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Justice Unhoused

Lacking a strategy, Kalamazoo houseless encampment closings only continue the cycle

City leaders say solution to encampment problems is on the horizon, but proposal is months away.

The City of Kalamazoo is getting closer to settling on an alternative outdoor living space that advocates have been pushing for and which mitigates safety concerns raised about houseless encampments.

But as the police shut down a second encampment in as many weeks on Thursday, they also continued a policy that federal research has shown to be inefficient, expensive, and has no positive impact on the intended goal of reducing such encampments.

Without a clear strategy – and under an opaque policy of encampment shutdowns – the city is continuing a cycle that makes it more difficult to provide needed services to a population of residents that will continue to choose to live outdoors in groups.

“In reality, they are going to be moved to a different piece of property and then pushed out again,” said Sarah Gerstner, who has for months been helping feed many of the 50 or so residents who were residing in an encampment in a wooded area off Stadium Drive. 

What is needed, advocates say, is land that is sanctioned by the city and managed and regulated for services and safety as an outdoor living space – whether in tents, or campers, or tiny homes.

“It is my hope that we can start talking about actual solutions, an actual site with actual resources, in the next month to two,” said Deputy Manager City Manager Laura Lam, who has been looking into and occasionally visiting such set-ups around the country.

Until that’s built, however, the city appears set on moving residents out of encampments without providing a better alternative, which research shows is counterproductive.

The focus the past two weeks has been to shut down two main encampments in the city. Mayor David Anderson and Public Safety Chief Vernon Coakley were on hand the past two days.

Ryan Bridges, the city’s public information officer, on Wednesday said the only encampment where a deadline to leave had been in place was for former residents of the downtown Ampersee site, which was closed Oct. 6, who pitched tents in adjacent land.

Yet residents of the Stadium Drive encampment were told on Wednesday that the city was going to be arriving the next day to close down the encampment there. Bridges did not respond to a text message and email Thursday requesting an official schedule, timeline, and rationale for further encampment clearings. 

“The forced dispersal of encampments is not an appropriate solution and can make it more difficult to achieve lasting housing and service outcomes to its inhabitants,” the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal collection of agencies focused on the issue, wrote in a report titled Ending Homelessness for People Living in Encampments. “Encampments are an indication of a critical need to create more effective local systems for responding to unsheltered homelessness.” 

In the City of Kalamazoo and surrounding communities, there are multiple factors that contribute to the current crisis, none of which are quick fixes. Looming largest: There’s not enough affordable housing or units that would qualify for the Section 8 housing vouchers, though they are still offered to lure residents out of encampment living. 

Temporary housing options that may be offered, such as the privately-run Kalamazoo Gospel Ministries, may not fit the needs of some homeless community members, such as those who want to keep their families together or who have pets. The shelter has separate facilities for men and women and animals are not allowed. 

“Encampments often form because of a lack of affordable housing and because of shelter requirements that keep people from accessing them,” USICH wrote in a separate report titled What Clearing Homeless Encampments Costs Cities

A study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and published in Feb. 2020 states that “requirements in emergency shelter systems are consistently identified in the (research) literature as the primary factor that ‘pushes’ people to form encampments.” 

The same study found that of the nine cities analyzed, the average cost per year of removing one homeless person from an encampment was between $1,672 and $6,208. Coordination among multiple law enforcement, medical and social service agencies, as well as the need for extensive cleanup post-encampment shutdown, were the main contributing factors to these costs.

Lam said the cost for cleaning up this recent round of removals is not yet known.

“We’re well over $100,000 for encampment activities over the last year, so it’s likely that the number will be more,” Lam said.

The city paid nearly $20,000 to clean up Bronson Park following an encampment in the summer of 2018 according to city statements at the time. That too was broken up by police and arrests were made. The encampment was as much a safe space to live as it was a protest, raising awareness about the lack of immediate term options – an issue the city has not yet addressed.

Todd Richardson, HUD’s general deputy assistant secretary for policy development and research, wrote in the forward to that report that such costs are self-inflicted by the municipalities that don’t set strategies and create a plan to execute.

“Shortcomings in emergency shelter policies and practices, a sense of community and safety within encampments, and a desire for autonomy and privacy contribute to some people’s preferences for encampments over shelters,” he wrote.

At an encampment on the outskirts of downtown last week, police also made arrests and cleared out a piece of land that had been lived on for more than a year.

As rain let up Thursday afternoon, the remaining members of the encampment off of Stadium Drive were making preparations to be off the parking lot by the time an adjacent strip mall closed.

“This is private property. We understand that. The city needs to find a piece of property to put everyone on until the city can get housing together,” said Darlene, 51, who asked that her last name not be used. “I don’t know what anybody is going to do. They are going to go out here and walk down the street. Nowhere to set up camp.”

“They are skipping a step here,” she said. “What about before there is housing available?”

Lam said the city was looking at land owned by the city or the Kalamazoo County Land Bank or acquiring private property to establish some form of interim community that would draw on best-practices seen at other such sites across the nation. This includes trash collection, bathrooms, shower facilities, and other resources.

Research shows that not only does such a site ameliorate issues, such as environmental concerns and trespassing issues, but also acknowledges the ability of homeless folks to form a structured community that works with – not against – the city. 

“Common threads you’ll see with these (intentional communities) are that you’ve got supports, you’ve got oftentimes a notion of self-governance where people come together and say, these are the rules of the road we want to hold ourselves to about being good neighbors, you’ve got some sense of structure,” Lam said.

Concerns about safety – both reports of crime, health conditions, and potential exposure to polluted land – are what drove the city* to determine the downtown encampment needed to be closed last week. Other times, a property owner will call the city to remove an encampment, which Lam says will lead to service providers coming in first followed by forced removal. 

“Sometimes our rules are really getting in the way of effective solutions. So that is not me throwing up excuses so much as saying there has been significant effort on multiple fronts,” Lam said. “I feel with some recent solutions that we’re evaluating that we’re getting closer, but I can admit and absolutely admit and acknowledge it’s not soon enough, not quick enough, not big enough, not good enough. And that’s where we just have to keep trying on it.”

* The original story attributed this decision to Lam. It was actually decided by the City Manager’s Office, and Lam is a part of its leadership team.