New volunteer coalition focuses on shelter, heat, meals, and advocacy for Kalamazoo's homeless

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

“Yeah, I’ll take one,” the serious young man in the denim jacket said after approaching quietly.

“Be sure to ventilate your tent and make sure nothing’s within two feet of the heater,” the volunteer warned.

With the new portable heater, each of the four small propane tanks the man was given should last four to five hours. So any of the 1-lb. canisters may be enough to get him through the night, if used sparingly, he was told. 

“Thanks,” the man said, joking that his tattered four-man tent already has too much ventilation.

Leander Rabe is shown in this screenshot as he updates members of the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless and others on the progress the organization is making.On a recent Saturday, he was among 40 people to receive a new portable space heater and wish-they-were-bigger tanks of propane to help get them through sub-freezing nights at what is being called the Mills Street encampment.

On the eastern fringe of downtown Kalamazoo, the "camp" is one of about five large areas where homeless people have clustered together to live in and around Kalamazoo -- outdoors, often among trees or behind buildings. Typically, they are just out of sight of hundreds of passing motorists but miles away from the lifestyles most other Kalamazooans enjoy.

Tuna-fish sized cans of match-lit, Sterno-like heat sources were offered to the unhoused people who approached volunteers after the supply of heaters was exhausted. Not having enough for everyone is disappointing for Leander Rabe, whose group of volunteers has been working since mid-November to help the homeless. But members of the group, called the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless, have joined enthusiastically in recent weeks and have not lost much of their drive.

A new outlook on an old problem

"It's been fantastic," says Rabe, who has spearheaded -- and been trying to manage -- the volunteer effort since early November when the smell of burning plastic drew his attention to a homeless encampment near the Kalamazoo River, just east of downtown Kalamazoo.

"We've got people who have been stepping up all over the place," he says, "And that's been great."

The Coalition is providing meals, propane tanks, heaters, tents, sleeping bags, and portable shelters. Its focus is on heat, shelter, and meals during some of the coldest months of the year -- January, February, and March. Rabe knows that is, figuratively speaking, like using Band-Aids to try to fix problems that need major surgery. But he and his grassroots volunteers are motivated to help. Why?

"Because they are not acting," Rabe says of others. "If they were acting, this wouldn't be needed. But there's a huge void."

In camps and in clusters

Kalamazoo has anywhere from 500 to 700 homeless people, depending on who you ask. Advocates say it’s hard to estimate because the unhoused live on the fringes of society.

"They are spread all over and in clusters," he says of makeshift camps. "There are many, many more who are living out of cars, couch surfing at some family member's or friend's house, or living out of the garage of someone's place. ...  And then there are many more who are by themselves because they don't want to be around people and they're living under a bridge or over behind a business and they've got their own little tent set up there."

He asks why homelessness still exists in Kalamazoo and "Why has this not been greatly reduced?"

As Rabe asks pointed questions, others say the effort to help the homeless has been significant since a homeless encampment was formed in Bronson Park during the late summer of 2018 to call attention to their circumstances. One sign of progress is the City of Kalamazoo's approval of a Fair Housing Ordinance in September. It protects low-income, disabled and elderly people from housing discrimination and also protects those who receive government housing assistance or have had past evictions and criminal convictions, removing barriers that can lead to homelessness. 

Coalition members gather on a recent Saturday to prepare to hand out portable propane heaters to people at homeless encampments in downtown Kalamazoo.The city also has implemented its Housing for All program that offers loans for affordable housing projects in the City of Kalamazoo. And in November, Kalamazoo County voters approved a 0.75-mill property tax that will cover eight years, from December 2021 to December 2028, and provide funds for rental subsidies, permanent housing, and other supportive services for Kalamazoo County residents.

All are long-term solutions to a situation with ongoing and immediate needs for many.

"The City of Kalamazoo has been plagued with a history of homelessness for a very long time," says Gwendolyn Hooker, executive director of HOPE Thru Navigation. She has worked with the homeless for about six years. The Bronson Park encampment and the COVID-19 pandemic put the needs of the unhoused "smack dab in the middle for community members and people who have a heart for people," she says.

Gwendolyn Hooker, Executive Director of HOPE Through Navigation As a result of job losses from the COVID slowdown and the lack of more affordable housing in the area, there are simply more people who have been evicted from, or unable to afford, their apartments or homes. She says they are joining others who are struggling to get back on their feet financially and those who are chronically homeless; in a cycle where they never seem to find permanent supportive housing -- such as troubled military veterans and those dealing with substance abuse disorders and mental health issues.

