Justice Unhoused

Q&A: Deputy Kalamazoo City Manager Laura Lam

The Kalamazoo city official who runs point on the homelessness crisis discusses encampment policies, strategies, and the solutions they are hoping to implement.

When the city of Kalamazoo began shutting down encampments of houseless residents in downtown Kalamazoo and off Stadium Drive, NowKalamazoo had questions as to what the policy was and how it fit within a broader strategy of ending an ongoing crisis.

Federal research has shown that clearing encampments without providing a better option doesn’t reduce homelessness or encampments, so we wanted to understand the rationale behind the city’s actions.

Ultimately, the decision to use police force to close down the encampments is made by the city manager, though the mayor and police chief were on hand last week as people were pushed out. None have communicated their strategy or policies to the public, or taken on-record questions from the media in a way that provides a deeper understanding to the community at large.

Laura Lam, deputy city manager and point person on the homelessness crisis for the past few years, sat down with NowKalamazoo to answer questions.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

A weekday morning email roundup of Kalamazoo stories and events.

The full transcript is below.

* Get our free daily community newsletter in your inbox each morning. Sign up here. *

The encampments, in varying sizes and locations, are kind of a staple of the homelessness crisis in Kalamazoo, in our community, and nationwide. So where do encampments fit within the city’s overall strategy regarding ending homelessness?

I think the strategy piece is focusing time and energy on housing solutions, right? While I know the focus is on encampments, I can’t help but say we’re spending time and energy – [we] want to be thinking about what are the things we can do to support those who are currently unhoused and prevent future individuals from ending up in that place. And so much of what I feel like the role of the city is and needs to be is how do we invest in the bricks and mortar of constructing housing? How do we support the Continuum of Care both in terms of operations and things like low barrier shelter, things like rental assistance kind of programs to test out? So, the strategy piece is that I’m not spending a lot of time thinking about the strategy around the encampment as a concept, but what are the strategies, plans, allocations, actions we need to take so that we have less of that, is how I would approach it.

We won five Michigan Press Association awards, thanks to you!

Click here to see which ones

Even if you are successful in some of the issues that will address the immediate and kind of temporary needs of people who find themselves choosing to go into encampments, that won’t end the cycle. Which seems to be: Encampments are created by residents; the city breaks them up; those residents and others find additional encampments to create. Since at this point in time there is a lack of options and lack of access to the permanent supportive housing the experts say is necessary to reduce encampments, what’s the strategy for when another agreement pops up?

So, a couple of things come to mind. As far as thinking about some of the points you put in the question about policies, strategies, kind of plans – from a policy standpoint, I think if you were to look through all of our ordinances, probably the only thing you’ll see with regard to the parks ordinance is where we say no camping. No camping in parks. Right. So that’s where you could say, ‘What is the policy?’ Here’s where we say explicitly, that’s on our books. So I think policy-wise that’s what comes to mind, and that is as far as formal, written down.

In terms of approaches, I would say that when it comes to parks, you know, we do look to enforce the no-camping rule. Just to run a scenario, if we were to have someone call and say, ‘Hey, there’s a tent cluster, say Blanche Hull Preserve, we saw a tent cluster.’ What we’ve tried to approach [is] a sort of practice to reach out to Integrated Services Kalamazoo on their street outreach team, often to say, ‘Hey, is this cluster on your radar? Might you send your street outreach team out?’ Now, they are a seven-county street outreach team. I want to be mindful. Plug: They need a lot more support. It is a mighty team and they do a lot for a big area. But can we have someone kind of stop by and check in with folks to see if they can be connected to supportive services, if there are any shelter options, is ideally a first step that’s going to be contingent on their availability, but we’ll try to go there.

Then we also have a couple of officers in particular that have built some pretty strong relationships with our unhoused population and are very gifted and skilled at communicating and so we’ll often say ‘Hey, Officer so and so, can you drop by?’ We’ve got a couple of officers, whether it’s on time or off-duty time, that will make a point to stop by and check-in and say, ‘Hey, you can’t stay here. You need to move.’ With that in mind, my experience has been that we have people come [say], ‘Hey, you need to move,’ they’ll clear out camp. A lot of times there’ll be things leftover – trash, debris, etc. We’ll have to come in with our contractor to kind of look to clean up the area and then move on. 

So that in terms of protocol of how we can handle when you’ve got clusters and I use that example, for parks, I would use that example if we have tents that are observed in any of our wellfields, any of our wellheads. We will also kind of use that same process. And then also if we get calls from private property owners that say, ‘Hey, I’ve got some tents on my property, I need you to come in, and I need you to take care of this.’ Public Safety will work with the property owner. There’ll be some no trespassing paperwork that needs to be filled out. And then public safety will then sort of acknowledge that this is trespassing, be carried out.

