Exactly one year ago, on Sept. 1, 2009, the homeless community that had been camping behind Arborland mall was evicted from that location by Ann Arbor police officers. So the residents of Camp Take Notice, a self-governed community of homeless people, spent that first night of September just north of the park-and-ride lot at Ann Arbor-Saline Road and I-94.
Last year, The Chronicle reported the commentary on those events from Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County: “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.”
The state police paid a visit, taking names but making no arrests. Later one of the campers, Caleb Poirier, would be arrested on charges of trespassing on the Michigan Dept. of Transportation property. Poirier was represented by David Blanchard of the law firm Nacht & Associates, P.C. The ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of Poirier, and the charges against the camper were eventually dropped. The camp’s current location is off Wagner Road near I-94.
In the course of the past year, members of the community – some homeless campers, some not – who organized in support of the tent encampment under the name Michigan Itinerant Shelter System Interdependent Out of Necessity (MISSION) have achieved more than simply a successful legal defense of one of their members. They were a key force in prompting the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County to consider allocating emergency shelter funds for the winter of 2009-10.
And their recent achievement of official nonprofit status as a 501(c)(3) organization means that the goal of finding land sponsors to host the camp legally appears a bit more realistic. A student with the University of Michigan Law School who’s working with MISSION has sketched out a model for how liabilities could be handled by defining appropriate relationships among the land sponsor, MISSION and the homeless camp. The group heard a presentation on legal issues last Friday morning at the Washtenaw County Annex on Fourth Avenue.
But it’s all still a matter of physical laws. UM physics doctoral student Brian Nord, who’s president of MISSION’s board, compares Camp Take Notice to a gas and MISSION to a relief valve: “As long as the environment within camp is positive and community-driven, the methods of CTN can be fluid and operate as a gas. However, the established societal regulations and more so the prejudices act as a maximal container of this fluid. MISSION, the valve, has to evolve itself to consistently advocate for the rights of the individual, while appearing as part of the establishment to the camp.”
As The Chronicle noted a year ago, “This is a story that does not yet have an end, nor will it likely ever have one.” But it is now time for an update.
A Brief Review of the Past Year
In the course of the past year, the phrase “Camp Take Notice” has appeared in more than 20 different Chronicle articles, many of them reports from public meetings when supporters have addressed a public body during public commentary in support of the camp.
One of those occasions was the Nov. 5, 2009 Ann Arbor city council meeting when the council voted to approve $159,500 in emergency shelter funds, which came the day after the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority had approved $20,000 to pay for additional shelter beds. The money helped expand the number of spaces available in the Delonis shelter warming center by 25 beds and added another 25 spots to the rotating shelter program.
The resolution had come before the city council after a presentation at its Oct 19, 2009 meeting from Mary Jo Callan, the director of the city/county office of community development. Underpinning the presentation had been a series of meetings by a working group that had met several times, beginning last August. That group included Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Ellen Schulmeister (director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County), Susan Pollay (executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority), Jennifer L. Hall (housing program coordinator in community development), Andrea Plevek (human services analyst), Deb Pippins (program administrator for the Homeless Project Outreach Team, or HPORT), and mayor John Hieftje.
While publicity around its September 2009 eviction had helped provide momentum for the emergency shelter funding, Camp Take Notice itself did not receive direct benefit from that additional funding.
As spring approached, and the camp faced eviction from their new location near I-94 and Ann Arbor-Saline Road, Brian Nord addressed the county board of commissioners. From The Chronicle’s report of the March 3, 2010 county board of commissioners meeting:
Though there are open beds in the county’s rotating shelter system, Nord said that for a variety of reasons, that isn’t an option for many Camp Take Notice residents. [The rotating shelter, which operates during the winter month, is a partnership between the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County and 15 local congregations. This year, the number of beds in the rotating shelter system was increased from 25 to 50 through emergency funding by the city of Ann Arbor and the county.] If Camp Take Notice is disbanded, Nord said its residents will seek outdoor shelter elsewhere, in a place likely less accessible to those offering supportive services. The camp is a refuge, he said, something that many residents don’t find in traditional shelters.
