly contradicts himself, by first acknowledging that the root of the problems might be caused by homelessness, but then in the very next sentence says the “illegal” activity is unrelated to homelessness and needs to be corrected immediately. The list of issues/incidents make up the bulk of the letter, which includes people drinking, smoking and listening to loud music on public benches; solicitation of sex; public urination/defecation; their well-connected clients having to use a secondary entrance to the building; plus loud and lewd behavior, which is causing some of their staff to not come into the office.

The letter then ends with the following statement: 

While homelessness is complicated and requires humane solutions, the situations described above should be addressed as unacceptable (and often illegal) behavior, not an inevitable consequence of homelessness.  It is in both the business community and the city’s interests to address this because downtown’s culture, safety and business climate are at stake.  Smith Haughey is willing to participate in effective solutions, but time is of the essence. 

Again, the CEO of this law firm acknowledges the complexity of the issue of homelessness, but then quickly shifts to “unacceptable behavior.” More importantly, the sentence that we highlighted is really the crux of the matter, since the business community is negatively impacted. It’s also interesting that the CEO of this law firm equates the business community and the City’s interests as the same.

What is really at issue here is the decades long effects of domestic austerity measures, within the larger Neoliberal Capitalist project. This includes, but is not limited to, the dismantling of the welfare state, stagnant wages, the elimination of public services, the privatization of previously public services, using public money for private interests and the push to make downtown Grand Rapids a playground for the rich and destination for tourists.

The CEO of Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge wants to have the public benches removed because people are drinking smoking and listening to loud music. Downtown Grand Rapids is literally a place the thousands of people go to on a weekly basis to drink, smoke and listen to loud music. Just because some people pay to access spaces to do those things, while others don’t, shouldn’t be cause for removing public benches. In fact, the removal of benches is just one more way to wage a war against the “undesirable class,” along with the fact that it is the direct result of adopting austerity measures in Grand Rapids.

In addition, the more than we criminalize people for sex work or homelessness, just means that we as a society refuse to deal with the root causes of the problem(s), which is economic inequality. The economic inequality will also lead to increased calls for more policing and other punitive actions that are not only short sighted, but fail to address the economic inequality that Grand Rapids is known for. A document prepared by the Urban Core Collective states:

A report produced by the Economic Policy Institute (2018) revealed that the average income of the top 1% of families in Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI is 25.9 times higher than the average income of the bottom 99% of families in the area, with average incomes of $1,219,262 and $47,150, respectively. 

Until the business community and the City of Grand Rapids comes to terms with the realities of embracing Neoliberal economics, we will always have unhoused people in this city, an expanding housing crisis, and we will perpetuate government violence by advocating for more cops to deal with those who are most affected by the consequences of Neoliberal Capitalism. 

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