Another example, I would say, just kind of thinking through the different scenarios, is when we’ve got, you know, Brownfield property that we’ve fenced off and said ‘no trespassing,’ we would often kind of go in and say, ‘Hey, can’t stay here.’ And particularly with Brownfield, we know we have conditions with soil that we need to be mindful of. So this that I’m describing was previous to COVID, kind of what we’ve been doing as a course of action, largely responsive and reactive. Certainly there’s not a mentality or an approach that we’re going to scour the city by any stretch of the imagination, you’d often find ourselves reacting to calls in parks, calls from private property owners. In the case of Brownfield, we would be probably the most proactive.

You were just in Portland, Oregon. Portland has a significant amount of clusters or encampments. Does the city administration have an expectation there will be another encampment that pops up? And if so, how are you approaching this differently than the past three or four that necessitated the city to take action to remove them?

What I would say, going back to the time that I was describing, generally when you look to see when you’ve got clusters of tents – three, four, five and growing – what I think the experience has been as tents grow, you can have problems exacerbate, ranging from the human element, of people living in close proximity, but also going towards things like trash, like human waste. So, you have problems exacerbating. So, there we would be mindful of health and safety: Where the tents are located; are they in an unsafe area; are they concerned about wellheads? It also would be about is the volume increasing and knowing that as numbers grow, you can also see problems grow.

When COVID happened unexpectedly, you then had a situation where that prior practice was then met with guidelines from CDC saying that we do not recommend agencies look to disperse any camps. We don’t want to perpetuate the spread exposure for COVID. So, there was kind of a stand-down from there. You had the shelters reduced their capacity considerably because of social distancing requirements and fear of an outbreak. So suddenly, where before we had more confidence, ‘Hey, there’s availability at the shelter,’ that was no longer the case like it had been. And then third, we just know there was a greater need. So, if you take Mills Street as the example, where you start to see a cluster of tents previously. As the volume would have been an uptick, there would have been a conversation. There would have been, ‘Hey, let’s get the outreach team out there. Let’s see if we can connect people to services.’ Ultimately, we’re going to come in and say ‘This is trespassing. You can’t stay here. You need to go.’ That would have been the practice – hands-off.

And then what you see is you see a growing nature, right? And what I can appreciate and what I need to address is the positive side that we have heard is that you have social service providers, in many cases community volunteers, feel like they’ve got greater access to provide support. That can be a positive thing. It can also be a negative thing where we were also faced with Mills Street and Ampersee. So many people wanting to do well by bringing knitted hats and excess food that a lot of what we were picking up in terms of trash was well-intended donations that weren’t linked to people’s actual immediate needs. So to your point, the backstory that I want to paint is largely where I felt like prior to COVID we had established practice that was thinking about health and safety, that was enforcing no camping in parks – largely reactionary not trying to proactively go out and seek people needing to move. 

It felt like there were people certainly living out in the elements. We know that when [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] does its point in time count every year with the Continuum of Care, we know that we’ve got over 300 people at any given moment that are either in a shelter or outside. We knew that was happening. But when you had the ‘Hey, standoff hold down’, let things go greater need increasing. When you start to get to the volume, you sort of get multiple tents, then it starts to become a lot more challenging. 

So, the question of what about future encampments, right? In my mind where I try to go, I think from a housing solution standpoint, we have to work the entire continuum – from individuals that are, for a whole host of reasons, not wanting to be indoors or in a shelter, all the way to helping people become homeowners. We need to be working this whole spectrum.

Right now, in the camping – and I’ll use that broadly to go from, say, a tent, all the way to a tiny home – in the camping to small, individual transitional units. If you are to look at proactively establishing something that addresses that part of the continuum, I really rely heavily on some of the guidelines that are out there about how to set that option up for success. We can look to Ampersee and say, ‘That was not set up for success.’ We can look to see at Mills Street – this is something that the Continuum of Care board as a group kind of went through and they said, ‘Hey, let’s approve what we think to be the safe camping guidelines.’ Kalamazoo Coalition for Homeless was also really looking at a model: Eugene, Oregon’s safe camp model. Common threads you’ll see with these 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. But I think the best models are those that are sort of self-developed and self-governed. You’ve got access to amenities, bathrooms, you have access to running water, you have access to where the trash can go. So I think as a community we need to recognize that there are a variety of needs that require a variety of solutions, we need to meet people where they are and help them to where they want to go.

