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One bullshit response I received from a business owner that signed on to the GR Chamber of Commerce ordinance proposal that would further punish the unhoused

December 29, 2022

For those who read this blog or follow the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union on Facebook, you are aware that there has been an organized campaign to pressure business in downtown Grand Rapids for signing on the GR Chamber of Commerce ordinance proposal.

The proposed ordinance from the GR Chamber of Commerce would further criminalized the unhoused, those struggling with mental health issues and those that don’t make a living wage. We wrote about the GR Chamber’s ordinance proposal, which even has some of the following details:

However, despite the Chamber’s claim that this will not criminalize homelessness, beginning on page 45 of the Agenda Packet there is a section with the heading, “Aggressive solicitation and harassment.” Under that section it makes clear that this type of ordinance would punish those who solicit people for money. What is instructive about this section is that it is prohibiting people (those who solicit) from being within 15 feet of a public toilet entrance, an automated teller machine, any bus stop, taxi stand or rapid transit stop, the entrance or exit from a building, public or private, or within 20 feet of any parking lot, parking garage, parking meter or parking pay station, from any entrance or exit of commercially zoned property, or within 150 feet of any signalized intersection. Lastly, the ordinance that the GR Chamber of Commerce is proposing would prohibit those soliciting -which is code for the unhoused and those that are financially struggling – from, “At any lawfully permitted outdoor dining area, amphitheater seating area, playground or lawfully permitted outdoor merchandise area.” 

The organized campaign against this proposal has included over 12,700 electronic letters being sent to GR City officials and businesses that signed on the the ordinance proposal. There have also been actions done at the GR Chamber of Commerce office and a visit was paid to Mel Trotter Ministries.

I signed the electronic letter early on, so those who have received it have had almost three weeks to respond. Yesterday, I finally received the first response. The response came from the owner of Restaurant Partners, Jeff Lobdell, who was one of the 120 people to endorse the GR Chamber’s ordinance proposal. What follows is what Lobdell had to say, followed by my response.

Thank you for reaching out and taking the time to express your concern and care. Our apologies for the delay in getting back to you – this email was filtered to our spam folder. Please be assured, as a locally owned and operated company we share the same concern and deep care for our community as well as for our employees and our guests.

We care about the community and its residents, whether housed or unhoused. We work closely with the Homeless Outreach Team to help find people assistance who have fallen on hard times. We also show our care and offer our support to the local shelters and food banks in hopes that our contributions will help work toward a solution. We will continue to support these shelters and stand beside places like Mel Trotter, Dégagé Ministries, Guiding Light, Kid’s Food Basket, Family Promise of Grand Rapids, Feeding America West Michigan, Meals on Wheels, and the YWCA.

We also care greatly about our employees and our guests. The safety and well-being of everyone in the community is our number one priority. While some may believe the new legislation proposed to the Grand Rapids City Commission is unacceptable, we believe the status quo is not working. Our employees and our guests are forced to endure harassment, witness public defecation, fear verbal and physical assault, remove dangerous drug paraphernalia from our properties, as well as deal with other disruptive and disturbing behavior on a regular basis. We take pride in our businesses operating as safe gathering places around Grand Rapids and we care deeply for our employees who come to work every day to provide for their families and serve our great community.

Although proposing a new ordinance may not solve all of the current problems, we agree with Dennis Van Kampen’s article in the Grand Rapids Business Journal that neither is the status quo. We invite you to read the article here, “Homelessness won’t be solved by status quo.” We appreciate the Chamber of Commerce for getting the conversation started and look forward to working together as a community to come up with a solution that works for everyone’s health and safety.

Best Regards, 

Jeff Lobdell Owner

Restaurant Partners Management

Wow, Mr. Lobdell engaged in some pretty ridiculous gaslighting here, using all sorts of double speak, making sure to present himself as a responsible business owner and NEVER taking ownership for endorsing the GR Chamber’s ordinance proposal.

First, the owner of Restaurant Partners makes the claim that he care about the unhoused, because his business works with the City’s Homeless Outreach Team. He then goes on to list several non-profit groups that his business “stands beside,” even though he never says what it is exactly they do with these groups. More importantly, the list of groups he cites are not interested in ending “homelessness,” they only want to manage those who are unhoused or hungry, since none of these groups are willing to address the root causes of hunger or those without a place to live. 

Second, Mr. Lobdell then spend a great deal of time talking about how his business cares about their employees and their safety. Just to be clear, Mr. Lobdell owns numerous restaurants, which means cooks, dish washers, people who bus tables, along with wait staff. Employees who do this kind of work don’t usually get paid very well, which means that it is very likely that most of his employees do not earn the minimum amount of money to afford paying rent in this market. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, people need to earn $20.02 an hour to afford the average cost of rent in Grand Rapids, as is shown in the graphic below. Keep employees safe also means that you pay them enough to afford basic necessities, like housing in this city.

Third, Mr. Lobdell says that he appreciates that the GR Chamber of Commerce was “getting the conversation started” around addressing issues of health and safety. The GR Chamber’s proposed ordinance was not a conversation starter, especially since it had very specific points that would criminalize those who are unhoused, as we noted above. Even in the letter that Lobdell signed on to, the only text that was in bold states, “We request that you adopt an ordinance to regulate appropriate access and use of the public right of way and solicitation.” Such a statement does not reflect a conversation starter, rather it says that they want the City of Grand Rapids to use whatever means they chose to stop people from asking people for money in downtown Grand Rapids.

Lastly, Mr. Lobdell references a letter published in the Grand Rapids Business Journal by the CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries, Dennis Van Kampen. Van Kampen’s article does mention systemic issues that are at the root of why people are living on the street, etc, yet the agencies he works for doesn’t have a plan to address these systemic issues. What Van Kampen, Mr. Lobdell, and all of the other business people who signed on in support of the GR Chamber’s ordinance proposal don’t want to talk about, in fact are deathly afraid to talk about, is the massive wealth gap in Grand Rapids.

Most of the 120 people who signed the letter saying they support the GR Chamber’s ordinance proposal are people who are part fo the Capitalist Class and obtained their wealth by exploiting workers, by influencing public policy with campaign contributions and ongoing lobby work conducted by the GR Chamber of Commerce and the West Michigan Policy Forum. If anyone is seriously interested in talking about the health and safety of people in downtown, then there is no way they will ever find a solution without talking about system of power and privilege, which the GR Chamber and the 120 signatories are part of, and the massive wealth gap that exists between the these so-called business leaders and the rest of us.

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