This article is a write up of The Kalamazoo Call Podcast Episode 001 — Homeless Camps in Kalamazoo.
Listen to the episode on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Two homeless camps near the Kalamazoo River which have existed since April, have recently started to gain attention after a local Facebook group was created to help the residents. As of right now aid, such as food, tents, tarps, clothes are being supplied by a growing amount of individuals and organizations. These two particular camps are on land owned by the City of Kalamazoo and the city have been providing limited support for some time.
These two camps are by far not the only homeless camps in Kalamazoo. Others exist both insight and hidden from view around the city. However the two I visited, to my knowledge are the biggest and most established.
I visited these two camps to talk to the residents and hear from them directly. To maintain the privacy of those interviewed I have changed their names.
After listening to numerous stories from the camp residents and learning how they ended up homeless and at these temporary sites it is clear that every single one has been failed numerous times by a broken system. They are victims of an institutional, not personal failure. However, despite this revelation being clear, one resident wanted to reiterate the point after the recorded interview. “We’re not bad people, I hope you see that.”
The first camp is on a 7 acre brownfield site owned by the City of Kalamazoo situated adjacent to the Kalamazoo river. According to a quick research the site has never been developed, but was immediately behind an old power plant now, in Kalamazoo fashion, a brewery. The majority of the land is well, a brownfield site. It’s grassland, with some trees and an air of toxicity.
Around 30 residents live at this site. Most camp alongside the Kalamazoo River. Some tents are clustered in established groups and others remain isolated towards the outer extremity of the property. Around a fire, fueled by fallen branches from the nearby trees, I met Jane, Paul, Blake and Rachel, residents of the camp.
Jane, is in her late twenties and has been homeless on and off since the age of 18. She’s 7 ½ months pregnant and is currently in a wheelchair. The father to be, Paul, is also homeless as is Blake, Jane’s brother. Rachel is older than the others and is affectionately referred to as the street mom.
Rachel told me that she had bowel cancer and had been recently diagnosed with dementia. This can cause problems. “Now that I’ve got dementia, I can’t remember. I don’t remember Doctor appointments, I can be gone for a day and a half from my tent because I don’t remember I live here. It’s crazy.”
Rachel has been homeless for eight years after moving from a domestic abuse situation. The move left her isolated from her native upstate New York and hours away from her kids. Despite her illness, age and background, she is still on the waiting list for help.
She blames the long waiting times for accommodation on the lack of affordable housing in Kalamazoo. This was an opinion shared by the entire group. Rachel highlighted empty and condemned buildings in the city that could provide shelter. Paul tells me that an apartment complex recently built near the downtown Kalamazoo Public Library was supposed to be for ‘low income’ tenets, the rent for those units he says start at $1200 a month.
Rachel, Jane and Paul were involved with the Bronson Park encampment in the Summer of 2018. The encampment was a protest to raise awareness about the lack of homeless resources in Kalamazoo, specifically the lack of safe overnight shelter space. This temporary camp provided a safer place for the many members of the homeless community to stay. The Bronson Park encampment was eventually brutally cleared out by public safety in September and the community was forced to disband. Some, moved to a city approved campsite at an abandoned fire station on Cedar Street. It wasn’t too far from Bronson Park, but it was out of view of the public. Surrounded by bars and on the hard concrete lot the conditions were described as ‘inhumane’ by many who lived there. Both Jane and Rachel voiced concerns that the Cedar Street site was unsafe claiming of an asbestos problem. They have similar concerns about their current camp being located on top of toxic ground. “This land is toxic” Rachel told he in a matter of fact way. Jane claims she heard that the land used to be “chemical landfill or something”. With the camps proximity to an old power plant, a sewage facility and close to the less than clean Kalamazoo River their concerns are well founded.
If you’re paying attention, that’s three out of three City approved encampments at potentially toxic brownfield sites.
I didn’t really bother to look at the legislation or funding changes that came out of the Bronson Park Encampment. It’s clear that whatever was done, wasn’t enough.
The second camp is located on about 4 acres. According some old maps, it was sight of some industrial building that no longer exists. There I met Will. Immediately he inquired about my accent, a query I am used to. Scottish I replied and he gave a welcoming smile. ‘I used to live in Edinburgh as a kid’ he told me.
This camp seems to have slightly more tents in denser clusters. One cluster, towards the end of the property is Will’s. It is defined by a clear boundary of caution tape and wire. He tells me that anyone who wants to come in, has to ask permission. This is his home.
Will is no stranger to being homeless or roughing it and it shows. His camp is immaculate and organized, no doubt from years of experience from his Army brat upbringing, military training and years on the street. He’s been at the camp for a couple of months. Will is back in Kalamazoo from Florida after “being stuck down there for 2 1/2 years”. A broken down truck left him stranded in the sunshine state. I welcomed him back to town.
Similar to the other stories I heard, Will’s housing situation is unique to him but follows a familiar pattern echoed around the camps. He tells me that problems started not by him missing rent, but by his ‘drug addicted’ landlord not paying their mortgage. He doesn’t seem resentful though, he gives me some wisdom, “We all have our vices in the world, and it’s fine and dandy if you do your vices, but don’t let your vices do you”.
Just like Rachel and Jane, Will thinks that the solution is clear. Give people housing and let them become part of the community. “It’s a proven fact that if you get a homeless person stabilized” he says “a lot of their problems become less or go away”. He expands that the current programs are a “waste of money” and it would be more beneficial for hands on programs.