But I would like to have options that are more transitional in nature and have the supports. Otherwise, I think what I’ve observed is we’ve been complicit in doing more harm in some cases. When I go to Ampersee, and I had both witnessed, observed, and heard from countless folks about what has happened there – what was keeping me up at night, in addition to we need to help our people find housing, was that we’ve created a situation, we’ve been a part of a situation being created, that is now doing harm. And I started to think about the fact that allowing the camp to continue in the current state felt to me like doing greater harm. There may be people who think differently. But when I was looking at calls for service when I was hearing about victimization, and I was hearing about concerns with human trafficking, that started to feel like as a city, we need to put safety above all else. And that felt like there was an unsafe condition there.

If you’ve identified some of the issues that make an encampment more dangerous, and they are within the wheelhouse of the city that provides such services, why wouldn’t the city be more proactive and change the situation as opposed to letting it get to a point where you felt like it has to be broken up?

So, I think going back to the point I was trying to raise about the needing to have the proper supports. I think we do have a role in that. We did not do that at Ampersee. I think in a way I’m agreeing that there are mechanisms that can be put in place to change the outcome. I think one of the key pieces that I’ve surmised and I’m trying to get up on all the models, but there are other people you can talk to that know the models, but much better than I, is the issue of volume of people. If you have individuals that have experienced significant trauma, to be mindful of how many people experiencing significant trauma can be successful and stable and secure together. I’ve heard 20 and under – and obviously ratios depend on how many supportive services other entities have. So in some ways, if you have an established camp that is at one point 20, 40, 60, 80, 120, the ability to address the volume is going to be severely compromised. The ability to retroactively go in and make improvements are limited. 

So I get the point that you’re raising. Where I go is being able to look at if we want to provide options across the continuum. What is the role for us to select options that allow amenities that we regulate to be included? Now one thing we’d say in terms of regulation is like the location. So, there was nothing right about the location for a whole host of reasons. And I can say there was a lot of internal discussion about the property. We had previously said, ‘Do not be here, this is not a safe property.’ And this was, I would say, a year ago when there was a small cluster of tents at Ampersee. Most of the activity and people were residing at Mills. I actually walked the site trying to figure out how to grapple with this tension of what feels like an unsafe circumstance and what we have there. Quite honestly, as I’m walking around and talking, I talked to an individual, a woman who’s living there. And without prompting – I wasn’t really engaging in a formal way; I was just sort of chatting with her – and she made this comment. She’s like, ‘Well, you know, I’ve never felt safer.’

I want to be clear in the situation, there were probably eight or nine tents on the whole site. So in that moment I’m looking at her and thinking about what she described as safety. And I’m thinking about what we’re determining as safety and just going, ‘Gosh, this is really hard. There is not a good solution here.’ So going back to the point about how do we create environments where solutions that we’ve seen work in other parts of the country are set up for success. Things like having areas for trash, right? So, we worked in to try to have dumpster service. We worked in cooperation with the Continuum of Care to have amenities. But when they’re temporary, they are so flawed, they are so very flawed, particularly for this situation. You have the desire to provide hand sanitizer, and you have individuals with deep addiction that will consume it. You have the need for people to, you know, to be able to put trash where they need to. But then you also have volunteers coming in that are just dumping bags and bags and people dumping things. So, there were some minor adjustments made, they were not enough. But I would go back to if you’re trying to create an opportunity for alternative models to succeed, you need to be thinking about what’s the location? And what is the access to amenities on a more permanent basis that you avoid some of these challenges that we absolutely encountered.

But if you’ve known about this for a year plus, wasn’t that enough time to find alternative location, to make sure the services are in place? So that people, whether it’s Ampersee or even another encampment that sort of pops up, they can go to this place that at least might not be ideal, but is it a better outdoor living situation than that it being more like a reactive situation.

I would certainly, we would think, that’s ample time. And what I could say is that certainly, I’ve been engaged probably on this topic just about more than any topic on my plate actively with the Continuum of Care, three or four meetings in some cases a week, for this entire duration. One can say, ‘And what do you have to show for it,’ right? So, I get the point being made. I want to make sure that a lack of saying here’s the solution is not a lack of trying.

But what I found in this struggle is somewhat perfect being the enemy of the good. Where we all can say how much we want to see permanent supportive housing happen. And we’re doing that. We all know there’s a three- to four- to five-year launch from idea to fruition. So, what I want to acknowledge is all the while we are cranking up dollars being allocated for housing, we’re cranking up trying to be more competitive for low-income housing tax credit awards to build more permanent supportive housing. While that is happening, we’re also trying to figure out what [does] this interim solution look like? That has been the stickiest because there’s a sense of urgency that’s driving you to run. And you start to avoid options that are longer term. But if you had started those options a year ago, you’d be there. And part of one of the hurdles I will acknowledge is land use. Now land use, we can say we know that was not a consideration, we chose not to enforce trespassing on two properties that were not appropriately zoned for the use that they were in. So, you start with that premise.