The Continuum of Care

At the same time, good work is being done by nonprofit organizations that have become partners through the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care, Hooker says. That initiative was formed in January of 2020 to bring together local service providers, public health officials, and staff members of the city and county to develop community-wide plans "to deliver housing services and supports for individuals and families experiencing homelessness."

Hooker says the partnership of nonprofits that works through the Continuum of Care is focused on providing structured and long-term housing for the homeless. A promising effort on that horizon is the LIFT Foundation's recent acquisition of a local motel to provide more substantial low- to no-cost housing. LIFT closed last week on the purchase of the Knight's Inn on Westnedge Avenue to initially provide temporary winter shelter for the homeless, with plans to renovate the property and convert most of its 60 rooms into efficiency-style units for the homeless. Using money provided through local philanthropy, it is paying about $1.5 million for the property and expects to pay another $2.5 million to do renovations this summer.

The Coalition recognizes the LIFT Foundation's effort but Rabe doubts that the renovated motel will have enough space to help the many people in need of housing.

He says the project “will get a ton of press and a lot of people will say, 'Oh, OK, they're addressing the problem.' But that is a drop in the bucket. That's the perspective that we can help provide: A. We applaud it. But B. People are going to applaud it in the way they want everyone to think, 'Hey, look at what we've done' in the sense that we've solved the problem. But we haven't even come close to solving the problem."

Blowing things up

Hooker says the groundswell of people who rallied to the Coalition's early online postings were undirected. And that caused problems.

"When he came in, he kind of blew up the spot," Hooker says of Rabe, the Coalition, and the encampments near downtown Kalamazoo.

Two women talk on a recent Saturday afternoon as volunteers with the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless prepare to hand out portable propane heaters to people at homeless encampments in downtown Kalamazoo.A professional leadership coach, Rabe works with business executives, school administrators and others on team- and corporate-culture-building. He has been a Kalamazoo area resident for the past 25 years and is an avid runner. He was on a long trek with some friends in early November when he noticed the smell of a fire at a homeless camp. He returned later, talked to some people there and began to share their stories with friends.

"That's what blew up in a viral sense," Rabe says.

Posts he made to a couple of friends two weeks before Thanksgiving triggered hundreds of messages within 36 hours, followed by waves of inquiries and charitable giving by area people.

He says he created a Facebook group to handle the rush "with the goal of being able to communicate and answer some of their questions."  But, in people's haste to try to help, problems quickly arose. They began to try to find the encampments to donate food, clothing, and other items.

Asking what people need

"In a lot of cases, it was things they (the homeless) could not use or did not want," Rabe says. Those included piles of clothes that were left on the ground outdoors. After they became wet, they were useless to people without regular access to a laundry.

Food items were donated. But a lot of it was food that needed to be prepared on a stove or in an oven. Such staples as macaroni and cheese are unusable to people who lack pots, pans, a microwave oven, or a reliable cooking set-up.

And there was a lack of sensitivity to the dignity of people in the camps, as some visitors tried to take selfie pictures with homeless people and others took drive-by photos from their cars.

So a few weeks ago, Rabe implored volunteers to stop going to the camps independently, saying, "What I have learned along the way is that you have to do it with (the people involved), not to them." Givers often take a patriarchal approach, bringing people what they think they need rather than asking them what they need, Rabe says.

More recently, he says, "We've got some organizations and systems in place to sustain distribution and that sort of thing for some critical resources. So that's been a big win. And we just are going to keep building from there." Volunteer efforts are being coordinated via the group's Facebook page, which boasts more than 2,500 members and is active. Among recent messages:

• "Brrr. It was a cold one last night! Yet thankfully, about 100 bottles of propane were distributed through our two main homeless encampments to keep heaters going."

• "The encampments are running low on firewood. Please inbox if you can help."

• "Great news! There is now a plan for getting more propane into the camps."

• "The dumpsters are really overflowing, especially at the Hotop encampment."

• "Does the pregnant lady need anything for herself or the baby?"

• "I have some gently used blankets to donate for the homeless. What would be the best organization to take these to?"

Organizing the puzzle and the players

Hooker says the wave of people motivated by Rabe's postings has had the potential to cause some unhoused people to scatter in order to avoid unwanted attention. But she says, "I think that they are doing a better job now that they have some organizing partners with them like Urban Alliance, Community Action Agency and HOPE Thru Navigation. Because before, it wasn't organized at all."

She says, "It's really a matter of organizing the pieces of the puzzle in a way that we're not duplicating services and making sure everyone knows who's doing what and when they're doing it."