The lack of affordable housing is a major issue in Kalamazoo and one that is recognized by both the City of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo County. In November, Kalamazoo County voted to pass the ‘Housing for All’ millage. The millage, will raise money for anti-eviction services as well as fund the building of much needed affordable housing. However, those builds are years away and people are homeless now.
Now, let’s talk about the supposed leader of Kalamazoo, Mayor David Anderson. Beside being Mayor of Kalamazoo, David is also a landlord who owns a host of properties in his portfolio. This is a fact known by many in the camps. Will claims that this is a conflict of interest and a “contradiction”. “He’s nothing but a fuck” Will adds. Similar feelings are found across both of the camps, and doubt around the city.
The reality is, Mayor David Anderson, profits off of the current housing system and has no incentive to change it. Whether that decision is conscious or unconscious isn’t important.
Aside from a blatant conflict of interest. David Anderson has shown absolute inept leadership on this issue. In an interview with WWMT in May, Anderson highlighted that the city would have to find “resources, or it really is going to look like the Great Depression.” So he knows of the problem, and the potential for this problem to explode.
So what has happened in the last couple of months since May? What has the mayor of Kalamazoo done to help the city’s homeless population and stop it from growing? Well I would look up the minutes for City Commission but they’ve not been updated for a few months. (Something I inquired about back in November).
I reached out to Mayor Anderson to find out what steps he has made since that May interview. I have yet to receive a response.
For both Will and Jane, the message to those in power is the same. Walk a mile in our shoes.
If you arrive to Kalamazoo by train, right in the middle of downtown, one of the first sights you may see when you step out of the station is the Gospel Mission.
This homeless shelter, the largest in the City, is operated by Kalamazoo Gospel Ministries. According to their website “What began as a depression-era soup kitchen is now a multi-campus, comprehensive ministry reaching those in our community in need of hope and healing. The Gospel is at the center of our name and at the heart of what we do. We offer shelter, food and a helping hand, but we cannot change a heart. Only God can do that.”
As one can guess, a faith organization running the biggest homeless shelter in town can cause conflict. Many feel uncomfortable with the Jesus heavy programming and harsh rules that can punish those with mental illness and addiction problems. Stories of theft and neglect at the mission makes it a non-option for many homeless in Kalamazoo, including Jane who tells me she’s rather sleep in the cold “pregnant, seizures and all” than at the Mission.
While accusations of donations and supplies being misappropriated at the Gospel Mission cannot be proven (right now), what can be seen is a disrespect for the homeless unwilling to partake in their christian programming. Back in 2018, MLive reported the following:
[Gospel Misson] Women’s Shelter Director Maureen Best said more than half of people who are homeless in Kalamazoo County have an “entitlement attitude.” They would rather indulge in “sex, drugs and alcohol” on the streets than accept the structure at the Gospel Mission, she said.
Best said some are the kind of people who would be “given a steak and complain that it’s too raw.”
When I asked the mission if they still stand behind these assessments of the homeless population, John Simpson the Chief Operations Officer told me that Maureen Best no longer worked at the Mission. He also said that “We are reluctant to make generalizations like the statement below. It is our desire to meet people where they are at and help them get to where they want to go. […] We are called to help each guest overcome their obstacles and achieve their personal goals. It is our desire to be ready and available when a guest is ready to begin the journey.” For those I met at the camps, ‘the journey’ are ineffective programs that don’t work, often based on a faith system they don’t believe in.
While many at the camps feel that this is the safer, better option than seeking shelter at the Gospel Mission, it is still dangerous. Thefts occur regularly and the camps are regularly patrolled and harassed by police. After dark, Johns creep along the road, asking the women of the camp if they’d like to earn some money. This is especially worrying in an area ripe for human trafficking.
A Facebook group, ‘Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless’ has recently rapidly grown and is helping volunteers coordinate the delivery of material and food to the camps. However there are signs that some help can hurt. A porta potty, was dropped off but hasn’t been cleaned for weeks. The build up of trash from donations, can quickly spiral out of control and be used as an excuse to clear out the camp. There is also concern about the privacy and safety of residents of the camps. Some users have recklessly given the locations of other, smaller and hidden camps into the public group of almost 2,000.
Regardless, for those in the main camps by the Kalamazoo River the help is currently appreciated by those at the camps.
It’s clear that the solutions are simple and the requests from those in the camps are reasonable. Give us a foundation to build from. Foundation in a literal and figurative sense. Give people homes and an economic base. “I think there needs to be more work. A lot more work” said one resident “better wages, would be awesome for people”.
I’m not a particularly well informed person when it comes to the details of legislation and law. How things are funded etc. But the money and resources are there. During this terrible COVID-19 pandemic, while many are facing economic ruin the Billionaires in this country increased their wealth by $10 TRILLION. Take some of that.
The future of the camps are uncertain, like the camps before them, it is likely they will be cleared out and forced to move on by the City or encouraged to take shelter at the controversial Gospel Mission.
Homelessness is likely to increase over the next few months. As of right now, December 12, there hasn’t been the extension of any eviction moratorium at either a federal or state level. If things continue, come the New Year, eviction courts will reopen and many more will be displaced onto the streets and into camps like these. The problem of homelessness is a national problem built into our very economy. The residents are members of our community who deserve shelter, support and a base to build on.
For Rachel, diagnosed with colon cancer and dementia, she just wants a comfortable place to see out her last years. “I just want a home to die in […] it’s been over eight years I deserve a place to live. I just keep asking for help.”