Kalamazoo POD Community proponents look to see if proposed Lake Street site holds water

This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to affordable housing and housing the unhoused. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including Kalamazoo County, the city of Kalamazoo, the ENNA Foundation, and the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.

KALAMAZOO, MI — A good home continues to be hard to find for the unhoused in Kalamazoo.

A nonprofit organization that has been trying for two years to develop safe housing for those most in need says it has identified a suitable site to develop a community of 50 small, weather-resistant modular living units for people who are unhoused. And it recognizes that it has some major hurdles to clear.

“Today our community takes a giant step forward in breaking down the barriers that prevent people from finding safe, affordable, stable housing,” Michelle Davis, executive director of Housing Resources Inc., said last week upon identifying 2015 Lake St. as a site HRI is exploring to house the Kzoo POD Community.

The organization says it is now working to:

•  Raise $5 million it expects to need for the construction of the community (with “POD” standing for Place of Dignity); 

• Find funding support for some $1 million that it expects to need annually for its operation;

• And make connections with neighboring businesses, residents, and the broader community to explain its plans.

“One of the many things we’ve learned from other communities like this is the need to provide information, allay concerns, and create strong partnerships,” Davis said in a press release. “There are many misperceptions about safety, security, and how the site will fit with the surrounding neighborhood. We want to address those issues.”

Courtesy of HRIThis artist’s rendering of a POD modular  community in Reno, Nev., provides an idea of what such a community could look like in Kalamazoo.HRI has identified the 2015 Lake Street site as a property that can accommodate the 8’ by 8’ by 8’ and 16’ by 8’ by 8’ modular living enclosures it purchased in 2021. Called ModPods, they have been stored in a facility owned by Clark Logic as HRI has worked to find a suitable place for the POD Community. 

Clark Logic is the same company that has offered to lease the Lake Street space to be developed into the POD community. It is located just west of the I-94 Business Loop (Amvet Memorial Parkway) between Julianna’s Restaurant and Light Truck Parts, a salvage yard for truck and car parts.

The ModPod units will be outfitted with beds, electricity, storage space, and heating/air conditioning. Adjacent buildings already on the property are to be used to include a laundry, showers, food services, sanitation facilities, trash services, and full-time onsite security for community residents. HRI points to a successful community in Reno, Nev., as a model for the development.

The PODs include 34 units for single unsheltered individuals and 16 for couples. The community is not expected to accommodate children.

Courtesy of HRIHRI Inc. is looking to assemble and utilize 50 small modular units like this in Kalamazoo before the end of the year.Plans call for the area to be staffed around the clock to help residents transition from the pods to other long-term housing. In a press release, Davis said a feasibility study concluded that the Lake Street site “is a good fit because it has adequate space, existing utilities, buildings that can be renovated and used for client services, and access to public transportation.”

Already the site's closest neighbors are expressing their reservations about the POD community, 

“Just drive through downtown and you know what will happen out here – the same thing,” says Bill Farrell, owner of Light Truck Parts, a salvage yard for car and truck parts at 1811 Lake St. Speaking of unhoused people, he says, “They’ll be begging here. They’ll be breaking into my building. They’ll be in my yard. They’ll be bothering my customers. They’ll be blocking the streets. Those that can’t get in the encampment will be sleeping outside.”
While rules and details have not been established, HRI describes the POD community as temporary housing to help unhoused people transition from the streets to permanent homes.

Michael Olewinski, a nearby resident of Schuster Avenue, says he has great hopes for how the community can help the homeless here.

 “I think it’s great,” the family man says. “If they’re going to give them (the unhoused) a spot and that’s going to be something that will let them bounce and rebound, I think that’s great."

He says it also centralizes a community for the unhoused “so that we don’t have random communities of homelessness. To me, that’s more dangerous because where are they? What are they doing? They’re just roaming the streets of Kalamazoo with no central area. Here, we have built and secured an area of recovery.”

Olewinski says, “The panel that screens these individuals that come in is going to have to really differentiate between someone that wants to change and someone that’s not ready to change.”
Al JonesJuliana’s Restaurant, at 2105 Lake St., is just east of the proposed site for the Kazoo POD Community.Talking about time he spent on the West Coast seeing poor and homeless people migrate to find better opportunities, Olewinski says, “There’s other communities like this.” And speaking of the need to help, he says, “If everybody could see what I see, I think the difference 20 to 30 years down the road is going to be great.”

Problems created by those visiting the residents of the community for the unhoused were on the minds of other neighbors.

Doug Hamstra, who co-owns C.J.’s Pub, says, “I think it will run my customers off, through harassment and danger issues.”