HOPE Thru Navigation primarily provides resources and support for individuals who are rebuilding their lives after incarceration or substance abuse. Individuals with such problems are well represented among Kalamazoo's homeless population, says Hooker, whose organization is a partner in the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care, under United Way of the Battlle Creek and Kalamazoo Region.

Trash and other waste is an ongoing problem at the homeless encampments. Shown here are food items and clothing that well-intentioned people left at a campsite. Left outdoors and without an explanation, people don't often know if food is still fresh."What the partners are doing is basically delivering services," Hooker says. "And the Coalition for the Homeless is basically organizing everything else. They're organizing the donations that are being dropped off. They're sorting them. They're making sure that people are not just dropping off food and leaving it. They are basically the people who have gotten the city to actually get port-a-potties and make sure the city got dumpsters."

She says HOPE Thru Navigation, Urban Alliance and other entities are visiting the encampments on certain days "and providing services to people -- whether it be making sure they have personal protection equipment or making sure they have a phone." Work done by Hooker and her three outreach workers at the encampments is funded by an Urgent Relief Fund grant provided by the United Way.

More pros than cons?

Jason Knight, an outreach worker and connection coordinator with Urban Alliance in Kalamazoo, says, "With the creation of this Facebook page/group, it definitely has lifted up these encampments." And, he says, there have been pros and cons.

"One of the cons has been an overwhelming presence of donations at the Mills Street location," Knight says. "This has created an abundance of waste."

The availability of more food and resources at that site has also caused it to grow from about 12 campers before Thanksgiving to about 60 now, one longtime advocate for the homeless says. The City of Kalamazoo has been using some of its resources to provide and service port-a-potties and waste receptacles to manage the additional waste, however.

"The group has been able to purchase tents, propane heaters, and propane," Knight says, pointing out some of the pros of the Coalition's involvement. "The group was also able to create a meal train to help with warm meals."

Jason Knight, of Urban AllianceWorking with the Urban Alliance and Food Not Bombs (a volunteer organization that provides meals to the needy), the Coalition has developed a "Meal Train" that tries to coordinate the delivery of warm means to people in the encampments. It has grown the number of group meals from three times per week to 10.

Casting a wider net

Urban Alliance is one of the nonprofit organizations that have partnered with others through the Continuum of Care to provide services to the homeless. Urban Alliance is known as an employment training, financial coaching and placement services agency. And it has always had a street ministry to reach out to people and help them improve their lives, Knight says. One of its missions is "to bring justice to individuals that have no voice. The local encampments are one of the many marginalized groups in Kalamazoo."

With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping it from its usual hands-on and in-person employment work, it refocused its outreach on helping to meet the needs of the homeless at the Mills Street encampment.

"When you are doing outreach, you will run into individuals who will have a wide range of needs," Knight says. "One of the ways to build relationships with an individual is gaining trust. If you can help an individual with an item such as a coat, boots or a sleeping bag, this gesture goes a long way."

He says such items can be costly but through crowdfunding done by the Coalition for the Homeless, he has sometimes been able to acquire needed items within a few hours.

"Having this group as one of the tools in my belt is huge," Knight says.

He also says Rabe has a great passion for this work and "His willingness to build relationships and work alongside volunteers and the individuals we are working with is awesome."

Speaking with authority

Hooker and Rabe estimate there are about five large homeless encampments in the area -- loose clusters of people who have pitched tents or tarps or set up pallets near one another.

"There were seven," Rabe says. "But two of them got closed down last week."


"One was on private land and the owner said, 'I don't want people living on my private land,'" Rabe says of a property on Kalamazoo's Northside, near Parchment. "Another was outside of the township (Kalamazoo Township) over in the Gull Road area and I don't even know what the circumstances were there. But I think it was also private land."

Asked how he can speak authoritatively about the homeless in the short time he has been involved, Rabe says, "Because our coalition is comprised of a number of people who've been on the ground and a number of the people on our steering team ... who have a vast amount of knowledge because they've been on the ground for months and months and months."

They also learn from unhoused people themselves. Rabe is active in the camps about three days each week and members of the Coalition's five-person steering committee are active as well.

"I started going down to the camps to see what was going on, talking to some people that were living there, (and) asking questions to learn the landscape," says Rabe. "I've done work with homeless populations before. I've done community development overseas. So I've had a lot of experience. But I didn't know about this specific dynamic."