Nord pointed out that the county is about halfway toward meeting its bricks-and-mortar goal of having 500 beds for the homeless, as specified in the 2004 Blueprint to End Homelessness. He also noted that they’re six years into the 10-year plan. Allowing outdoor rotating shelters, with supportive services, may be a way of reaching that goal until the county emerges from its economic downturn.
Responding to Nord’s comments, commissioner Kristin Judge praised the efforts of MISSION, saying she’d met with them and found them to be a heartfelt group who really cared about the condition of the homeless. She asked for the administration to give the board an update on the status of the Blueprint to End Homelessness at some future meeting.
At the county board’s May 5, 2010 meeting, commissioner Kristin Judge made a plea to the public for land sponsorship for the camp – the camp had been evicted from a new spot near I-94 and Ann Arbor-Saline Road the previous week and had relocated to its current spot near Wagner Road.
Among the barriers to land sponsorship – by communities of faith or other organization – are questions about legal liability. If a church were to allow the tent community to set up on their land, does that entail a legal responsibility by the church for the campers’ well-being? Would the relationship be the same or different from a landlord-tenant relationship? If a camper were to cause damage to an adjacent property, would the church incur liability for that damage? If there is a legally-defined relationship, then who are the parties? Would it be the church and the individual campers? Or would the relationship exist between the church and the camp as a group?
Some of those questions are starting to get answers. The basic question about the entity with whom a land sponsor would have a legal relationship is answered in the form of MISSION, because it has now received its official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Last week, The Chronicle tracked the work of the group over the course of three days – a MISSION board meeting on Tuesday, a Camp Take Notice camp-wide meeting out at the camp on Thursday evening, and a meeting of board members with a UM law student and her advisor on Friday morning.
MISSION Board Meeting
The MISSION board meets on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. at the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library. Last week, the board was initially in danger of failing to achieve a quorum, but eventually enough members trickled in to conduct business.
MISSION Meeting: Pre-Meeting Small Talk
While they waited, Caleb Poirier gave an update from camp to those who were already present – Brian Durrance, George Lucero, Emilio Lucero, Kristen Muehlhauser, and Peggy Lynch. Poirier described how he’d spent much of the day sewing up a split seam in the big tent that is planned to become a communal gathering place – it’s been a two-week project, he said. The tent is 40 x 20 feet.
Lynch is a relatively new volunteer for the group. She’s a parishioner at St. Mary student parish at the University of Michigan. So while they waited, Lynch described for the others how she was interested in involving her congregation with the group, but initially wanted to observe and listen to understand what the group actually needed: “We’ll follow your lead, ” she said.
By way of example, she said that thinking about infrastructure for the camp, if there were no lights, her first thought was “Let’s get you lights!” But Lynch said she was not sure if installation of lighting at the camp would be worth it, if it wound up alienating the camp’s neighbors – she wanted to make sure that the considerable generosity of the St. Mary parish was channeled in a direction that the camp actually needed. She was concerned that they did not create infrastructure that caused a building inspector to appear.
However, any possible annoyance of neighbors with lighting is not a practical risk, given the relatively remote, out-of-the-way location of the current camp. And the fact that the camp is without permission occupying land belonging to MDOT means that inspections for building codes are a moot point. But Lynch’s basic point that she wanted to tread lightly on the camp’s direction was appreciated by the group.
Durrance noted that as far as what the camp needs, winter is coming – and a communal area that’s heated and lighted would be a welcome addition. Lynch wanted to know if the idea was to have a communal area where people could stay warm if the weather brought life-threatening cold. Durrance told Lynch that it was more the idea of a community center where people could come together – a place where they could get their cell phones charged, for example. He noted that one of the huge challenges for the homeless was finding a way to keep their cell phone batteries charged.
A brief discussion ensued about a marine battery-powered LED lighting system and the possibility of purchasing a wood burning stove.
Lily Au gave a brief report out from a recent meeting of the Washtenaw Urban County, noting that there’d been sentiments expressed at that meeting suggesting that law enforcement needed to be notified about the existence of Camp Take Notice. Au reported that Mary Jo Callan, director of the city/county office of community development, had indicated that the camp enjoyed the support of a nonprofit organization. [For the Chronicle's report on that meeting of the Urban County, see "Urban County Reallocates Housing Funds"]
MISSION Meeting: Agenda Items
With a quorum achieved, the meeting came to order, with Kristen Muehlhauser chairing it and Lotus Yu taking minutes.