But the difference between something happening, albeit organically, and something that the city is involved in saying ‘This shall be the place for,’ the obligation to have the use match your land use becomes real. So this is one of the harder things to toe the line of. We need to find solutions. We need to follow our rules. 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. 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.

Is it accurate to say that the city has been looking at parcels of land that would be appropriate for some sort of quasi permanent solution, some sort of encampment, that includes a more permanent type of resources that would be available?

Going to zoom out a bit and talk about … as I’ve been focusing on the city because that’s who I can speak for – I don’t want to diminish the role of other people in the conversation. So certainly, you’ll hear me say a couple of times over, the Continuum of Care, both staffing and partners that are involved with this. So housing agencies, there have been multiple conversations over the last year about potential parcels, potential options, what’s out there. For the city, site control is everything. We went through a long process to evaluate the purchase of 314 Stockbridge. I want to be very mindful that we’ve talked about that parcel as very much an opportunity for permanent supportive housing. We did acknowledge in the interim, might there be opportunities. We have to be really careful because we know, any conversation where we’re talking about a potential use or placement, it’s both people that we’re hoping to help to live there and people who live already there and making sure that what we agreed to when this went before the commission was that any conversation about the use of this site – short term, long term – would need to be a community conversation.

To your question about are we looking at property: The answer is absolutely yes. Property that we control as a possibility, partners have explored property that the [Kalamazoo County] Land Bank owns on multiple fronts. People have explored private property that can be acquired and/or used on a temporary basis. Right now, we are looking at planning tools – short term, are there any interim mechanisms that can be done to allow for temporary solutions while you look at more permanent placement. 

And also models. I mentioned to you the safe guidelines that are out there. The model that I covet the most is the Community First! Village in Austin. Where you look at if you’re going to do something right, this is now at this scale and you have to be mindful we’re Kalamazoo not Austin. It is eight miles outside of the city, they have amazing transportation – the first thought is ‘Oh, pushed out too much’ – amazing transportation, both on a bus route and having residents with access to cars that they can utilize. They have models: Everything from tents on platforms all the way to tiny homes to campers. You have this very thoughtful, intentional community that has community kitchens, community showers, bathrooms. All these different models. They have a community governance model.

I say all this going back to the strategy around encampments. I’m trying to spend my time and energies saying, ‘What are the strategies around solutions so that we can look at some of these options and be more intentional about providing the right supports and amenities that would hopefully have future solutions be successful?’

The representative of the business that has the draft purchase agreement for the Ampersee property struck an agreement with 26 or more residents of the Ampersee encampment and struck a proposal for how to better manage staying on that location to avoid having to break up the encampment, and to address some of the issues both that the residents have in how it has been operated and that the city has described. Why was the proposal rejected, since it was between the potential likely future land owner legally and the residents who were there?

I think an important part of your question is “potential,” is “future.” Currently the city Brownfield Redevelopment Authority owns the property, so I think that’s the first piece. Conversations about that request, the way that I responded, was that the reason that I’ve already explained why Ampersee, I felt, action was necessary, why we needed to look at closing that camp. Folks at Ampersee were told to leave. Some individuals who went across the street, were allowed to stay. That did strike me a bit from an equity standpoint about how it is that some go and some stay. In the conversation that I had about the future use, a lot of what I was just describing to you about solutions that set people up and systems up for success was part of that conversation. We also talked about resources that could be made available for future vision. So, where I heard the request, I absolutely understood the request, the decision to proceed was based on both for the reasons why we started on the closure and the notion that it would be very difficult to understand how individuals were treated differently depending on which side of the street they were on. So, what I would want to lead with is how much we are committed and appreciate any engagement efforts and how that could lead to future use, but the supports have got to be there.

One other aspect of the break-up of the encampment itself and how it was carried out on Oct. 6 and I guess the following couple of days as things were developing, it seems that the city’s approach to it was particularly cruel, and lacked empathy, and seemed like it wasn’t guided by the equity lens that’s been talked about leading the policies for the city. 

