Jeff unzipped his tent and quickly looked around to make sure his belongings were safe – not an easy task against the constant struggle of protecting his food from mice and other woodland animals. In a home without walls, windows, or a sturdy front door, Jeff can’t stow his clothing in a dresser or store his food in a pantry. Instead, everything he owns is contained in a stack of plastic milk crates, and he sleeps in a sleeping bag on a thin mat on the ground.
Even in the summertime, Jeff said, sleeping in a tent isn’t the ideal lifestyle, but it’s far more comfortable, and safer, than the impending winter. His tent suffices in the summer with its thin mosquito net, rain cover, and impromptu shelves of crates. But once the snow begins to fly, he’ll have to winterize his tent and hope he’ll be able to stay warm throughout the night.
“It’s a big blow to your self-esteem to be here,” said Jeff, who asked that his last name not be used for this story. “I mean look at it, it’s not exactly home.”
By fall, Jeff started receiving Social Security disability payments and found a home. He was one of the lucky ones.
Many more — up to 50 in the summer and between 15 and 20 in the winter — call Camp Take Notice home.
This is their story.
Just temporary — but for how long?
“Tent City” — a phrase that might evoke images of the infamous jail facility in Maricopa County, Ariz., where thousands of inmates serve their time in the unforgiving desert heat. But in Ann Arbor, it has an entirely different meaning. It’s a community where some of the thousands of homeless people in Washtenaw County can rest while they struggle to get their lives back on track.
Nestled in a triangular plot of trees about the length of three football fields and bordered by I-94, M-14 and Wagner Road, Camp Take Notice offers a drug-free environment where the homeless can set up a tent, away from the busy streets of downtown Ann Arbor. Originally formed in 2008, Camp Take Notice has existed in five previous locations in Ann Arbor before setting up on the city’s west side in 2010.
Caleb Poirier, 34, brought the tent city concept to Ann Arbor after spending time in similar camps near Seattle. While smaller than similar tent cities Poirier visited in other states, Camp Take Notice was designed to have a similar governing structure.
While CTN offers solace to between 15 and 50 of Washtenaw County’s estimated 4,000 homeless people depending on the time of year, it is not universally embraced. The camp’s close proximity to Elizabeth Street, a small, unpaved street with about 15 single-family homes, has some residents concerned. Kat Miller, 31, lives in Ann Arbor and frequently parks her car at a relative’s home on the street.
Miller said that on two separate occasions, she came to the home and found a man searching for food in the garage. The second time, she told the man that he had to leave, or she would call the police to report him for trespassing.
Suspecting that someone has intruded on the property at least “five or six times” and defecated on the lawn since the second incident, she no longer parks her car at her relative’s home to ride the bus.
Further down the street, Melissa Sheffer, 30, relates her experience with the camp, which has been much more positive. She says the residents of Camp Take Notice don’t draw attention to themselves. In fact, she had only recently learned of the camp’s existence. She hasn’t had any problems with camp residents, and isn’t aware of any crime happening near her home.
Sheffer admires the willingness of the campers to seek employment and advance themselves, adding that they appear to be hard-working. “They take the bus, shower at the ymca, and go to work,” says Sheffer.
When it comes to such issues in the neighborhood, Caleb Poirier and some of the more experienced residents offer important advice to new residents: “Don’t go on Elizabeth Street.”
Vernon Grob, 61, believes the concerns voiced by Elizabeth Street residents stem from a “not-in-my-backyard” mentality.
To rule out the possibility of complaints from the nearby communities, members of the camp adopted a strict panhandling policy that prohibits asking for handouts within a one-mile radius. Additionally, the camp’s leadership decided that other than walking to or from the camp, or waiting at the nearby bus stop on Wagner Road, camp residents should not loiter near the camp or surrounding neighborhoods.
Getting back on their feet — hopefully
David Williams, 57, is one of the hard-working people that Sheffer references. Originally from Inkster, a friend told Williams about Camp Take Notice, recommending it as a place to live while saving up for a home.
Williams used to receive unemployment checks until they ran out five months ago. He said he prayed that he would find a job before October so he could have a chance of finding a home before winter.
And his prayers came true. He was hired to a new job in mid-September. Now he’s pursuing his friend’s advice of saving his paychecks so he can find an apartment.
