Every school child learns that Newton “discovered” gravity when an apple fell out of a tree and bonked him on the head.
Near the park-and-ride lot at I-94 and Ann Arbor-Saline Road stands an apple tree. Most, but not all, of the tree’s fruit this season has already succumbed to Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation.
About 50 yards northwest of that apple tree is the new – and likely very temporary – location of “Camp Take Notice” – a tent camp where maybe a dozen homeless people spent the first night in September. Standing under the apple tree Tuesday afternoon, The Chronicle spoke by phone to Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County.
Schulmeister characterized the “bottom line” for the homeless: “It’s simple physics,” she said. “People have to be some place, and if people don’t have a place to be, they will find a place to be.”
If it’s a matter of physics, then it’s perhaps perfectly natural that the guy who drove the U-Haul truck to move the camp from its previous location – behind Toys R Us at Arborland – is a University of Michigan doctoral student in physics, Brian Nord.
This is a story that does not yet have an end, nor will it likely ever have one. But we can write down the part we know so far, which began with a Chronicle visit to the camp behind Arborland earlier this summer, and goes through a visit from a Michigan State Trooper to the new camp location early Tuesday evening.
Background: What’s the Goal of the Camp?
Moving “Camp Take Notice” from behind the Toys R Us at Arborland was always a part of the plan for residents of the tent community, but not on Tuesday’s more-or-less involuntary schedule. The tent community is a self-governed group of campers who say they are well on their way to achieving 501(c)3 nonprofit status for their organization: MISSION (Michigan Itinerant Shelter System Interdependent Out of Necessity).
Tuesday afternoon, Robin Rich, board member of MISSION, told The Chronicle that the final paperwork for the nonprofit was expected to be approved in the next week or two.
The plan had been to move the tent community off the private property behind Arborland – where the property owner had given them no explicit permission to camp – to church properties where congregations grant them permission to camp for a specified time period. The idea is to secure arrangements with multiple churches, and to rotate the camp location after a period of months.
The effort to secure those commitments from area churches has begun. Part of that effort consists of a media packet that’s been distributed to churches. And Tuesday morning, camp resident Jesse A. told The Chronicle that he’d attended a couple of the in-person contacts made by the campers with area pastors. These efforts have not yet succeeded.
The idea of temporary homeless shelters is not novel. It’s been used in Seattle, for example, where camper Caleb Poirier lived for a while. So he’s modeling the effort here in Ann Arbor on what he experienced in Washington.
The premise behind the approach is that not every homeless person fits the model assumed by bricks-and-mortar institutions such as the Delonis Center.
Camp Council: “It’s 10 weeks until cold!”
Back in July, during Art Fairs week, The Chronicle attended one of the weekly camp council meetings held Thursdays at 7 p.m. at the campsite. They’re open to the public, just like the weekly board meetings held Mondays at 7 p.m. at the Malletts Creek branch of the Ann Arbor District Library.
When The Chronicle visited, there were 17 tents at the site. With campers sitting in a rough circle in office chairs – which were not intended to roll across the fresh straw that had been spread throughout the site – Poirier called the meeting to order: “Anybody want to chair the meeting?” Hunter R. volunteered to chair. “Who’d like to keep time?” Nord, the physicist, said he’d be the time keeper. “Minutes?” None of the dozen campers expressed a willingness to do that task. After a pause, Nord offered that he’d keep minutes as best he could in addition to keeping track of time.
Hunter then led off chairing the meeting. The first order of business was to set the agenda. It boiled down to four basic points:
- morale check
- supply check
- progress on flyer and media packet
- strategize on reaching out to churches
It was the last two points that generated the most discussion. George Lucero – who became interested in the camp when an acquaintance of his became homeless and started staying there – gave an update on his work on the media packet and the cover letter to the churches. It was agreed that each letter should be customized based on the congregation. The consensus was that it was important for campers themselves to be a part of the delegations that made contact with the churches.
There was not a complete consensus on an appropriate sense of urgency. Hunter wanted to see contacts being made as soon as the following week. “It’s 10 weeks until cold!” he warned. Others felt that congregations needed some time to decompress after Art Fairs. Plus, many people were out of town, and congregations were unlikely to make a firm decision.
Johnny A. suggested that the passive versus a more aggressive approach to contacting churches reminded him of the story of two bulls on the hill. Asked by Poirier what that story was, Johnny declined: “There’s women around, I can’t tell it.”
What Led to the Camp’s Move
Overnight low temperatures in the Ann Arbor area over the last few days have dipped into the 30s. So the arrival of the cold, which Hunter had warned of, came a few weeks earlier than expected.
But the request from authorities to leave the property had not been expected.
Why wouldn’t they have eventually expected to be forced off the land?
The parcel, which is zoned residential, measures a little less than 50 acres and is owned by Peters Building Co. in Saline. The president of Peters Building is Jim Haeussler.
The campers contend that they’d communicated with Haeussler, and they maintain that while he had not given them permission to live there, he’d indicated he wasn’t planning to initiate legal remedies to force them off the land, either.