Rabe was born in Okinawa, Japan, the son of a military serviceman. He then lived in New Jersey and relocated to the Kalamazoo area about 25 years ago.  He says he has done community development work in the Dominican Republic. He led initiatives for clean drinking water in Uganda and helped build homes and schools in Mexico and Columbia.

Gimme shelter

Currently, the Coalition is evaluating the experience that local homeless people had recently with three hard-weather tents it purchased. Rabe recruited three homeless people to try the tents and say what they liked or disliked.

Any number of people are still using tents that were gifted to them by individuals during the homeless encampment in Bronson Park. He says many of those are "weekend" tents that use fiberglass poles and don't stand up well to snow, ice, and long-term use.

The hard-weather tents that are on trial use metal poles But they have been tough for users to set up, and they are small, Rabe says. They have room for only two adults rather than the two adults and two children that was advertised. That may make them unsuitable for people who have to store their personal items out of sight to safeguard them from theft. So Rabe says, the evaluation continues.

The Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless recruited three homeless people to try out tough-weather tents like the one shown here in an image from its manufacturer. The Coalition hoped the warmer tents would help get more people safely survive winter.In the meantime, the Coalition has been buying and providing tents to people as needed. It does so by drawing funds from its crowdfunding effort (Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless - GoFundMe). That is its sole source of funding, bolstered by private donations of time, food, products, and resources.

Rabe says thousands of dollars have been spent. The Coalition's steering committee decides as a group what should be funded, in general areas of need. Specific, individual expenditures are decided on a more fluid basis.

A bit of understanding

Hooker says the Continuum of Care has its eye on providing more permanent and long-term housing. But she knows many of the unhoused are not attracted to facilities that provide services for the homeless, such as the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission. They say they prefer to live outdoors on their own terms outdoors rather than abide by rules indoors at the Gospel Mission.

"A lot of people, because of the religious nature of the Gospel Mission, would prefer to be doubled-up, or couch surf, or live in their cars rather than have to deal with the requirements at the mission," Hooker says.

Through this week, the Coalition for the Homeless has set a three-times-per-week schedule for passing out 1-gallon propane tanks to be used with portable heaters it is providing to dozens of local homeless people.Understanding that the homeless include individuals who struggle with substance abuse, mental health, PTSD, and trust issues, she says, "It is something that the average person is not going to understand."

Knight said the wider community needs to be educated on the barriers many people face when they are attempting to "get their life back together." That includes the inability to get work because some have no identification or are struggling with an addiction, untreated mental illness, or other issues. The lack of identification also prevents them from applying for a housing assistance voucher to cover the cost of their housing, Knight says.

He says barriers to temporary shelter also need to be lowered. They include:

• Married couples cannot stay together. "If you are going through something as traumatic as being unhoused, your spouse and partner is your support system," Knight says. 

• Whole families are not allowed to stay together, meaning they are forced to choose which parent is going to take the kids for the night. And they typically have to be up and out every morning around 6 a.m.

Asked about staying at the Gospel Mission rather than outdoors, one homeless man told a volunteer he didn't like their rules and "They don't let you smoke." Asked if he would use more permanent housing for the homeless that is being planned at a local motel, he said he didn't trust it because Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson is part of a key organization involved in its development. And he thinks there is a government control conspiracy that would result in Anderson owning the property.

Anderson is vice president of the LIFT Foundation Board of Directors, a volunteer position. LIFT is a nonprofit owner, manager and developer of affordable housing. In Kalamazoo, its properties include the Interfaith Homes on Kalamazoo's North Side (at 1037 Interfaith Boulevard) and Heather Gardens off Gull Road on Kalamazoo's East Side (at 2400 St. Albans Way). Professionally, Anderson is director of housing and facilities at Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, which collaborates resources to help young people, adults, and families cope with mental illnesses, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and substance abuse disorders.

Those entities are involved in finding and developing housing for people with little to no income, but Anderson says he has no ownership interest or financial stake in any of their properties or projects. And the mayor says he has no plans to control people’s lives.

What's in the future?

The Coalition for the Homeless hopes to one day have the financial resources to buy property to create permanent housing for the homeless, Rabe says. During the coming year, it would like to acquire land to develop a safe camp.

In the meantime, it plans to continue to ask unhoused people what they need and advocate for solutions to meet their needs. Rabe says pressing for systemic changes to address the needs of homeless people will require major effort. It will require continued education for those involved in the volunteer movement as well as education for the broader public.

"We need to shed light on the problems because some of that is advocacy that puts pressure on the powers that be," Rabe says. "But we're hoping to move more and more people to address this issue, put pressure on the issue and light on the issue."
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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.