I think to start with the conversation about closure, we first put notices out there communicating Sept. 15 with the initial thought that Sept. 29 would be [the] closure date. There was a lot of conversation about outreach that has happened and what could happen. I’ve gathered from some of the conversations of outreach staff that had been working with residents living in the encampments is that if you come and say, ‘Hey Chris, what are your options, where do you want to be?’ and Chris says ‘I want to be here,’ well if here is an option then that’s your answer and so here you are.

There was a desire to make sure that even though outreach had been happening over the last year and a half, there was an ability to come back and say ‘Hey Chris, I understand your option is to stay here. This is no longer going to be an option for you, and we’d like to have you consider some other options that are out there.’ That conversation did yield some individuals who changed from being ‘We’re going to stay here’ to ‘We’re going to go to Oakland House’ or ‘We’re going to go to Kalamazoo Gospel Ministries.’ So, there was some movement there. 

But there was a strong desire as we were approaching the 29th of this ‘Hey, we want to have another effort, we want to make sure people understand the realness of what’s happening.’ So, we said ‘OK, we want to pause, we want to make sure that we have that opportunity.’ As I was involved in conversations about outreach efforts for Monday [Oct. 4, two days before the camp was cleared], it was ‘Let’s make sure that Monday we do the best we can. This needs to be really the last opportunity we have for outreach.’ So, trying to create that message that we still intend to close, we’re hoping to provide supportive service connections as best we can, and then we intend to close. I think there is a suddenness when the day draws, but I think there was certainly an effort to get out in front with notice, working with Continuum of Care and outreach staff to make sure that there are options that were presented for individuals, and then ultimately, we wanted to proceed with the closure.

The research shows that a lot of folks who are in encampments do feel that sense of safety, that sense of community, and it’s where they want to be. It also says that these actions are pretty expensive for municipalities ranging from (depending on the municipality) between $1,500 to as much as $6,000 to remove one person. We’ve heard that there’s a $118,000 cost for this time. What was that money used for at Ampersee?

I have not gotten a final number on Ampersee. We started to do numbers going back to Mills and some of the cleanup costs that have been ongoing. Fencing costs. If you start to go back to Mills Street the last year, we are well over the $100 thousand threshold, but I don’t have an isolated cost for Ampersee yet.

The $118,000 was for cleanup costs, extrapolated out from removing waste and other clean ups.

We haven’t actually cleaned. The price tag for cleaning up the site is TBD because we still have contractors that need to go through. We’re well over $100,000 for encampment activities over the last year, so it’s likely that the number will be more than what you are describing, but [it is] important to distinguish what’s being said from past activities versus current activities.

About people acknowledging they feel safe, or they want to be. Part of what I think is recognizing that there are a lot of variations. If I go to what I think is possible with safe camping guidelines, that is absolutely the case. When we did partner with Integrated Services Kalamazoo to do some informal surveying of the camp back in August, they talked to about 80 folks out of likely 100 that might have been residing there at the time. Thirty-eight percent indicated that crime is one of the biggest challenges they were facing. I don’t doubt for a moment that there are encampment situations with the right supports where people can feel safer than they’ve ever felt. That is the aspiration. But although we may hear some people feel safe in some camps, we have to be careful to blanketly put that to Ampersee when we recognize I am quite certain some people did feel safe. But I was also responding to both people individually reporting they were concerned about crime and what we were seeing in terms of actual calls for service.

Does that raise another problem though? If 100 to 150 people living in a situation as you and the city characterize it would rather stay there than go to the alternatives that the city is proposing? It seems that at best, you’re suggesting a lateral move, but not an improved move out of an encampment to the next spot. And the research has shown that encampments that are broken up without giving a better option just result in dispersing people, dispersing services and making delivery more expensive, and contributing to the cycle of encampments, breakups, and encampments again.

We need to provide more options. I expand the conversation not to say that the city doesn’t need to be responsible for its whole community, but I’ve been working so closely with so many people I don’t want this to be about what the city is or isn’t doing. I think we all, for us to provide the solution across the continuum that I describe, there’s a role for every single partner to play. We need to provide more options. I absolutely agree with that. My hope which keeps driving me forward is what can I do personally, what can I do professionally, to help the city be at the table to provide more options so people have more choices.

When will the city provide a better option for encampment, for the temporary encampment situation that keeps coming up?

In my most recent trip to Portland, one of the components of the trip was to look at a living solution that’s being tested out there. It was very, very encouraging in terms of what it can offer for life span of the unit itself and options. So with that, it’s exploring that as a solution going back to your question about where that could be temporarily versus long term and the resources piece that we’ve got available. It is my hope that we can start talking about actual solutions, an actual site with actual resources, in the next month to two. But that’s where I am going to keep pushing on it.

Independent journalism is essential to a healthy democracy. Make a donation today.