City cites safety as aim for ordinances

    Mayor: System ’needs to achieve better outcomes for individuals experiencing homelessness’
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    Mayor Rosalyn Bliss gives the 2018 State of the City address.
    Mayor Rosalyn Bliss. Grand Rapids Magazine file photo.

    The Grand Rapids City Commission adopted two ordinances at its regular meeting July 25, which they say are designed to maintain safe public spaces for all. One ordinance defines the terms “loitering” and “accosting.” A second ordinance deals with the amount of personal property person may have on or near their person in an effort to keep individuals from blocking sidewalks, streets with their personal property. The ordinances take aim at the city’s unhoused population and were adopted in response to numerous complaints.  

    Mark Washington
    Mark Washington

    “The ordinances approved by the City Commission (July 25, 2023) better define some previously undefined conduct. The changes made by the City Commission give City staff clear policy direction, embed due process and other constitutional considerations into our City operations to ensure overall public safety,” said City Manager Mark Washington. “The City of Grand Rapids remains committed to housing-first solution-based collaboration related to the regional housing issues and other public safety concerns.”

    The commission voted to amend the city code to prohibit loitering in public or private buildings after being asked by the owner or representative to leave, or in doorways in a manner that blocks the functioning of the door or entry and prohibits the loiterer from contact with a person while engaged in commercial or other transactions in a way that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened or intimidated. The penalty for violating this ordinance remains unchanged and has been established as a misdemeanor.

    “I believe this is a balanced approach that is narrowly focused to address the concerns that we continue to hear. It is also coupled with our ongoing efforts to improve the system that we know needs to achieve better outcomes for individuals experiencing homelessness,” said Mayor Rosalynn Bliss in a statement circulated by the City’s public information officer.

    “Our City’s objective in developing these new ordinances was to clarify rules and expectations around the use of public spaces, not to criminalize the unhoused,” she continued. “When rules are clear, we have greater success in working with people who are enjoying our public spaces to use them in a way that respects all users’ ability to enjoy clean, safe facilities and spaces. Again, our intent with these ordinances is to clarify rules and in implementation, to seek voluntary compliance,” Bliss said.

    In the statement released by the city, the following definitions and bullet points were provided to further explain the ordinances.

    According to the new ordinance, loitering is defined as lingering or hanging around in a public area without any apparent purpose for being there. Loitering includes, but is not limited to, intentionally blocking or interfering with others’ ability to safely use public spaces and rights-of-way. “Accost” means repeated non consensual conduct directed to another person in such a manner that would cause a reasonable person to feel harassed or intimidated or that a commission of a criminal act was about to occur.

    The ordinance prohibits loitering in public buildings or private premises, or within doorways, accosting another person while operating an ATM in any public transportation vehicle or at a bus, train or other transportation “stop” and/or outdoor dining area,  food/beverage space and at special events.

     The second ordinance focuses on providing clarity and rules around personal property being stored in public rights of way and on other public property. The changes approved by the city commission will make clear rules about large amounts of personal property blocking streets, sidewalks, doorways and enjoyment of park spaces. The City says it has engaged in efforts to work with unhoused individuals to ensure that property can be safely stored and accessed. The ordinance defines the acceptable amount of property that can be kept in public places at any given time, as well as providing for a clear process for impounding property in violation of the rules. City staff will make efforts to seek voluntary compliance in implementing these changes. If voluntary compliance is not achieved, City staff will coordinate the appropriate civil enforcement strategies on a case-by-case basis.

    A statement provided by the city explained this ordinance improves protocols around identifying and storing personal property, adds definitions around property, excess property, essential property, storage, etc. It also prohibits storage of unattended or excess personal property on public property, including rights of way and parks and allows the City to impound, with or without prior notice, depending on situation, personal property. The ordinance requires storage and an opportunity to reclaim impounded property and “aligns with and strengthens, current efforts to manage property in public places.” 

    Both ordinances will go into effect in 30 days.

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