Yeas and nays from public greet Kalamazoo’s Emergency Housing law and efforts to house the homeless

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

Roshaun Heltzel is sure that everyone should have a good place to call home. She’s not so sure that place should be across the street from her hair salon.

“I don’t have a problem with a person being secure with a home or with living -- period,” says Heltzel.

So what’s her worry?

“It’s the problems they’re going to bring,” she says.

Her 305 E. Stockbridge Ave. business in Kalamazoo, Above & Beyond Unisex Salon, has been vandalized and had windows broken on several occasions over the past 16 years. A mobile concessions stand she operates was also trashed and made unusable. She blames all that on vagrants who have lived in a wooded section of the Edison Neighborhood just north of her shop, between Stockbridge Avenue and Lake Street.

So she anticipates more unwanted foot traffic by individuals struggling with financial, addiction, and sometimes psychological problems if a local nonprofit organization is able to proceed with plans to establish a community of up to 50 small but sturdy shelters for the homeless across the street from her business.

Members of the Kalamazoo City Commission, shown listening to public comments, approved an Emergency Housing Ordinance on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, that allows vacant lots to be used to erect shelters for the homeless.Housing assistance organization Housing Resources Inc. is negotiating to lease part of the 14-acre site of a former Kalamazoo County Department of Human Services office across the street from Heltsel at 322 E. Stockbridge Ave.

“I know they’re going to bring it,” Heltzel said of problems, “because look at all of the facilities (large outdoor encampments) that they done been at, and the turmoil that they done created at the facilities not even being monitored. So just imagine them being monitored, all they going to do is sneak harder.”

HRI has been working to develop safe, warm, temporary shelters for unhoused people before the bulk of winter weather sets in. The goal has been to find a more permanent, uncontaminated, and sustainable location to prevent the formation of more large homeless tent encampments, the last of which was disbanded by police in October. A new city-wide ordinance helps clear the way for organizations or individuals to develop emergency housing for the homeless for the next two years.

At their Monday (Dec. 6, 2021) meeting, members of the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously approved the Emergency Housing Ordinance, which allows vacant lots in the City of Kalamazoo to be used to erect shelters for the unhoused.

From the public, the passage of the ordinance was accompanied by both “Yeas” and “Nays.”

“I want to applaud the City Commission for all that you’re doing for affordable housing and in particular this Emergency Housing Ordinance,” Ray Sweeney, of Kalamazoo, says in recorded comments that were aired during the commission meeting. A member of the Affordable Housing Task Force of ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community), he says, “Thank you for doing things that are effective in changing the lives of people that are currently living in the rough and all sorts of strange circumstances.”

Kalamazoo City Planner Christina Anderson explains Kalamazoo’s new Emergency Housing Ordinance during a meeting on housing Tuesday evening (Dec. 7, 2021) at the Northside Association for Community Development.Finding a solution for those who previously were in tent encampments has been a priority this year for those who are seeking stable living conditions for those without homes. And the matter has taken on increased urgency as city residents in hours of public comments at recent city commission meetings severely criticized the sweep of the encampment on Ampersee and temperatures outside have dropped below freezing.

Comments made by those who balk at the ordinance  – including Heltzel -- focused primarily on not having a voice in how HRI’s proposed Kzoo POD Community location is moving forward and why Edison is the chosen location. The neighborhood boasts the city’s most diverse mix of people, ethnically and socially. 

“Residents who live in the area where the POD city is proposed and who will be directly impacted by its presence learned about decisions regarding POD city well after decisions had been made,” Raymond Gant, an Edison Neighborhood property owner, told members of the City Commission in comments aired during the commission’s Monday meeting.

“Conversations with officials appear to have been held in secret and well out of the public eye,” he says. “As a result, a level of distrust has surfaced and is creating a counter-productive, us-against-them mentality.”

He says consequently citizens are questioning the motives and intentions of those involved and “Many even speculate if the exclusion is intentional.”

Heltzel told the City Commission, “My main concern is that No.1: I was never made aware by anyone in the city or any HRI workers that they were going to do this. And a lot of people on my street were not aware of this as well. So I would like a little bit more information.”

Tina McClinton, a resident of nearby Lake Street, says she is not opposed to emergency shelter for the unhoused but questions the choice of the site, saying it’s in a flood plain.

Mayor David Anderson speaks during the Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, meeting of the Kalamazoo City Commission on the Zoom meeting platform.“Did you NOT just move them (the homeless) two times because they were in a flood plain?” she asked, referring to two tent encampments near downtown Kalamazoo that each attracted more than 100 occupants. “This is not a good area for this. This is another bad flood plain area. There are so many other sites that don’t flood or have sewer backups.”

