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Tent city eviction draws attention to rights of homeless

Salam Rida/Daily
Caleb, a resident of Tent City, a self-governing community of homeless people who live in tents, discusses the challenges of trying to find a place to stay and the stereotypes behind homeless individuals. Buy this photo

BY SUZANNE JACOBS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 3, 2010

Last Tuesday, while University students were busy studying for finals and city officials were preparing for President Barack Obama’s visit to campus, a small community of homeless individuals living just south of campus faced an ultimatum — relocate or risk prosecution.

This group of homeless individuals took up residence in a wooded patch of public land near interstate I-94 and Ann Arbor-Saline Road. But after Michigan State Police issued a notice that the residence constituted trespassing, the group was forced to pack up and relocate, raising questions about the rights of Ann Arbor’s homeless population.

The group, called Camp Take Notice, is a tent community of homeless Ann Arbor citizens that, according to its website, aims to “provide a safe, sober and drug-free tent city, where the homeless population can receive food and shelter.”

Tate Williams, a current resident of CTN, said he and Caleb Poirier, a native of Ann Arbor, sat down together more than two years ago to hash out the rules and bylaws of the camp. With the values of “interdependence and self-governance” in place, Williams said the camp was ready to grow.

CTN was inspired by a larger network of tent cities in Seattle, Washington. Poirer, who lived at one of the Seattle camps for two years, said he wanted to bring the vision back to Ann Arbor.

Poirer said CTN is looking to partner with local churches willing to donate private land for the camp, but after two years of meetings with pastors and church board members, it has had no luck.

Poirier added that he understands that the prospect of taking on a homeless community is daunting, but he is confident that somewhere there is a church that is up to the task.

“It’s very scary if you haven’t seen it done before,” he said. “I have no doubt that as long as this group sticks together, we will crack the egg.”

“The churches themselves want to give the support, but the people within that church community still have the stigma (against the homeless),” Williams said.

Robert Braun, one of the camp's 13 residents as of Saturday, spoke highly of CTN and the community environment.

“I think people are just more happy here,” said Braun. “I just like the environment here. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful.”

Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, praised CTN's vision and its willingness to assist homeless people.

“They maintain themselves, and this is exactly the type of (community) we should be allowing to happen,” she said.

The ACLU issued a press release last Wednesday, stating that it was “gravely concerned” by the eviction of the homeless community from the public land.

Rossman added that the relocation violated the rights of camp residents, saying, “It’s simply not a crime to be homeless.” However, she said the forced relocation could promote dialogue about the ethical treatment of homeless people.

“We think that this is the perfect opportunity to put our most positive foot forward and use this as a time to show…the way that Michigan can treat the homeless,” she said. “I think, in the short term, what the ACLU really hopes is (that) we can use this as an opportunity to meet with state officials…and think about some common sense solutions.”

Brian Nord, a Rackham student and the president of the board of directors for Michigan Itinerant Shelter System: Interdependent out of Necessity — a non-profit organization in Ann Arbor that supports local tent cities — said the issue of CTN trespassing on state land boils down to the camp residents' constitutional rights.

Nord said he believes evicting the residents of CTN would violate their constitutional rights to due process and to protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

“You have to establish that the burden on the people whose rights you think are being violated…is larger than the burden on the public,” he said.

Michigan State Police Lt. Wynonia Sturdivant said, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, that the police informed the residents that they were trespassing, but ultimately, the choice to move was their own.

“I didn’t remove them,” Sturdivant told the reporter. “They voluntarily moved.”

But Nord said that Sturdivant’s portrayal of the situation was misleading and unfairly removed accountability from the state police.

“The threat of being evicted and thrown in jail is a forceful movement,” Nord said. "And for her to say it in that way is…not telling the entire story.”

Michigan State Police Sgt. Chris Pascoe said the eviction was the culmination of a long effort to remove CTN from state land.

“We’ve been trying to throw them out over the last year or so. Since last October, we’ve probably been in there 10 times,” Pascoe said. “They’re trespassing on state land. It’s a health issue obviously. There are no facilities there for them. They’re basically squatting on state land there, and we’ve had a lot of complaints.”

The complaints received by the state police have not come from the public but rather mostly from within the camp, according to Pascoe. One such complaint, he said, was a case of domestic violence that involved a stabbing.

Williams said three cases of domestic assault at the camp indeed have been reported but that CTN has a strict non-violence policy and any resident who violates the policy is asked to leave. Williams also said the camp does not present any discernible health concerns.

“It isn’t a written rule, but it’s certainly a spoken one — don’t make a mess,” he said.

According to Williams, residents at the I-94 campsite used facilities available at the nearby Meijer store and gas station without complaint from the businesses' respective owners.

Last Thursday, the night after CTN relocated to a new patch of land off of I-94 near Wagner, the camp held its weekly group meeting. In attendance were six residents, including Poirier and Williams, along with Nord and Brian Durrance, another MISSION board member and Poirier’s previous employer.

Gathered around a fire pit, the group discussed the eviction notice and addressed concerns about the move and about life at the camp in general. With many around the campfire concerned about CTN’s uncertain future, Poirier assured the group that it will persevere.

It is still unclear if local authorities will allow the camp to stay at its new location.

“(If they’re on state land), the same thing is going to happen," said Nolan Przybylo, a Michigan State Police trooper. "They’re either going to be arrested or they’re going to move."