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'Serious, unacceptable' issues around downtown GR sparks letter to city leaders

The Chamber reports businesses having issues with everything from trespassing, to harassment, visible drug use and even human feces being left where people walk.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Crime of all kinds is on the rise in Grand Rapids, and it's getting the attention of the Grand Rapids Chamber. They describe the situation as "escalating."

"We need to get out in front of this before it gets worse," said Joshua Lunger, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber. "Downtown businesses and corridors are struggling with what I call 'unacceptable behavior.'"

The Chamber sent a letter to the Mayor and City Commissioners last week highlighting the crimes that have been reported to them. Those concerns are now on the agenda for Tuesday night's City Commission meeting. Lunger said he hopes by doing this, more people become aware of what's going on.

"Right now, I think the short-term goal is to just raise awareness about how serious this is," Lunger said. "This is not an inconvenience, this is unacceptable."

A sentence in the Chamber's letter reads, "We know there is not an easy fix or we'd already have done it, but I feel compelled to share it with you and increase awareness of the serious nature of what people are experiencing."

Lunger said that the Chamber has communicated with city and law enforcement leaders for years about various problems, and they've worked together well, but in the last year issues have picked up.

"And in the last few months as the weather has turned warmer, these issues have been escalating to the point where we felt it necessary to send something more public," Lunger said. 

In the letter (on page 52 of the agenda packet), the Chamber details more than a dozen specific instances of downtown businesses and their employees reporting everything from trespassing, to harassment, visible drug use and even human feces being left around where customers walk. It even cites an example of a business needing to hire private security for their customers and employees during "high risk" times.

"It has a huge impact on the teams of these employers," Lunger said. "You can tell they're struggling with it, and they don't know how to solve it."

Although Lunger said these issues are happening all over the city, he cites areas like southern Division Avenue, corridors along Michigan Street and some areas around Bridge Street. 

"Issues like these have never been gone, but it seems to really have picked up again," Lunger said. "And now basically anywhere you have a concentration of businesses we're starting to see more of this and it's alarming."

Lunger also pointed out people should not assume this is a homelessness issue. He said he's been told by experts that are both service providers and in law enforcement that instead, there is usually a mental health component involved in these situations. 

"The folks that are causing the problems are a fairly small population, and they're not necessarily homeless," said Lunger. "That's why I don't like to cross over that this is a homeless issue."

"This is a bad behavior issue, and that's what we want to see addressed," he added. 

The City of Grand Rapids issued a response to the letter saying the following:

"The City is aware of the email and has been actively involved in addressing some of the safety concerns in the downtown area over the past months. Additionally, we have already committed to discussing public safety throughout the month of July beginning this Tuesday with a briefing on the recently completed National Community Survey and agenda items related to police staffing and resourcing. That will be followed with an in-depth discussion on public safety at our July 26 meeting when the Chief will share his observations and intentions for moving the department forward and improving public safety across the City so that all people are safe and feel safe at all times." 

The Chamber also addressed in their letter that business owners are concerned about the slow response times by the Grand Rapids Police Department. 

"This is putting additional stress on employees who are placed into uncomfortable or even dangerous situations with no certainty on quick and safe resolution. I appreciate the ongoing engagement from both GRPD and City staff. I have shared suggested actions...That being said, it takes a long time to build a reputation as a clean, safe city and only a short time to lose it," read the Chamber's letter to city leaders. 

Lunger said he doesn't think anyone is being disregarded when they're calling for help. They just have other, more serious calls to respond to first. 

"The Grand Rapids Police Department has been very engaged trying to find solutions," Lunger said. "We just know they're being stretched incredibly thin."

This statement was sent to 13 ON YOUR SIDE by Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom, addressing the concerns the letter raised: 

"The recent spike in violent crime, specifically gun violence, has impacted response times for lesser, but still significant, crimes across the city so I understand the frustration. I am committed to implementing patrol operations and programs that use department resources effectively, using proactive recruiting strategies to fill vacancies, and working in partnership with community organizations like neighborhood associations, Cure Violence, the Chamber and business associations, and other stakeholders." 

Lunger hopes that by taking their concerns to the public commission meeting, more action can be taken as quickly as possible. 

"Right now it feels like we're kind of stuck in this rut, and no one is really being helped," he said. "We need more folks to be more focused on this, because there is no simple solution. It's going to require a long-term commitment to get there."

The Grand Rapids City Commission meeting will be held on July 12th at 7 p.m. in the City Commission Chambers at City Hall. It's located at 300 Monroe Avenue NW on the 9th floor.

The meeting can also be streamed live on the city's YouTube page which can be found by clicking here.

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