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A haven for the homeless

Jake Fromm/Daily
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BY SUZANNE JACOBS

Published September 20, 2010

A little more than three miles west of the University is a small, unassuming patch of woods wedged between Wagner Road and I-94. To any passersby, the unkempt piece of land is nothing more than a blur on the periphery, but to some, the underbelly of that thick canopy of leaves is home — at least for now.

Camp Take Notice is an adult-only, self-governing, drug and alcohol-free community of individuals who, for reasons specific to each person, can’t afford traditional housing. So, inhabitants resort to living in tents, a basic form of shelter they can provide for themselves.

Looking around at the 20 to 30 residents of CTN, it might not take long to see a familiar face, maybe even a few. That’s because during the day, the campers venture into town to go to work or look for employment, to stop by the public library, to visit friends and family or to do any number of other activities any typical Ann Arbor resident might do.

During his stay at the camp this summer, CTN resident Mikey, for example, usually got up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. for the free breakfast offered at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on North Division. After breakfast, he headed to the library to check his e-mail and then looked around town for work as a day laborer. For Mikey — who, like many CTN residents, wished to conceal his last name — distinctions between him and the rest of the Ann Arbor community lay only in where he lives.

“Once I get into town, I’m just, you know, another person walking down the sidewalk,” he said with a casual shrug and flick of his cigarette. “That’s really the only difference between me and the guy next to me walking down the sidewalk, is at the end of the day he goes home to his house, I go home to my tent.”

Mikey, 31, drove a shuttle bus at the Detroit Metro Airport for four years until he was laid off at the beginning of this summer. He was one of many airport employees, he said, who lost their jobs to the recession and were denied unemployment benefits.

After about two and a half months without any sort of income, Mikey eventually found himself at the Delonis Center — a homeless shelter on Huron Avenue. After being asked to leave the shelter for using the elevator without permission, he sought refuge at CTN. Mikey said he knew about the camp because he had visited as a volunteer when living at the shelter.

Like Mikey, everyone at the camp has a different story to tell, but one thing they all have in common is the part where they pitch a tent at CTN.

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Ann Arbor native Caleb Poirier founded CTN in 2009. His story began a few years prior, when a medical condition resulted in him losing his job as a paramedic at the University hospital. Not wanting his friends and family to see him in a situation where he could not provide for himself, Poirier moved to Seattle, Washington. Without any income, he soon became homeless and took shelter at a local 100-person tent city run by the non-profit organization Seattle Housing and Resource Effort. By the end of his two years in Seattle, Poirier had become a community organizer for the camp.

The possibility of starting a tent city in Ann Arbor started to creep into Poirier’s mind after a family emergency brought him back from the West Coast in August 2008. Upon his return, he began to realize that the shelter system in Washtenaw County could not adequately accommodate the local homeless population.

According to Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, the limited capacity of the shelter system leaves about 200 to 300 people out on the streets on any given night.

“There isn’t a community that I know of that has enough shelter beds,” she said. “It’s very hard to have a shelter bed for everybody who needs one.”

The Washtenaw County Office of Community Development reported that the number of homeless individuals in the county grew from 3,940 in 2006 to 4,618 in 2009, and Schulmeister said she expects the recession to push that number even higher. She noted that any individual who makes less than 15 dollars an hour would have trouble finding affordable housing in Ann Arbor.

In the face of this harsh reality, Poirier began to conceptualize CTN. He said he started out by simply forming friendships within the homeless community and having “thousands of one-on-one conversations with people” about the idea of a tent city. The camp began to materialize when Poirier started sharing his camping supplies with other people who, in turn, shared their supplies with additional people.

Poirier said that homelessness, like death and taxes, will always exist, but he hopes that CTN can serve as a temporary solution while people get back on their feet.

“I’m not attempting (to) create a utopia,” he said. “What I am shooting for is having an intermediate step, a lowest rung on the ladder for people to climb out of poverty.”

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In June of last year while the camp was still in its infancy, Poirier met Brian Nord, a doctoral student in the physics department at the University. The two got to talking about the prospect of a tent community, and inspired by Poirier’s vision, Nord decided to get involved.

Nord said that far too often he saw people walk by panhandlers on the street and glance down at them with reproachful looks on their faces, as if to say “Just get a job, man.” He felt that the disconnect between the homeless community and the rest of Ann Arbor stemmed largely from ignorance and stigma, and that telling someone to “just get a job” was an unrealistically simple solution for a complicated and nuanced problem.

In CTN, Nord said, he saw the possibility to create a positive environment for the homeless and a medium through which to educate the rest of the community about the homeless population.

“(The camp) centralizes this group of people that want to have a little bit better environment to live in," he said. "Which means that if people want to change their habits and their lifestyle, then the rest of the community is more efficiently able to help them."

Nord is now the president of the board of directors of the non-profit group Michigan Itinerant Shelter System: Interdependent Out of Necessity (MISSION), which Nord said serves as CTN’s “buffer to the outside world.”

As trespassing laws have forced the camp to move several times — it started behind the Toys R’ Us at Arborland then relocated to an area of public land near I-94 off of Ann Arbor-Saline Road and in May arrived at its current location off of Wagner Road — MISSION has served as the camp’s conduit to lawyers and law enforcement officers.

While MISSION facilitates interactions between the camp and the community at large, business within CTN is dealt with entirely by those staying at the camp through democratic self-governance.

