Forced removal from encampments leaves few options for homeless Michiganders

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By Emerson Wigand
Capital News Service

LANSING – As temperatures drop, advocates for homeless people say encampment populations are expected to grow.

Gaps in services for these populations and a lack of long-term affordable housing have led to hundreds of people living in temporary shelters like tents, cars and hotels, said Leander Rabe, a board member of the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless. 

This buildup leads to the creation of encampments, where temporary communities are formed in public and commercial spaces, said Brittany Fraser, an outreach case manager at Lansing’s Advent House Ministries.

“We have several different encampments, but they are quite fluid as people get moved around,” said Fraser, whose group receives federal support to help rehouse the homeless. “But one of the most consistent encampments we have is known as the ‘Back 40.’”

The population of that encampment has doubled the past month, she said. It has about 20 regular residents and another 30 to 40 coming and going.

“We expect it to continue growing,” she said. “We’re still early in the winter season, and the shelters are still maxing out.”

In an email, Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness executive director Eric Hufnagel acknowledged these encampments are in communities statewide. While he is unaware of them growing, he wrote, they are not limited to Kalamazoo and Lansing.

Until more shelter is available, these unofficial encampments can help groups like Fraser’s find where homeless people are so they can provide them with care.

However, the encampments are considered trespassing and can be removed by the city or property owners.

Some cities and property owners view the encampments as dangerous eyesores, Rabe said. Recent attempts in Kalamazoo to remove similar encampments have been inhumane, he said.

“They treated unhoused people like cattle to be pushed around,” Rabe said. “So we have a criminalized unhoused population with nowhere to go.”

Seventy-five people were removed from Kalamazoo’s largest encampment, Rabe said. City officials said it was done to protect them from flooding, but the water never came. 

“They might feel like they’re meeting safety needs, ” Rabe said. ”But typically, they’re trying to manage public perception of Kalamazoo and of the homeless problem.”

Without alternative shelters, that is not a real solution, as encampments will likely just shift locations, Rabe said. 

That’s why, after last winter, the Kalamazoo coalition proposed small fenced-in encampments  be built on property of participating businesses and houses of worship, Rabe said. The proposal was inspired by “Safe Sleep” programs across the country, like one in Eugene, Oregon.

Sweeping away encampments is more like Wac-a-Mole, said the Rev. Gabe Piechowicz, the pastor of EveryOne Church in Eugene. That’s why frustrated businesses and residents supported the city’s new program to build safe sleep sites.

EveryOne Village, Eugene’s second site, is set to open this month. It will provide free housing, social services and employment opportunities to 60-100 residents, said Piechowicz, whose church operates the village. With over 3,000 homeless residents in Eugene, much work remains.

“We want sites that can serve hundreds,” said Kelly McIver, the communications manager for Eugene’s Unhoused Response program. “So, while it can definitely help and grow, it’s still very limited.”

Still, Rabe says a similar system would be a good start to address the issue in Michigan. This volunteer-run program would require funding and city-approved spaces, he said. However, Kalamazoo rejected the plan as incompatible with zoning regulations.

“There are more than enough properties to do this kind of thing,” Rabe said. “They can change the zoning — it just takes political courage and will to do it.”

The real solution is increasing affordable housing, which will require more time, he said. But for now, there is a need to explore more local programs like these statewide.

Such programs require community support and engagement, McIver said, and it’s important to have a thorough discussion, because what has worked in Eugene might not be best in Michigan cities.

“It’s definitely something that people should understand the consequences of,” McIver said. “Both for individuals who are unhoused, but also for the rest of the community.”

As the weather gets colder, the need for some kind of solution intensifies, Rabe said. Ambulances have been called for some homeless residents getting hypothermia.

It’s too late to provide more shelter this winter, he said. For now he urges Michigand residents to build connections with homeless people in these encampments and find out about their needs.

Rabe explained this is what led to the local coalition to fill gaps in these needs. That helped in Eugene as well, Piechowicz said. He recommends people across the state try to build a relationship with and support at least one person.

That helps create the support systems needed,  said Fraser of Lansing’s Advent House Ministries. It’s especially important that Michigan residents remember to keep a compassionate and understanding demeanor in their interactions.

“The attitude with which our community addresses the homeless crisis determines how our politicians, government and police address those experiencing homelessness,” she said.

Fraser also recommends those who desire to help reach out to local groups that work with the homeless, especially because the groups likely haverelationships with theresidents already.

“So it’s a lot less traumatic for everyone involved and has a better chance of success,” she said. “Then we know where they are and can continue access to care.”

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