She asked the City Commission to postpone approval of the ordinance until more questions are answered. Among them is whether people who live in POD city will be allowed to consume alcohol and drugs “and what do you have in place to stop it?’ And how are you going to protect the woods from their trash and walking in homeowners’ backyards at all hours of the night?”

Kalamazoo City Planner Christina Anderson says a portion of the proposed 322 E. Stockbridge Ave. site is in a flood plain. Other parts are not. And she says she believes HRI also is considering multiple sites.

City officials say there are a lot of standards any organization or individual has to meet to qualify a property for use under the new ordinance. Anderson says the ordinance allows a new type of temporary housing and sets standards for its development. But the realization of that will be led by housing providers (nonprofits, churches, developers, or other organizations) that have the capacity to do it. And property development is challenging, even for use with small, 8’ by 8’ by 8’ enclosures planned by HRI.

“Our job really is to allow it,” if it meets city standards, Anderson says, “and then support the housing providers as they make applications for us to review the sites that they would like to build it on.”

The city planner says, “Whatever site they propose, whether it’s 322 E. Stockbridge or others, has to go through the application process. So they need to provide a site plan. … They need to create a memorandum of understanding between the housing provider, the city, and the property owner (if it’s a third party) and that really focuses on the people -- those folks who will be staying there. It talks about what services will be provided, what are the house rules, quiet hours, parking, services, alcohol and drug policies, all of those details. And then the last piece before an application can be reviewed is an outreach meeting with the neighborhood and with the adjacent residents.”

The city’s Department of Community Planning & Economic Development is charged with reviewing the applications and approving them, with the help of the city’s Fire Marshal and Public Services.

Mayor David Anderson says the ordinance is basically an emergency override of city zoning rules that sets standards that anyone or any organization must meet to erect emergency housing. And although HRI has its sights set on the Stockbridge Avenue location that doesn’t mean it will get it.

“Really we just provided the opportunity for people to hold their hands up and say this is something we want to do and then here’s the steps they have to go through,” he says.

Although HRI, the city and others working to provide housing are well known to one another – and although HRI has announced it will spend about $1 million to buy specially designed, modular, fire-resistant ModPods pods from an Oregon manufacturer -- there have been no back-room meetings or buddy-buddy lunches to ease the way for their efforts.

“I’ve had no lunches,” Anderson says of meeting with those involved. The mayor is employed as Director of Housing and Facilities at Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, the county's mental health agency.

HRI has said it wants a site that is near services important to the houseless, and that has a building that may be used to provide a laundry, showers, restrooms, a place to eat meals, and other things.

Mayor Anderson says he hopes churches and other faith-based organizations with unused property consider providing needed housing under the new ordinance. And he suggests that anyone who lives in a neighborhood where a project is proposed contact those involved and ask questions.

HRI Executive Director Michelle Davis thanked the City Commission and all those who have offered creative solutions to help produce solutions for people who are living outdoors and experiencing homelessness. She directed people with questions about HRI’s efforts to visit its website for answers to a list of frequently asked questions.

“I want to reiterate that a site for our specific project has not been finalized and we are continuing to do our due diligence,” she says, “which is why we are waiting for a finalization of the site to have full community involvement in those discussions.”

Chris Bosner, of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, says, “The proposed project is an essential first step in addressing homelessness in the community especially now as temperatures begin to drop below freezing. I am disappointed by some neighborhood residents who say, ‘I don’t think this neighborhood is right for the project,’ or ‘Not in My Backyard.’ We need this project and the project needs a home. We need to work together to make sure that no matter where the project is located it will be successful.”

Mattie Jordan-Woods, executive director of the Northside Association for Community Development, says she thinks the ordinance unfairly directs housing for the homeless into low-income neighborhoods because most affluent neighborhoods don’t have vacant lots. She also urged the City Commission to enlist neighboring municipalities to help resolve issues of homelessness, saying Kalamazoo bears the brunt of the effort to help people who are attracted from far and wide to take advantage of its human services.

“I don’t understand why the City Commission is not stepping back and asking the other jurisdictions to help us with the homeless problem,” she says. “Kalamazoo cannot do this alone. And to say that (they should) because all the services are in Kalamazoo? That’s not right. The services need to be spread out so that everyone is contributing to addressing this issue.”

Mayor Anderson says he agrees.

“This is not just a city problem,” he says. “The individuals who end up staying in shelters or outside in the City of Kalamazoo are not necessarily all city residents. People have come from a whole variety of places. They end up in Kalamazoo because that’s where the services are. But I would suggest this is at least a countywide problem.”


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.