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Ann Arbor’s homeless tent city faces scrutiny after string of small crimes

By Brienne Prusak, Managing News Editor
Published July 16, 2011

Ann Arbor’s self-governed homeless tent city, Camp Take Notice, has recently gained attention among the community for their alleged involvement in small crimes in the neighborhood around the campground.

Lt. Brian Filipiak of the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department said neighbors near CTN — located west of I-94 off Wagner Road — expressed concern over "suspicious activity," like people throwing personal belongings and jumping over the guardrails of the overpass.

The neighborhood has also seen an increase in parking violations in relation to CTN, mostly from volunteers parking in no-parking zones, Filipiak said.

However, the only crime the department can tie directly back the homeless population at CTN is an incident where neighbors reported a patio set had been stolen from their property and was later recovered from the camp, according to Filipiak.

CTN leader Caleb Poirier said he doesn’t believe the people living in the camp are harming the community, but rather they are serving as additional “eyes and ears” to better watch over the neighborhood.

“I don’t fault people for having anxiety of (crimes),” Piorier said. “I think it’s an understandable concern, but this population is not necessarily of more trouble than the people who are residing in the area.”

All residents of CTN are required to promise to restrain from using illegal substances and must sign an agreement upon moving to the camp stating they won’t engage in violent activity or behave in ways disruptive to the community. Poirier said those who break CTN rules are evicted and removed from camp premises.

Poirier said the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department has been a great resource for them, and the department makes weekly visits to the camp, as requested by CTN.

“I think (the Sheriff’s Department) has made the best of a difficult situation, and I have no complaints with the way they’ve treated us,” Poirier said.

University graduate student Jeff Albanese, a former board member of MISSION and an anthropology and social work doctoral student who studies contemporary tent cities, said CTN has a good relationship with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department and people are drawing “premature” connections between crime and homelessness that further marginalize the homeless population.

Albanese added the general public thinks of the homeless population as a group prone to crime, but said “tent cities do not breed crime” but rather are part of the “American landscape” and have existed peacefully for years.

“There isn’t any concrete evidence between CTN residence and the crimes (around the camp),” Albanese added.

Mark Geib, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Brighton Transportation Service Center, said while CTN has been on MDOT property for more than a year, they’ve had little concerns with the camp, though they do at times worry about safety issues.

Despite the occasional concern from community members, CTN has served as an alternative housing option for the community’s homeless population as local shelters have faced difficulty amid tough economic times.

Don Austin, chief operating officer at Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, said they faced $120,000 in funding cuts this year effective July 1, which forced the local homeless shelter to close its triage center that housed 5 to 10 people for short periods of time.

Along with the closure, employees were shuffled around within the shelter and some full-time positions were reduced to part-time positions, he said.

He added the funding cuts also prompted the Shelter to focus more heavily on prevention rather than assistance to those who are already homeless.

Since CTN came to the city, the shelter has seen an increase in public awareness of homelessness, Austin said, adding that shedding light on a serious issue is one of the greatest resources a group can provide.

The camp is currently working with churches in the community to find a permanent location, Poirier said, though he acknowledged the move wouldn’t happen overnight because allowing CTN to settle on church property may be “controversial to the church community.”

Brian Nord, president of Michigan Itinerant Shelter System: Interdependent Out of Necessity — a non-profit organization that works with CTN — agreed the camp needs a permanent location in order to form closer ties with the community, especially since the county has faced local budget cuts in recent years and many organizations that help house the homeless are suffering.

He added CTN is vital to the community because local services can only house about 400 people compared to the approximately 4,700 people who are homeless in the county at some point throughout the year.

CTN is gaining prominence in the community as well as internally for its organized system that allows people living there to have some semblance of control over their lives, Nord said.

“CTN focuses on community and self-agency,” he said.

In fact, CTN was positively recognized for its ties to the community and received an “Adopt a Highway” sign on Saturday for their work with the stretch of I-94 near the camp, according to Brian Durance, a board member of MISSION.

“A lot of them feel vindicated … they feel acknowledged (because of the sign),” Durance said.

Poirier said there are many benefits to tent cities, like their ability to lift people out of poverty and prevent extreme cases of homelessness by providing structure and resources such as bus transportation, food and shelter.

“People are often concerned because they think tent cities worsen homelessness, but instead they make it visible,” Poirier said.