Breaking camp in Kalamazoo: So where will the homeless go?

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

As Kalamazoo authorities close the largest encampment of homeless people in the heart of the city, civic leaders and human service organizations say they will continue to work to help those without homes.
The Ampersee Avenue encampment had become home to about 150 people by the time it was slated to be closed on Wednesday, Sept. 29, says the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. That number had dwindled to about 50 by Wednesday, Oct. 6, when they actually did close it.
In late September, Sara Jacobs, director of the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care, announced plans to close the encampment saying, “While we recognize the complex systemic and personal factors that result in encampments, the current situation at the Ampersee encampment presents a significant risk to the health, safety, and well-being of those living at the encampment, those providing onsite services and supports, and those living and working nearby.”
This week, she said the Continuum of Care worked with partner organizations on Monday (Oct. 4) to offer housing and shelter options, addiction services, medical services, and food. 

Mayor David Anderson reports, "Many residents have taken advantage of options provided by the existing support system Including shelters and long-term residential recovery programs. These opportunities are still available. For those who decline the offer for safe places to sleep, food, mental health, and substance use disorder treatment, Kalamazoo Continuum of Care partners continue to focus on the creation of permanent housing as well as expanding other creative sheltering options."

On Wednesday, Ryan Bridges, public information officer for the city and KDPS said 50 people received cell phones to remain connected to services, two unhoused families were provided transportation to be reunited with their families living outside of the area, and more than 10 people opted for shelter at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission or Oakland House Shelter.
The city continues to experience its own version of the nationwide problem that was once on the decline but more recently has been rising, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Since data on homelessness has been collected, unsheltered homelessness has largely trended downward. By 2015, it had dropped by nearly a third. However, over the last five years, there has been a reversal of that trend. The unsheltered population has surged by 30 percent, almost wiping out nearly a decade of previous gains. 
"Nationally, the number of people currently living unsheltered is virtually as high as it was in 2007. The trend of escalating numbers of people living unsheltered impacts nearly every major subgroup—including people of every race, ethnicity, gender, and most age groups. Only children (people under 18) have realized an overall decrease in unsheltered homelessness during the current surge," the Alliance reports.
The question in Kalamazoo remains: Where will the people go?  
“While a lot of them don’t know where they’re going to go, I think that they will find somewhere else -- another patch of woods or another piece of property that they will go to,” says Pastor Michael L. Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission.
Brown anticipates that other encampments of unhoused people will form in the future “and then we’ll find ourselves with this same situation somewhere else at another time.”
The Kalamazoo Gospel is one piece of the complex puzzle of providing shelter and services to those who do not have homes. The Mission, whose dormitory facilities at 448 N. Burdick St. can provide temporary overnight housing for up to 360 people per day, is most often cited as the place the unhoused can go for food, warmth, and shelter. Brown welcomes that.

