It speaks volumes of the care homeless citizens receive from the city of Ann Arbor when they are found living in forests rather than the city’s available shelters. Two weeks ago, state police officers evicted residents of Camp Take Notice, a community of tents on a wooded, unused patch of land near I-94, in an incident that has become a nationally recognized embarrassment. This incident starkly illustrates the city’s misguided and shortsighted approach to homelessness. The local government must respond to this problem by improving the accessibility and quality of homeless shelters and services, not by evicting their harmless residents.
Last month, Camp Take Notice was given an ultimatum to either move from its location or face prosecution. The police cited trespassing and problems with domestic violence as justification for their longstanding mission to disband the community. The group was then forced to move twice in August and September of last year, following the repeated arrest of its leader, Caleb Poirer, according to The Washtenaw Voice. It later settled on the wooded state property from which it was evicted in late April, despite continued protests by lawyers of the American Civil Liberties Union.
What is unclear is why the state and local police have made such a crusade out of forcing homeless Ann Arbor citizens off of unused, wooded state land. While there have been three incidents of reported domestic violence since its founding, group representatives say the camp has a strict non-violence policy, and such violators are told to leave. In fact, according to its website, Camp Take Notice actually seeks to “provide a safe, sober and drug-free tent city.” The city authorities should not displace a peaceful camp of homeless people that poses virtually no harm or inconvenience to the general public.
The police fail to recognize that the homeless have few other choices, and, in many cases, a self-governing, peaceful community in the forest is their best option. State police cited health hazards and a lack of facilities as issues with the tent city, but eviction solves neither of these problems — it perpetuates them. With only the Robert J. Delonis Center providing regular shelter for chronically homeless adults in Washtenaw County as of 2008, eviction only ensures that another tent city will rise somewhere else in its place.
The larger problem is that the homeless of Ann Arbor don’t receive the support they need from the community. A 2008 Daily report estimated that close to 4,000 Washtenaw County residents would experience homelessness that year, a number that has likely grown in recent years and far outstrips the living space available in local homeless shelters (Everywhere to go but home, 01/08/2008). If the city truly wants to get rid of these tent cities, it needs to improve both access to and quality of homeless shelters, as well as fight the root of the problem with job training programs and low-income housing projects.
The problem Ann Arbor residents should see in the tent city isn’t trespassing — it’s poverty. Instead of demolishing the homes of Camp Take Notice residents, the government should ensure they have another place to go.