- Jake Fromm/Daily
BY AUSTIN WORDELL
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 21, 2011
In the woods near I-94 off Wagner Road, a path opens up to a clearing where 10 current residents of Camp Take Notice, a group of homeless individuals who live in tents, continue their self-governing community during the winter months.
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Living in separate tents with one large tent designated for group meetings, residents of CTN have been keeping warm this season with small propane heaters and two wood-burning stoves in the large tent.
Diminished by about one-third of its population during warmer weather, CTN currently faces the challenges of finding a private sponsor and looming budget cuts of local non-profit organizations.
Located on public land that isn’t easily visible from nearby roads, members of the camp are seeking a private land sponsor so they can move to a more permanent location. Trespassing laws have forced the tent community to move multiple times in the past, first from the woods behind Toys ‘R’ Us at Arborland Mall, then to an area of public land near I-94 off Ann Arbor-Saline Road and finally to its current location, where CTN has been based since last May.
The idea for CTN was based on a homeless living community that began in Seattle, Wash. in the 1990s. The name Camp Take Notice refers to the residents’ hope that they will be recognized as human beings, rather than having camp itself be recognized.
“What we are saying is take notice of the situation … ,” camp resident Nate Williams said. “First of all, take notice that the problem of homelessness isn’t going away. Take notice that there is a big gap in services that are being provided compared to what should be provided.”
The camp is a self-governing organization in which residents have assigned roles. Camp responsibilities include maintaining security, keeping track of donations and serving on an executive committee that determines if a resident should be kicked out of the camp for infractions such as drug or alcohol use or the threat of violence.
Besides camp duties, camp residents’ work daily, seek work outside of the camp or look into disability benefits and other social services. Current CTN residents said the average stay at the tent city is a period of several months, though residents will occasionally stay within the tent community for more than a year.
CTN co-founder Caleb Poirier, who spent time in a Seattle tent community, said one of the best benefits of living in the camp is the relationships he developed.
“Having friendships … that is why I am excited at this as a model,” Poirier said. “Often times when you are in this situation, you are in it by yourself. There is not an easy accessed social community for people who are on the bottom of society.”
Poirier added that the feeling of being accepted by a community often draws people to tent cities.
Brian Nord, president of the Michigan Itinerant Shelter System Interdependent Out of Necessity (MISSION) — a non-profit group that supports CTN — said the relationships formed in the community help residents handle hardships they’re facing.
“The folks have dedicated themselves, at least for the time they are there, to take care of each other,” Nord said. “The social connections are one of the things that keep these people alive.”
With official non-profit status, MISSION facilitates funding and advocates on behalf of CTN. MISSION assists in communication between the camp and the surrounding communities, along with helping camp residents take advantage of the social services offered to them.
“We’re making these incremental steps to help folks live more safely (and) a little bit more comfortably so they can focus on other things,” Nord said.
He said people’s ignorance of what homeless individuals to experience fuels misunderstanding of homeless communities.
“The misconception is that they just want to live off whatever the system is willing to give them,” Nord said. “They’re listless, have no sense of direction and have no interest in being a positive part of society.”
Jeffrey Albanese, a graduate student in the University’s joint doctoral program of anthropology and social work, has sat on the board of MISSION and studied tent communities. He said media coverage too frequently portrays tent cities as growing in number or appearing because of the recession.
“There are a number of tent cities that predate the recession by a decade or more,” Albanese said. “These sort of things happen in good economic times and bad.”
Albanese added that he feels it is important to recognize the diversity of the causes behind the creation of tent cities. Some tent cities arise because homeless individuals are frustrated with the way they have been treated by shelters or a lack of low-income housing.
In the case of CTN, residents were careful to note that they appreciated the work Washtenaw County’s Robert J. Delonis Center does, yet they wish people noticed the lack of low-income housing in Washtenaw County.
The Delonis Center is the main resource for single, homeless adults and links individuals with social services, according to Ellen Schulmeister, the executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. The Delonis Center offers beds year round and expands its offerings during the winter months. However, the availability of beds doesn’t always meet the demand.
Schulmeister said she believes housing prices in Washtenaw County are higher than in neighboring counties, which increases the problem of homelessness here.
“There are never enough services for everybody no matter where people live,” she said. “I believe the tent city has the same goal that we have, which is to get people housed.”
Living outside in tents is a long way from a permanent solution, Schulmeister said.
“To me, the only permanent option is housing. There wouldn’t be a tent city if we had enough housing,” she said. “The problem is that the money is going away faster than we know what to do.”