Focus on Division/Heartside is task for all of us


The Grand Rapids Business Journal has reported in depth for the past month in a series of stories on the Division Avenue/Heartside business and arts corridor development alongside the long-established “home” to the city’s transient and homeless population, a group of individuals often impaired by drug, alcohol and mental health issues.

A story this week reviews the impact of assistance from the Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Safety Ambassador program, responsible for cleanup and beautification, visitor and tourist assistance — and in the Heartside neighborhood special training as “detox experts” and escorts to social service agencies, as well as escorts to business patrons who may be uncomfortable. Homelessness, however, is the result of a much bigger issue, including the abandonment and care of the mentally ill.

It’s been little more than 15 years since Michigan’s then-Gov. John Engler closed the state’s mental health institutions due to budget and funding crises. Laws also changed to allow individuals to choose whether they receive treatment; “commitments” are rare.

Gov. Rick Snyder called attention to these facts: 64 percent of jail inmates and 22 percent of prison inmates in Michigan have a mental illness. Snyder in 2014 implemented a host of new “diversion strategies” through the Michigan Department of Community Mental Health and the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Last year the Business Journal reported the West Michigan region suffered a cut of $17.4 million in state Medicaid funding for community mental health when the state changed from a county-funding basis to a regional basis under the new Healthy Michigan plan. West Michigan received far less than Southeast Michigan, again raising the issue of regional disparity. Kent County’s umbrella agency for mental health and substance abuse services, Network180, was forced to make significant reductions.

The impact was region-wide. Allegan, Ottawa, Kent and Muskegon are grouped by the state as “Lakeshore Regional Partners.” Ottawa County voters in April 2016 approved a new tax raising about $3 million for the next 10 years to support mental health services. The funding was sought as a direct result of state revenue cuts to the county’s Community Mental Health after regions were grouped.

A study by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants showed the indirect cost of mental illness alone was estimated at $193.2 billion in lost productivity.

Heartside Ministry Director Andy DeBraber said this to the Business Journal: “The homeless people aren’t the problem. The problem is that we allow ourselves to have homeless people. I would hope … that this would be a call for us as a community to come together and solve some of these issues.”

That is a call to action.

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