The agenda included reports out from the camp, which was ground that the group had already partially covered. They addressed the issue of a central “office tent” where new arrivals could be greeted. The tent that Poirier had been sewing is planned for such a community-type facility. Muehlhauser wanted to know if they needed to schedule a work party to erect the ridge pole for the tent.
Poirier characterized the previous week’s camp-wide meeting as “sedate – not too terrible as far as they go.” He noted that there’d been good attendance, but he was still trying to get the last 1/5 of the campers to attend.
On the question of a camp flyer, there is not a current version, but a copy of a camper-made flyer from last year was handed around – it was a visual riff on the Uncle Sam “I want you!” poster. Lynch suggested that she knew of a graphic artist who might be willing to tackle the project.
The deadline for submissions to Groundcover News was announced as Aug. 25. Poirer said he’d try to write something and submit it for the following day.
Lucero, as the treasurer, reported out on the group’s finances. It was a brief report: $157 was the current balance, which would drop to $127 when the check he’d just written cleared.
A section of the agenda on policy updates was postponed at the request of board members Brian Nord and Erika McNamara, who could not attend the meeting.
Lotus Yu gave an update on funding requests. The first application from MISSION as a nonprofit organization will be to the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority for bus tokens. Yu told the group that the application would be going in the mail the next day. Yu also described some larger grants that MISSION might want to consider applying for – from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Lily Au gave the group an update on how Busch’s and Kroger organize their fundraising opportunities.
Also related to fundraising, Lynch mentioned the possibility of the St. Mary parish steering the proceeds from their Advent Giving Tree to the group. She also noted that her employer, Masco Corporation, offers a cash match of up to $500 for time that employees donate to nonprofit causes. Lynch stressed the importance of coming up with a budget for specific items that the camp needed.
Upcoming events announced included a meeting sponsored by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority at the Center for Independent Living on Sept. 26 from 4-6 p.m. to get feedback as the AATA develops its transit master plan. On Sept. 11, homeless advocate Mark Horvath – of InvisiblePeople.tv and Hardly Normal – will be visiting Detroit. A brief discussion focused on who might host Horvath.
Poirier wrapped up the evening by suggesting that the meeting that night had been a very comfortable-sized gathering, but that when there are more people who attend, he knew that people can get frustrated as the fight for “air time.” To address that, he indicated that he’d be convening smaller meetings focused on specific topics on different days of the week.
Camp Take Notice Camp Meeting
Camp-wide meetings take place on Thursdays around 8 p.m. This time of year, especially in the woods where the camp is located, that means that darkness is already starting to fall.
The brief orientation of The Chronicle by campers as they gradually trickled into the common area put the camper population at a bit over 30 people. Some of them who arrived at the meeting had just disembarked from the #9 AATA bus, which stops on Wagner Road near the camp.
Caleb Poirier noted that “about a third of us are here – do we know where the rest of us are hiding?” Some people left the circle of chairs to coax some other campers to join the meeting.
By the time the meeting convened, there were around 25 people seated in the circle, including non-camper members of the MISSION board. Acoustics were a challenge. The noise from the highway traffic – I-94 on one side and M-14 on the other – resulted in frequent requests for people to speak louder.
One business item was to allocate the funds from a $50 gift card that had been donated. There was a fairly straightforward consensus that $25 of that should be put towards the weekly garbage pickup. Discussion of the other $25 included a suggestion that the possibility of a “movie night” be explored, by bringing a DVD player and screen out to the camp. The suggestion was met with a Bronx cheer from across the circle, which caused the suggester to slam his walking stick down in the middle of the gathering – it careened crazily in the center of the circle of chairs, but caused no damage, as he retreated to his tent. Poirer declared that “both responses were inappropriate.”
And the meeting moved on through the printed agenda.
Receiving some discussion was the idea of providing some kind of fixed stair at the entrance to the trail just past the guardrail – it’s very steep and when snow comes, it could be very difficult to navigate. One agenda item provided an opportunity for campers to thank fellow campers. Poirier collected thanks for his work sewing up the rip in the community tent, which still needs to be set up. He also received an appreciative word for writing a letter of recommendation for someone. Poirier dished out thanks to a camper just for attending the meeting after spending the day laying concrete.