But the Mission is not the choice for a significant number of the unhoused, advocates say.
“We absolutely applaud what the Mission is doing,” Leander Rabe, leader of the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless Coalition, stated in a Sept. 1 posting on Facebook. “This is a great next step in our community. But that capacity isn’t enough. As many as 1,000 people are homeless in Kalamazoo County.”
And the idea that the Gospel Mission can accommodate all of those in need – it is expanding to provide more beds for those in crisis situations – is seen by Rabe as providing an excuse by the city and other human services organizations for not addressing a large segment of the unhoused who won’t shelter in a congregate approach like the Mission, Rabe said in a Sept. 24 posting that followed the city’s announcement that it planned to close the encampment near Ampersee and Hotop avenues, northeast of downtown Kalamazoo. 
“So now the unhoused will be scattered in tiny little pockets all over the city. We will lose the chance to bring resources to these people to help them break out of the cycle of homelessness.”
The Coalition for the Homeless is a collaborative of volunteers who came together after Rabe noticed unhoused people living in makeshift tents and shelters near the downtown last November. He did a Facebook posting about it and hundreds of people responded. They formed a new organization that has provided an ongoing series of daily meals to camps of unhoused people, as well as heaters, tarps, and other supplies. They have been working to fund small but more substantial shelters that can be used in lieu of tents. And they have pushed the city and other organizations to use their significant resources to respond more quickly to the needs of the unhoused.
Why do some people refuse to shelter at the Mission?
“Kalamazoo Gospel Ministries continues to have current shelter capacity for single males, single females, and families,” Ryan Bridges, public information officer for the city and KDPS states.
John Simpson, chief operations officer for the Christian, gospel-based mission, says it can house about 360 people per day, though it has had only 145 to 170 daily guests in recent days. More than half of those are men, with the balance being women and children. It should be able to house about 559 overnight visitors in total when its new Women and Children’s Shelter opens in mid-December.
But outreach workers say the unhoused include people who struggle with trust and authority issues as well as mental health, substance abuse, and other issues. And some have said they would rather live outside in winter weather on their own terms than inside under the rules of the faith-based Mission.
“There is nothing that you can provide that will get them (some of the homeless) inside,” Brown says.
Some bristle at authority, the idea of government control, and do not want to follow some rules. Some have psychological challenges that require help the Gospel Mission does not provide, he says.
“When you have people who talk about they don’t want to be controlled, they don’t want somebody telling them what time they’ve got to get up in the morning,” Brown says. “They don’t want somebody telling them that you can’t smoke in the building. They don’t want somebody telling them that you can’t eat until a particular time. They just want to come and go as they please and there’s no way that Kalamazoo Gospel Ministries or any other organization can help or support a large group of people without boundaries. You just can’t do it.”
He recalls being chewed out by an unhoused man to whom he had offered services. “He told me, ‘Nobody asked you to help us! Nobody asked you to give us a place!’” he says. “And they were living in a cardboard box in the snow.”
Jason Knight, an outreach worker with the Urban Alliance in Kalamazoo, says establishing a campground with access to running water and electricity is all some unhoused people have told him they want. Some, he says, “would just be happy with a tent and electricity.”
In 2018, after unhoused people who had camped and protested in Bronson Park were allowed to relocate to a vacant area just north of the Gospel Mission’s main facility, more than 90 tents appeared, some used by as many as five people.
“There were at least three different groups of people, all of them homeless, all of them living in tents,” Brown says. “One group, they wanted help. They really wanted help. They wanted to know what they could do to get into their own places. They appreciated everything you did for them. They wanted to help cut grass to show that they appreciated what we were doing. Then you had another group. They just wanted you to give them what they wanted and whatever you did for them it wasn’t enough. And then you had the other group -- homelessness was a business for them. They had a drug tent. They had a sex tent. They had all these different businesses going on within that culture. And so that’s what you end up with when there are no rules.”
Crime at the campsite?
City officials have said the Ampersee encampment was unsafe because of soil contamination there. And as more people congregated, it had become a breeding ground for victimization.
“You have a vulnerable population there,” says David Boysen, deputy chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. “So you have drug dealers selling drugs there and we have had allegations of human trafficking that we are actively investigating. Those cases take a lot of time and another thing is they are very difficult for us to investigate because the population is very transient and are very hard to locate when you try to track down witnesses.”
He says methamphetamines and opioids were the drugs most frequently involved as dealers were attracted to people who already may have had a substance abuse problem. Boysen says sex trafficking most typically involved vulnerable young adult women being coerced into sex after being provided a place to stay.
“A lot of it was happening not in the camp itself,” he says, “but in area motel rooms where they would bring these girls in exchange for money, food, whatever they would do. … They would get multiple girls in a motel room. It really is unfortunate.”
Matt Huber, assistant chief of the department, says that for such crime, the encampment “was kind of a recruiting ground.” And the officers say human trafficking is way more common than people think.
“It’s not people coming over the border and that’s it,” Boysen says. “It’s happening everywhere. It’s preying on a vulnerable population wherever they are.”
Knight says he thinks the answer comes down to building more affordable housing.
“We know the solution is housing,” he says. “It’s just a matter of where. And then if you say, (let’s build it) over here, it’s NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard). The community wants to solve this problem, wants to get rid of the encampment. They just don’t want it in their back yard.”
The Gospel Mission offers help to anyone who wants help dealing with abuse, addiction, hunger, and homelessness. Brown says a successful society has people who want to help make it work. But we struggle with that now.
“In the past, we’ve had people who stayed with us that would wash dishes and help clean up after the meal,” he says. “Well, nobody wants to do that anymore. But everybody wants to be fed. It’s that kind of thinking that makes it challenging for us. I wish people would say, ‘Feed me and I’ll help.’ But they don’t want to do that. They just want to come in, get something to eat, and leave. And it’s sad too because Kalamazoo has so many agencies to help people that really want help.”
Brown says he and his team are disheartened to hear some people say they are not allowed at the Mission. “We wish that they would want to come and get some help,” he says.


Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.