Despite recent trouble with the Michigan State Police, Camp Take Notice — a self-governing group of homeless individuals living in tents — still hopes to remain a viable shelter option for the homeless in Washtenaw County.
With the county’s homeless population growing too quickly for local homeless shelters to accommodate, the residents of CTN and the members of Michigan Itinerant Shelter System: Independent out of Necessity—the non-profit organization that supports CTN — want to bring to Washtenaw County a tent city model that has proved successful in Seattle, Washington.
Caleb Poirier, one of the founding residents of CTN, brought the concept of an organized, self-governing tent city to Ann Arbor after spending two years in a tent city in Seattle. Poirer said the tent cities in Seattle organized by the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, or SHARE — an organization that aims to eradicate homelessness — have proved to be successful alternatives to shelters.
The first major tent city in Seattle began in 1990 when a group of homeless individuals pitched an army tent without permission on public land. The group managed itself with democratically elected officers and no staff, eventually growing to between 150 and 160 people.
Taking up residence in an abandoned motel, the tent city founded SHARE to educate communities about homelessness and empowering the homeless.
A second Seattle tent city started in 1998, again on public land without permission. But while members of the camp were at City Hall negotiating their right to stay on the land, the camp was bulldozed off of a cliff.
Lantz Rowland, a resident of the third tent city to be created, said one of the major advantages of a tent city over a shelter is its flexible hours, especially for residents who work a graveyard shift.
“People can come and go as they please. We can take people day or night,” he said. “Contrary to popular opinion…we have people who do work.”
Rowland also emphasized the importance of having a place to keep one’s personal belongings, especially when going for job interviews.
“I don’t have to carry everything I own on my back,” he said. “And the stuff that’s in my tent is protected by my neighbors.”
Just as the tent cities in Seattle offer homeless individuals an alternative to the overtaxed shelters, CTN wants to offer a similar option for Ann Arbor’s growing homeless population.
According to the Washtenaw County Office of Community Development, the number of homeless people in the county has grown from 3,940 in 2006 to 4,618 in 2009.
Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of The Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, said people who make less than 15 dollars an hour will struggle to house themselves in Ann Arbor.
These days, Schulmeister said, it is especially difficult for homeless individuals to land even the lowest-paying jobs.
“They say there’s something like six applications for every job. Our person is number six — they used to be maybe number three, but now they’re number six,” she said. “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.”
Food Gatherers, a food bank and resource program in Washtenaw County, and Feed America, a national hunger relief organization, reported in a study released in February that 43,900 people in the county use Food Gatherers’ emergency food services — a 138-percent increase since 2006.
The report also found that 39 percent of households in Washtenaw County that use the Food Gatherers’ emergency food services have to choose between paying their rent or mortgage and buying food, and 26 percent of client households have one working adult, down from 41 percent in 2006.
Schulmeister said the statistics from the Food Gatherers and Feed America study indicate that the number of homeless individuals in Washtenaw County will continue to rise, which is no surprise, she said, considering the current state of the economy.
“There isn’t a community that I know of that has enough shelter beds,” Schulmeister said. “It’s very hard to have a shelter bed for everybody who needs one.”
The Delonis Center in downtown Ann Arbor has 75 beds for individual adults. In the winter, the shelter provides an additional 25 beds through a rotating church shelter and sets up 35 to 40 yoga mats in its dining room. According to Schulmeister, there are still between 200 and 300 additional people who need shelter on any given night.
Schulmeister said she understands that, with a shortage of shelter space, Camp Take Notice is trying to provide another option for those who have no place to go. But she admitted that she has mixed feelings about the concept of a tent city.
“The fact that there are camps is a fact of life as far as I’m concerned. Whenever a group of people get together and decide to camp together, there are automatically rules, there’s automatically a head person, there’s automatically… a society that happens,” she said. “(Allowing) people (to) have a place to do that legitimately is not necessarily a bad thing… as long as it doesn’t become a place where people choose to live instead of as a temporary place to live,” she said.
Poirier said he does view the camp as a temporary living situation. Schulmeister has spoken with residents of CTN and members of MISSION, and she said she believes that they share her views on the importance of finding housing for people.
Schulmeister said the important thing for the public to understand is that homelessness is not what defines a person.
“The reality is homeless is not who you are, homeless is what’s happening to you right now,” she said.
Convincing the public that homeless people are not “drunken bums in the corner slobbering with the needles in their arms” is an ongoing effort, Rowland said.
As CTN continues to seek church communities willing to house the homeless community on private land, it faces the constant threat of eviction for trespassing, which forced the group to relocate to their current location off of Wagner Rd. near I-94.
According to Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, enforcing the trespassing laws on CTN is unconstitutional as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
“Our constitution affords protection to individuals who are involuntarily homeless,” Rossman said. “You can’t punish someone for the mere act of being.”
David Blanchard, MISSION’s lawyer who represented Poirier twice in 2009 when the CTN resident was arrested for trespassing, said enforcing the trespassing laws is not only unconstitutional, but it also keeps the residents of CTN from being open about their struggles.
“(Threatening arrest) is completely counterproductive to what we’re trying to do…because it forces people to live without being noticed, it forces people to live without a voice because they have no home and under that constant threat, it forces people to be quiet about their plight,” he said.
Blanchard pointed out that homeless people have been living in tents on the land off of Wagner Rd. for years, but the difference now is that CTN is organized and vocal about their situation.
Michigan State Police Sergeant Chris Pascoe said the MSP is currently not acting on the situation, and Derrick Jackson, the Washtenaw County sheriff department’s director of community engagement, said action will not be taken until the Michigan Department of Transportation determines whether or not the camp can remain in place.
MDOT University Communication Representative Kari Arend said MDOT’s first priority is making sure the camp is a safe distance from I-94. Even if they are sufficiently far from traffic, Arend said, it hasn’t been decided if they camp will be allowed to stay on the public land.