Every Thursday night, the residents congregate in a big circle and hold a formal, mandatory camp meeting. The meeting always begins with nominations for a chair and a minute taker, followed by introductions around the circle and a review of the minutes from the previous meeting.

Typical topics on the meeting’s agenda include sanitation and safety concerns, but occasionally the camp has more serious issues to address.

On a balmy Thursday night in mid-August, for example, two recent events at the camp — a drug overdose and a one-night stay by a minor — threatened the integrity of the camp and challenged its residents to come up with better ways to avoid such incidents in the future.

Always wary of goings on at CTN attracting too much attention from local authorities, the residents held nothing back when discussing the serious issues before them. At times tempers flared and accusations flew, but no one left the circle until a consensus was reached on how to better enforce camp policies.

By the end of the meeting, the camp voted that those elected to the security committee would enforce a strict zero-tolerance policy when dealing with drugs and alcohol in the camp, and would remove anyone who violates that policy on the first strike. The residents also voted that anyone who wishes to stay at the camp must be able to prove through some form of identification that he or she is over the age of 18.

The unwavering determination of the residents at that meeting to maintain the respectability and legitimacy of the camp was a clear testament to how much they value the community that has formed in that small patch of woods.

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While obvious difficulties come with living in a tent community instead of a permanent shelter — lack of bathroom facilities, no electricity, no easy access to food or water and exposure to the elements, to name a few — there are other aspects of the camp that provide a certain amount of freedom to its residents. A freedom that, to some, is difficult to attain at a homeless shelter.

Many campers say that merely having a space of their own, small as it may be, is a major source of liberation. It allows them to store their belongings somewhere they can access anytime they need to — a privilege lost to those staying in a shelter, who must choose between carrying their possessions around or putting them in a storage space at the shelter that is only open for a short window of time each day.

Danielle, a MISSION board member and a resident of the camp since April, emphasized the importance of easy-access storage when it comes to daily obligations like job interviews. She said that people staying at the Delonis Center who have job interviews have to carry their nice set of clothes with them all day, causing them to become wrinkled and unprofessional-looking.

“It’s just much simpler here because you can ... come in just before your interview, get ready for it, go out, do your interview, come back, put your clothes away, change, and then go back out and finish your day,” she said.

Joseph — at 58 years old, one of the oldest residents at the camp — spent the maximum permitted stay of three months at the Delonis Center prior to moving to CTN in June. Though he said the people at the Delonis Center helped him as much as they could, the campsite has attributes the shelter simply couldn’t match, despite the difficulty of everyday life at the camp.

It’s been two years since Joseph lost his job. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, he attended the University for part of his undergraduate education and later received a Master’s Degree in English composition from Eastern Michigan University. He said he fell in love with Ann Arbor during his schooling and decided to settle down and raise a family here. He taught for six years then had a long, successful career as a technical writer.

What remains of Joseph’s savings is in a 401(K) that he can’t access until he’s 59.5 years old, so like many at the camp, he's actively looking for work but having no luck.

Joseph praised the camp for its open-door policy and strict but reasonable set of rules. He also emphasized the level of camaraderie and respect among the individuals at camp that he feels is missing at the shelter.

Mikey also praised the camaraderie and respect found at CTN, calling the camp members the “warmest, most welcoming group of people” he has ever met.

“I didn’t have a tent when I first came out here; they helped me find a tent,” he said. “If somebody comes out here with nothing but the clothes on their back, they’ll at least put them up for the night in a tent and try to help them out.”

Schulmeister said that homeless individuals have always been at a disadvantage when applying for jobs, and now thanks to the recession, that disadvantage is even greater because there are more applications for every job opening.

“You’ve got students and people with degrees and better work histories ahead of them now competing for lower-paying jobs and lower-skilled jobs just because they are desperate to find a job,” she said.

Joseph said he thinks his age and experience are the biggest obstacles he faces in the job hunt.

“The subtext when I look for jobs around here is basically either too old or too overqualified,” he said. “And I understand the first part. They can’t say that to you legally, but I can see it on their faces. It’s a very young town demographically, it just makes sense. I get it.”

At the end of August, Joseph moved into an apartment with the help of the Delonis Center. He was planning to move to Portland, Oregon if his housing situation hadn't improved before the winter. Now, he said, he'll be able to stay close to his daughters.

Like Joseph, Danielle plans to leave the camp before the cold hits. A learning disability makes it difficult for her to find work, but having spent one term in the Marine Corps, she qualifies for Section 8 housing through the Veteran’s Administration.

Mikey will move to an apartment at the beginning of October. In September he began working toward an associate's degree in social work and human services at Washtenaw Community College. He plans to use financial aid and unemployment checks, which eventually came through after a grueling court process, to pay rent on the apartment.

However, not everyone at the camp has a foreseeable departure from CTN. Joseph estimated that about 50 percent of the residents, discouraged by the economy and/or various medical conditions, have come to accept that they won’t be “typical citizens working a job.”

As for the future of CTN as a whole, the camp will not be settled until it finds a piece of sanctioned land where it will be safe from the constant threat of eviction. This has been the camp’s goal since the beginning, but it has proved to be no easy task. Until they do find a stable place to pitch their tents, the residents of CTN will have to live with the knowledge that the slightest provocation, like a complaint from a neighbor, could force the authorities to invoke trespassing laws, and the camp would have to pick up and relocate yet again.


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