Toileting received discussion in the form of a proposal to acquire porta-potties. The steep incline at the trail head would be a challenge for installation. Poirier focused on the importance of people not doing their business out in the woods, leaving toilet paper lying around. He noted that it’d be the No. 1 reason people would try to use to shut down the camp – campers are supposed to bury their waste or double-bag it and pack it out to the trail head for the weekly garbage pickup. Poirier warned his campmates that he’d be collaring someone every day to help him police the area by picking up individual dumps, but offered a choice: “You can hold the shovel, or the bag.”
Towards the end of the meeting, a review of camp quiet hours was reviewed: Monday through Thursday, quiet hours start at 11 p.m.; on Friday and Saturday, they start at midnight; on Sunday it’s back to 11 p.m.
UM Law Clinic Meeting at The Annex
Friday morning in a second floor conference room in Washtenaw County’s Annex Building on Fourth Avenue in Ann Arbor, MISSION board members, along with Washtenaw County commissioner Kristin Judge, received an update on legal issues that would be involved in land sponsorship of Camp Take Notice. University of Michigan law student Erika Jost, along with her advisor on the project, Southfield attorney Warren Dean, gave the background.
Jost identified the three kinds of entities for whom liability issues could arise: the land sponsor, MISSION, and the individual campers. The relationship between the land sponsor and MISSION, and between MISSION and the campers, would need to be defined legally, she said. It would be important, she noted, for the camp to have an enclosed area, with a single entrance and exit.
The kind of agreement Jost described to the group was a sub-licensing agreement as opposed to a lease agreement. Lease agreements, she noted, would bring along with them all of the associated landlord-tenant rules. Licensing is a way, she suggested, for keeping as much liability as possible off the land sponsor.
One issue that MISSION needed to be mindful of, Jost said, was how much control the camp exerted over the lives of individual campers and whether a “dependency relationship” was created between the camp and the individual campers. To the extent that a kind of institutionalized schedule was imposed, or services like job training or job searches were provided, liability could accrue to MISSION.
Peggy Lynch, who volunteers for MISSION, wondered if referrals by the camp to other community services would also have liability consequences. Jost didn’t think so. Judge noted that the community had job training and job search resources, and that it made sense to steer campers to places where that kind of service was already provided.
Jost also ticked through some other issues that should be part of a licensing agreement – there would be a certain amount of expected wear and tear on the land resulting from a moderate number of tents pitched there. In connection with land impact, Dean suggested that the potential environmental damage that a camp could cause to the land – in terms of actual pollution – was an issue unlikely to arise, but that should be addressed.
The group also discussed the issue of background checks for campers and possible screening. Jost said that from the point of view of the land sponsor, the less they know, the less liability they have. Robert Braun suggested that the basic screening out of people who simply wanted to party, versus those who were trying to get their life together, is an important consideration. Jost suggested that the issue might be addressed at the level of camp rules. Individuals not following the rules could be “ejected.” That meant, however, that the camp probably needs the ability to eject people, if necessary, not just from the camp area, but also from the land sponsor’s entire property.
That led to a discussion of the relationship between the camp and law enforcement officials who might be seeking individuals who live at the camp. The consensus seemed to emerge that from a practical point of view, the camp should not be supporting criminal behavior, and from a public relations point of view, it is important not to be perceived that way.
At the meeting, Judge gave an update on her efforts to identify potential land sponsors. She also indicated that transportation support for the camp might be found with the Western Washtenaw Area Value Express (WAVE). The camp is in the WAVE’s area of service and campers may qualify for door-to-door service.
In response to a query from Lily Au, Judge also gave a realistic assessment of the Washtenaw County budget in the coming year. She noted there were some board members who might support eliminating all of the $4 million that is currently budgeted for nonprofits, and even that kind of approach would not erase the currently projected $16 million deficit. The issue, she said, is which county services are mandated by the state and which are not.
Out of the roughly $100 million budget, Judge said, $66 million covers mandated services. Some of the non-mandated expenditures are still seen as essential she said, if they help reduce the costs of mandated services. As an example of an non-mandated, but still essential service, she cited JPORT, which is a program that provides mental health assistance to those in jail as well as in the community. Judge entertained the idea of including MISSION in the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, given its recently achieved nonprofit status.