Ann Arbor Police Department officers at the site Tuesday morning indicated to campers that they’d spoken with the property owner that morning, and said that he had not given the campers permission to stay there.
AAPD officers also expressed concern about the fire hazard from all the straw that was spread through the campsite, plus the piles of cleared brush. They’d seen evidence of open burning at the site when they’d inspected it the previous evening. They’d been called to the site in response to a complaint of a disturbance.
Camp residents told The Chronicle there’d been three visits by AAPD officers to the site on Monday, the previous day.
From statements by the officers and camp residents, the complaints of disturbances led AAPD to contact both the city attorney and the property owner, which ultimately led to the request on Monday evening to leave the property.
Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, said that on Monday evening the Delonis Center staff had offered to shelter anyone from the camp who was sober. A few of the campers took the center up on their offer.
Schulmeister also explained that the center houses around 150 people each year – that’s the number of people they are able to transition from their 50-bed shelter facility at 312 W. Huron St. to more stable permanent housing. That’s roughly 10% of the total 1,500 homeless population that the center serves.
Officers on the scene behind Arborland on Tuesday morning stressed to campers that they could not simply squat on private land unless they had explicit permission from the property owner to do so.
A New Camp Location, But Probably Not For Long
The first truckload of camp building materials arrived at the new location – north of the park-and-ride lot on Ann Arbor-Saline Road at I-94 – around noon on Tuesday. By around 3 p.m. a complaint had already been called in, and Ann Arbor police as well as a Pittsfield Township officer had arrived on the scene.
Part of the reason the new camp was easy to spot was that in the last few weeks the area has been cleared of all brush and undergrowth by the Michigan Department of Transportation, which controls the land.
When The Chronicle arrived at the park-and-ride, Poirier introduced to us one of the AAPD officers as “a reasonable conversationalist.” From what we observed, conversation on both sides could be fairly characterized as polite, civil, yet firm. AAPD officers at the park-and-ride reiterated the same message that had been delivered in the morning: You can’t camp on land that isn’t yours.
Campers were advised that there were other avenues they should pursue – a request to city council, for example. Poirier, for his part, stressed that on issues like homelessness, real progress was rarely made by using only the prescribed avenues. He also outlined how the group’s strategy was to secure permission from churches to camp on their property.
Because the land where the tents had been set up is not owned by the city, the AAPD doesn’t have jurisdiction over it. So the Ann Arbor officers departed, leaving campers with the expectation that the county sheriff’s department would be arriving later. “Whoever comes out,” advised the officer, “just listen to what they have to say.”
It turns out that, because MDOT controls the land in question, it was a Michigan State Police trooper, not a Washtenaw County Sheriff’s deputy, who was tasked with official enforcement of the law. So a little before 7 p.m. a trooper pulled into the park-and-ride lot, and went down to the camp. The same polite, civil and firm conversation was repeated for the third time the same day.
This time, though, there was more than conversation. The trooper collected identifying information from everyone at the camp and radioed it in. He wasn’t arresting anyone that night, but they’d be checking back, he said, possibly as soon as the next day.
Who Are These People and What Are They Thinking?
A sampling of what “Camp Take Notice” residents think about the camp would include Johnny’s thoughts from mid-July: “There’s nothing but positivity around here.” And that sampling would need to include Stretch’s description of how he’d been through various treatment programs, and never could stay sober – but he’d been sober at the camp since November 2008, he said.
We also heard some stories of how homelessness affects your ability to get a job – two job offers since April could not be accepted because the offers coincided with losing a place to live close to the jobs.
Caleb Poirier, when asked by the Michigan State Police trooper if he was the group’s leader, resisted the label – decisions of the group are made democratically, he stressed. But there is no question that other campers look to him for leadership. At the July meeting, Hunter – who had been pushing more urgently than Poirier to convince churches sooner rather than later to grant permission to camp on their property – still said, “I’ve been on Caleb’s team since day one. I didn’t really care about homeless people, and I was a homeless person.”
Hunter was a homeless person, but he’s still involved with MISSION. Many of the members of MISSION’s board are not homeless, have never been homeless, and would probably not be mistaken for a homeless person – but that’s hard to say for sure.
Take Lily Au, for example. She was out at both the old and the new campsites on Tuesday. She told The Chronicle that she learned about “Camp Take Notice” when someone mentioned it to her when she was volunteering at a Friday pizza distribution at Liberty Plaza. It’s an event often sponsored by the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor. So she went out to visit the camp. There she met Caleb Poirier – for the second time. She’d run into him long before at an Arby’s. That day at Arby’s she had been there with her two kids and had been lugging a lot of bags. And maybe because of the bags, Au says, Poirier had sized her up as homeless.
In following this story, The Chronicle can attest that it’s not easy to tell who’s homeless and who’s not – who’s a camper and who’s helping out but doesn’t live in the camp.
[For useful insights on who the homeless are, read a Nov. 30, 2008 Chronicle column by Peri Stone-Palmquist: "We Must See the Homeless – And We Must Help"]