Heavy rains in June and July turned a Kalamazoo area homeless encampment into a mud pit.
The city has been looking for ways to address the problem while focusing efforts on affordable housing and discouraging uncoordinated donations from well-meaning people that litter sites and cost tens-of-thousands-of-dollars to clean-up.
“People are slipping and sliding and nothing but mud. Can’t even get to their tents without being covered in mud,” says volunteer and homeless advocate Nici Wilson. “I can’t do my job because I blew my motor out when I got stuck,” says a 57-year-old construction worker who calls himself “Pops.” His car sits broken-down on a paved road just outside the encampment. “Pops” moved into the car to avoid walking through mud to get to his tent. “It’s hard to even walk around in there, it’s all full of mud from end to end."
Rox Maeir is a “meal train” volunteer who makes lunch for camp residents once a month. The meal train is coordinated by the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless. Volunteers pick a day to provide a meal so that food is evenly distributed throughout the week.
“I know they looked outside their tent and thought, ‘I got to walk through that mud,’ Maeir says. "And maybe the choice was: do I go hungry or am I stuck with muddy feet for the rest of the day because there’s no place to wash?” Maeir made 100 sandwiches for residents on a rainy Friday in June. But she says only half the residents ventured through the mud for a meal.
So far, the City of Kalamazoo hasn’t found an economically feasible solution for “Pops” and the other 175 people estimated to be living in about 100 tents off Riverview Drive. Even though the encampment was not planned and is not run by the city, officials are looking at possible short-term remedies while focusing efforts on permanent solutions.
“Is there anything that can be done very quickly to elevate? And what we’re hearing right now is that there isn’t a quick fix," says Deputy Kalamazoo City Manager Laura Lam. "It’s a $80,000-plus fix and it may trigger a state permit because we’re talking about doing work in a flood zone.”
Lam adds, “If our long-term goal is to ensure that everybody has safe and stable housing, for us to think about an $80,000 investment in a temporary fix for a road, I immediately start to translate what those dollars could mean in terms of stable and safe housing.”
Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson says there’s a trend of people camping on abandoned and overgrown places around the country. “We are seeing in city after city after city, urban areas all across the country that are managing this growing phenomenon of camping out."
The location of the Kalamazoo homeless encampment is not one the city would have picked. Anderson describes it as a “brownfield” - a former industrial property, in a flood zone. He says it “grew organically.” “Really the (city's) response was more related to people already being there, and allowing folks to be there, while other, better resolutions are sought,” Anderson says. He points to options available now through COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA). New rules allow the homeless to use federal assistance for up to 90 days at a motel. Applications can be made through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.
While the city looks for cheaper options for the mud problem, both Lam and Anderson say people shouldn’t drive cars in the encampment. That just makes it muddier.
They also say concerned citizens should work with the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless, Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Continuum of Care, or Open Doors before dropping off donations of food or goods. Over a six-month period, Lam says the clean-up of unused or unneeded donations at homeless encampments cost the city $48,815, unintentionally turning a good deed into expensive litter.
“It’s vast amounts of well-intended donations that weren’t utilized,” Lam says. "Either they weren’t needed or they were left out in the elements but they really exacerbated the problem. Again, I do appreciate how big the heart of our community is, but if it’s not well orchestrated it can really create a much more challenging situation."
Leander Rabe of the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless helped clean up the Mill Street encampment in December. He estimates that about half of the garbage came from unsolicited donations.
“We say ‘do it with’ and not ‘do it to,’” says Rabe, who encouraged people to join the Facebook group that coordinates efforts to ensure that people in need get what they need. “’Doing it with’ means residents have a voice. We build relationships with residents and they are involved in the solutions. When people are ‘doing things to,” they decide on their own what is needed without talking to the residents. They ride in on their white horse and leave feeling pretty good. That’s toxic charity and it happens a lot."