Homeless Say They Feel Safe and Supported in Downtown Kalamazoo Camp

Sep 10, 2018

Two residents of "Tent City" in Bronson Park in downtown Kalamazoo write thank-you notes to "Good Samaritans" who have helped the camp
Credit Adam Rayes / WMUK

On a recent afternoon, Bronson Park was full of people talking and laughing. Some were passing through. Others were living there. About 20 tents were packed into the northwest corner. This group of fabric living spaces is somewhat-affectionately known by its inhabitants as “Tent City.” 

The camp appeared a few weeks ago. The homeless people who live there say they are protesting unfair treatment of people who don’t have permanent housing. They’ve gone to meetings and held rallies in the park.

The residents of Tent City say they care for each other like family, working though conflicts and making sure everyone gets their fair share of food.

They started out camping in Bronson Park, but after a deal with Kalamazoo officials on August 31st, Tent City temporarily moved to the driveway of an abandoned fire station on Cedar Street. With little shade or soft ground, many campers found conditions there intolerable. While the arrangement was meant to last 30 days, the tents were back in Bronson before a week had passed.

City officials say they’re preparing to clear the tents, and that campers who don’t leave will face arrest and fines. Update: the Kalamazoo Gazette reports that on Monday, the City Commission reached an agreement with representatives of Tent City. Among other things, they say they'll work on providing alternative shelter.

Arthur Morlock says he’s been homeless since he was 17.

“I’m also trying to maybe use Bronson Park as, maybe, a way to bring government officials to the people. Make the community of Kalamazoo whole again, that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said in an interview at the camp.

People in Tent City say they look out for each other like a family. They use titles like “brother,” “sister,” or even “niece” or “nephew.” Barbara, who said she wasn’t comfortable giving her last name for this story, is known in Tent City as “mom.”

“I see them calling me ‘mom’ because I’m the type of person that will take care of everybody and leave myself without before anybody else goes without. That’s how I treat my kids too,” she said.

Barbara says she has been homeless on and off for the past eight years, almost once every year. This year, she’s been homeless since January. Barbara says she ended up homeless after the loss of her mother and a brief stint in jail. She says she is struggling with addiction, but hopes to be in a place soon where she can take care of her three children again.

For the time being, however, the people of Tent City are her family. Barbara even has a tattoo on her arm that reads: “Blood makes you related, loyalty makes you family.”

The loyalty that she says makes the people of Tent City her family comes from their generosity.

“What I do is I give off my back,whether its my last, whether I get anything for it I don't care. I don't expect nothing for what I give. And that’s the way these people are. I mean there are some that are really greedy and there are some that really ain’t.”

When the camp was on Cedar Street, Barbara sat on a cooler surrounded by food and water donations making sure food was rationed evenly, a job she says she had to take upon herself after some people tried to take than their fair share.

Even with constant expressions of love, all is not always calm in Tent City. Occasionally someone will say or do something that starts a screaming match, and the people of Tent City do admit these fights do sometimes become physical. But Faith Vlietstra, who lives in the camp, says that is to be expected.

“I mean, but that’s family. Sometimes we have arguments or altercations or whatever but we resolve them quickly and we resolve them responsibly and respectively,” she said.

Sometimes, on Cedar Street fights would come out of nowhere. Other campers would then shout reminders at those fighting about their status in the “family” until the screaming stopped and the two angry people stepped away from one another.

Infighting is not the only difficulty Tent City faces. Drug use is strictly prohibited by the group, but that rule, along with efforts to prevent items from being stolen from tents usually requires a strong response from the group. Vlietstra says there is very little tolerance for those caught using drugs.

“They’re either warned or if it’s happened more than once they’re generally quote-unquote ‘evicted’ from Tent City. Because we won’t put up with it. This is a fight we’ve been fighting for a while now and we’re not going to let some people who want to break the law screw that up for us.”

Shannon Sykes Nehring is a Kalamazoo City Commissioner who spent a night in the camp as an act of solidarity with the homeless. She calls the camp’s internal policing “restorative justice.”

“This is a community that supports one another. You know, they police themselves, when folks start trouble they send them on their way, we’ve seen a lot of people come back and apologize to the group,” she said.

Despite the occasional fighting, Shane Williams says he’s felt more secure here than most places he’s been since becoming homeless.

“I feel a lot safer here… This place… this place is a safe haven for all.”

Later that night, two residents of the camp were attacked by an assailant wielding a box cutter. One needed 25 stitches. The Kalamazoo Gazette quotes members of the camp who say the attacker did not come from Tent City.

Once they moved back to Bronson Park, the residents of Tent City seemed to be more comfortable than they were at Cedar Street. On this afternoon at Bronson Park, people have been pulling up in vehicles to donate food and drink to the camp. Many of those living in Tent City say they are grateful for the support.

A massive whiteboard posted by a tree in the camp had thank you notes written to the “Good Samaritans” who supported Tent City. One of the notes ended with “Thanks for just being here. We wish we could do something for you.”