The remaining residents of a homeless encampment on Kalamazoo’s east side were not evicted on Wednesday, September 29, as expected. City officials say they're giving them more time to find suitable housing.
The city had earlier announced that residents would be evicted from the Ampersee encampment off Riverview Drive at 5 p.m., and Tera Rowe with Kalamazoo Mobile Closet came prepared. She brought luggage and bags to help with packing, and breakfast to feed residents facing an uncertain future.
Rowe says, “We think this is ridiculous that the city is just going to close it with no other options, and we stand with them and agree that this isn’t right.”
Rowe also helped organize a protest rally. Volunteers arrived early in the morning to make signs and line Riverview Drive to rally support from passers-by. Shouts of, “Where will they go?” were greeted with honks from passing cars and trucks.
Throughout the day, many residents were seen packing up and leaving anyway. City workers removed portable toilets, and as the deadline neared, about half of the estimated 150 people living at the encampment had gone. Some of those remaining seemed to be hunkering down, then word spread that the city had decided not to enforce trespassing violations to evict them, allowing more time for encampment residents to work with Kalamazoo Continuum of Care and other agencies to find safe, suitable housing. But homeless advocates like Rowe say traditional homeless shelters won’t work for everyone.
“I would love to see some models of more compassionate sheltering,” Rowe says. “Sheltering without a religious component, sheltering where people can go and take their pets or families or couples could stay together. I would like to see our city show that they care about these people.”
Former Kalamazoo city commissioner Don Cooney agrees. He's running in November to return to the Commission and visited the encampment Wednesday with fellow candidate Qianna Decker. Decker called the experience “heartbreaking,” and Cooney sited the crisis as one of the reasons he decided to return to local politics. Cooney previously served as a Kalamazoo City Commissioner for 22 years, from 1997 to 2019.
“It seems like people are saying there’s empty beds at the Gospel Mission, Cooney says. "And the Gospel mission does wonderful things. I don’t have anything against the Gospel Mission; I think they do great things. But there’s a lot of these people that aren’t going to fit at the Gospel Mission and those people are really stuck. And I think we should be looking at a way to deal with an alternative for people who don’t believe the Gospel Mission is an answer for their problem.”
The city's announcement on Wednesday did not include a new date for closing the encampment. But
Kalamazoo Public Information Officer Ryan Bridges confirmed that will probably happen in the next couple of weeks. That’s because the city is preparing to clean-up the site. The encampment is located on a brownfield, a contaminated area that’s unsafe. The clean-up is scheduled to begin in the coming weeks, along with an extensive river clean-up coordinated by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). City officials say the pollution, along with an increase in violence and crime at the camp, were the reasons they decided to shut the camp down.
Bridges says the city’s partners and Kalamazoo Continuum of Care will help people living at the camp find housing that meets their needs. But encampment resident Ian “Mo” Valenzuela, 58, has his doubts. When asked what he wants, Mo said he wants an affordable house and a voice in decisions.
“Do you want to know what to do to take care of us? Come talk to us, Mo says. "That’s balls to send the cops. Have the balls to come down and talk to me. Don’t send your thieves and your thugs and your bullies, come talk to me.”