Gathered outside of Larcom City Hall Friday evening, dozens of local demonstrators stood with signs calling for housing justice — a message that would later echo down the streets in chants like “Homes for all, not just the rich” and “The city has the land, we need the housing.”
Friday’s rally was organized by Washtenaw Camp Outreach, a mutual aid organization working toward achieving housing justice and supporting the homeless. Prior to the event, WCO released a list of five demands urging the city of Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to provide safe and accessible housing for the homeless population, particularly as many overnight shelters start to close due to the warmer weather.
Among these demands are calls for the city to halt all camp sweeps on vacant city-owned land that unhoused individuals use. WCO also urges increased access to sanitation, enforced one-week notices for any evictions on private property and the creation of a safe emergency shelter at 721 N. Main St.
WCO representative Cynthia Price told The Michigan Daily in an interview during the protest that one of the key demands on the list is giving housing power back to the community by converting public land into community land trusts. The demands name three locations to begin with: 721 N. Main St., 415 W. Washington St. and 350 S. 5th Ave.
“We’re asking (the city of Ann Arbor) to put land into a community land trust,” Price said. “It would allow for the community to figure out what we wanted to happen on a given swath of land and a nonprofit would hold that land. And so it would allow us to, instead of having to work with affordable housing, it would allow us to determine what needs to be done.”
Jim Clark, an active member of WCO who is recently experiencing homelessness, opened the event by emphasizing the importance of housing to survival, citing the “rule of threes” that determines basic human needs.
“You can live three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food,” Clark said. “Do you know how long you can live without heat? Three hours. Hypothermia is a very real thing and if you look at the weather, we think right now, it’s nice. But when it starts raining, if you have no place to go, if you’re stuck in the wet and the wind in the cold … when you force somebody to stay outside and inclement weather, you’re signing their death warrant. That’s not fair.”
Clark also also told The Daily that WCO is an organization that allows those who are experiencing homelessness to have more power and say in the organization’s actions.
“(WCO runs on a) consensus-based leadership,” Clark said. “And that reflects on the deeper value of equal human rights and value. I think that’s speaking to the disenfranchisement of … one set of humans.”
WCO member Peatmoss told The Daily about their experience at a warming center — which are short-term emergency shelters open during inclement weather conditions — in Ann Arbor this past winter and how the mutual aid model of WCO helps the community address issues like police harassment.
“The way that we self-organize is that we have community meetings where we decide what the rules are, how to keep each other safe,” Peatmoss said. “And in those meetings, we decided that the cops need to stay out. And that’s really important because the cops will come, trying to search up old warrants to the warming center, and that’s terrifying … If we don’t keep ourselves safe, nobody else will.”
Adam Harris, an Ann Arbor resident experiencing homelessness, spoke to the crowd about his demands to eradicate selling housing for commercial gain.
“We have to decommodify housing and decommodify things that we have a right to,” Harris said. “In our capitalist society, that seems impossible, but it’s not. There’s empty land and empty buildings right now that could be put to use. We see luxury apartments go up all the time … The city chooses to put private property and profit before people.”
Affordable housing options in Ann Arbor have long been an issue for residents, with many saying that businesses and developers have overtaken the market by increasing the number of luxury high-rise apartments downtown.
Last fall, city officials in Ann Arbor made plans to meet with the University of Michigan Board of Regents about potentially using vacant residence halls for homeless individuals. The proposal, introduced by Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, initially passed at a September council meeting. According to Nelson, however, the University’s Board of Regents refused to meet with councilmembers, and the issue was directed to members of the administration, not the board.
A January rally called for increased attention to Nelson’s proposal and urged the University to use its power to address housing disparities and homelessness within Ann Arbor, though the University has so far not followed up on the plan.
Harris also criticized the city’s lack of options for homeless individuals, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic began, many shelters have quickly filled up or reached capacity, leading to a housing crisis for many homeless individuals.
“Shelters are closing and the city has no solution,” Harris said. “People are forced to sleep outside and put themselves in unsafe situations. We are still in a pandemic and rates are on the rise. How are people supposed to ‘shelter in place’ with no shelter?”
Before the event, Clark told The Daily about the misconceptions around homelessness and the complexity of each person’s situation.
“People get homeless or become homeless for a lot of different reasons,” Clark said. “ I know that there’s one tendency in our society to lump them all together … It shouldn’t be assumed that anyone did anything on purpose to get themselves here. It’s not always about making bad decisions. It’s just plain tragedy.”
Harris said he hopes Friday’s demonstration will call attention to the issue of homelessness and encourage action to address the disparities that exist for unhoused individuals.
“Housing is a human right,” Harris said. “I would like the outcome of allowing the homeless to be housed, allowing us a fair chance to live, allowing us to live as a human being. Because the purpose is, (the community) should be together, not apart.”
The rally then marched down South Main Street and South State Street, drawing the attention of onlookers from the sidewalks. Many paused to film the event and join in on the chants of the marchers as they passed.
Harris said activism is important, but so is listening. He stressed the significance of visibility among the community and city officials.
“The voices are screaming out for help and it is very necessary that we be heard,” Harris said. “Because if not, we’re just gonna keep going the way we are. We’re here to stay. And we’re gonna do what we have to do to survive.”
Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Stolar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled and misgendered Peatmoss, a Washtenaw Camp Outreach member.