C.J.’s is a small neighborhood tavern that sits between the proposed site and the I-94 Business Loop, along with Julianna’s Restaurant, a small family eatery that is about 35 years old and is owned by Sandy and Jim Bloomfield. 

Hamstra says, “Obviously we think it can be detrimental to C.J.’s and Julianna’s.”
He says that about once a week he already has a homeless person trying to wash up in the bathroom of his business. Others pick through his trash cans and, on occasion, someone will use cardboard from a dumpster to light a fire just outside one of his buildings to stay warm.

He worries that security at the POD Community will only help inside that community’s fences, but will do nothing to manage others who visit or hang outside. That makes him less secure about the safety of his patrons and female staff members.

“The people from HRI keep saying, ‘Read the website,’” Hamstra says. “Well, if you read the website and ask the questions, there’s no requirement for alcohol or drug treatment or treatment for mental health issues. There’s no requirement to actually find a (permanent living) place. If they find you a place, they ask that you consider it.”

Al JonesLight truck parts at 1811 Lake St. just west of the proposal Kazoo POD Community.Hamstra, who has co-owned his business for about 30 years, says he worries that he has seen nothing that indicates that the community will require tenants to find jobs. 

The HRI website says:  "Up to half of all unhoused people are employed but aren’t paid enough to afford rent. Many who don’t work face barriers — no home address, no clean clothes, no transportation, the stigma of homelessness or disbabilty or criminal record. We connect them with resources to help."

Hamstra and others worry that unhoused people who come to visit tenants on the site will cause problems. He says he has no problem helping people, and he is not a heartless person, but he thinks the POD community will destroy his business. And he wonders whether the $5 million development cost of developing the transitional housing community could be used to buy homes for the unhoused in various locations rather than have them concentrated in the city’s Edison Neighborhood.
Ryan Ledbetter, a worker at Light Truck Parts, says he doesn’t think the residents of the POD Community are going to be the big issue. He says, “It’s the ones that are not going to be able to get in the camp. And because they are giving them food, the people in the camp are going to bring it out to them. Any of the other places they’ve tried to do this, there’s always a camp outside of the camp.”
Al JonesThe proposed site for the Kazoo POD Community, at 2015 Lake St. is currently being used to store truck trailers.And he asked, “How many times are you going to go back to a business when your car keeps getting broken into?”

Unsheltered people are far more likely to be victims of crime or violence than the perpetrators, according to HRI. The POD Community offers a safe and supportive place to help them. 
Hamstra says he also has concerns for the health of the people who will live at the proposed site. There is the potential for the site to be contaminated and there is ongoing exposure to heavy truck traffic, he says. The location has been used to store trucks and shipping containers. It has also been used to do other automotive work. And it is bordered on the north by an asphalt company where large trucks kick up dust and dirt throughout the fair-weather months.
Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson says he has heard concerns about the housing project from area residents and some of that may be because HRI has not yet submitted an official proposal to the City of Kalamazoo to develop a site. HRI will have to fulfill requirements laid out in the City’s Emergency Housing Ordinance before it can move ahead with the project.
“There are a lot of requirements related to sanitation, showers, security, staffing, planning, maintaining, on and on and on,” Anderson says. There is also a requirement to host community engagement activities.

But thus far HRI has not made an application.
A spokesman for HRI says a lot of work has been done by HRI to get the project to this point but a lot of planning still remains to be done to answer many questions, such as who will be selected to live in the POD community.
Hamstra says if there is only one incident involving drugs, alcohol, or mental health issues “in my parking lot (or) in the neighborhood, that’s one incident a week with my customers.” That’s a lot, he says.

What would he do?

“The city has tons of places,” Hamstra says. “For $5 million, let's buy some of these empty lots and put four or five tiny houses on them. And spread them out. Putting people together doesn’t work. We could still have outreach and mental health treatment and alcohol treatment.”

Farrell says he thinks the POD Community should be developed on Crosstown Parkway adjacent to the headquarters of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. In that location, there will be far less bad behavior. “I’m not saying this out of sarcasm or stupidity,” he says. “If you want to make these people better, if you put law enforcement in their backyard, they’ve got to get better.”

Davis said HRI is looking for funding to cover the cost and assembly of the ModPods. It needs $1.65 million to fully lease the site and kick off the design and construction of the community, which it hopes to have up and going by the winter of 2024.

“We’re committed to creating an attractive, safe, secure, and supportive community that will be a great addition to Kalamazoo and a life-changing asset for the people we serve,” Davis says.

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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.