Williams has a word of warning, though: Some campers get comfortable with life in the camp and stop looking for employment and lodging. He says that the camp “is a great way to get back on your feet – as long as you don’t get stuck here.” He says that those campers who stay for too long can find themselves in a cycle of apathy and alcohol abuse.
Another camper, Jeff, was able to leave the camp after waiting over a year to start receiving Social Security benefits. In the preceding months, Jeff talked about how finding work was difficult without a permanent address. Instead it was easier to find a temporary job lasting a few weeks, and to save paychecks from the various jobs with the hope of raising the money for rent payments on an inexpensive apartment.
Some campers come back to the camp even after successfully leaving, and they share their experiences with new campers, some of whom are homeless for the first time. According to Poirier, this relationship between campers, former campers and charities forms a community bond that helps further the camp’s goal of raising awareness of homelessness.
Needs met by warm hearts
An important factor in getting the majority of the campers organized for Camp Take Notice’s weekly Sunday meetings is the donation of a large, warm meal that can feed everyone adequately. These food donations are provided through a weekly rotation of different charities, churches and private citizens who support the camp.
Karla and Tim Dorweil made a large donation on Oct. 2, consisting of a variety of home-cooked food, including salad, whole grains and fresh strawberries. According to Tim, he and his wife “are careful shoppers,” and wanted to provide the best nutrition possible. Tim estimated the cost of the donation, which fed roughly 20 people with additional food remaining, at $80-$90.
Additional assistance comes from a variety of local churches, including the Zion Lutheran church. Camp residents are able to volunteer for woodcutting and collect their firewood from donors with trees on their property. By using donated firewood instead of cutting down trees in the camp, residents are able to stay warm without destroying MDOT property.
Helping those who help themselves
While Camp Take Notice’s two-year presence on Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT)-owned land is technically illegal, MDOT’s Brighton Transportation Service Center manager Mark Geib, who oversees operations in Livingston, Washtenaw and Monroe Counties, offers a different perspective on the issue.
Geib says that as long as residents maintain a safe and clean environment in the camp and actively search for a permanent housing solution elsewhere, MDOT has no plans to evict the campers. He says that for the most part, there have been few complaints about the camp.
Keeping in accordance with MDOT’s conditions of safety and cleanliness, the residents of Camp Take Notice have turned waste management into a key element of daily life. As trash accumulates, bags are brought to a holding area by the road, where they are picked up on a regular basis by truck.
While the camp enjoys MDOT’s acceptance, some of the campers have been busy giving back to MDOT and highway commuters by volunteering their time in Michigan’s Adopt-a-Highway program. On Oct. 3, some 15 residents, including some sick and injured campers, scoured a three-mile stretch of highway to the west of the camp for garbage, collecting 20 bags by the end of the day.
Since then, camp residents have cleaned the road several times, and have taken the program a step further by cleaning up a section of Wagner Road as well. The spirit of volunteerism has taken hold within the boundaries of the camp as well, with residents undertaking cleaning projects and constructing wooden shelters for generators and trash.
Poirier described a “rent” system that incentivizes residents to take part in community service and camp chores in return for additional weekly bus tokens, which are vital to many residents’ job-seeking process.
Alonzo Young, 46, is a Washtenaw Community College student and has been a resident of Camp Take Notice for several months. His responsibility lies with performing security duties, such preventing theft and fighting, enforcing the drug policy and stopping excessive noise at night.
“I look out for people, I’m a caring person,” Young said regarding his duties. When residents who violate these rules are caught, they risk being evicted from the camp, especially if the offense leads to police intervention, which the camp works to prevent.
In the event that a resident of the camp is evicted for a rule violation, a committee at the camp decides whether the eviction will be temporary (up to two weeks) or permanent. In the event of a two-week eviction, the campers can return, at which point they tell their version of the events that led to their eviction, which can then be rebutted by other campers in a meeting.
After opinions are voiced, the residents are allowed to resume living in the camp. In the case of a permanent eviction, however, a camper must go through an appeals process, which includes a discussion among campers, a group vote by the camp, a decision by camp leaders and, finally, a counseling process to ensure the campers abide by the rules if they are allowed to return.
Additionally, the residents of the camp are required to keep a fire extinguisher near each of the camp’s several firepits, which are used to provide warmth and to cook. Poirier says following these rules and making democratic choices keeps the camp orderly and ensures that the camp is safe from eviction by MDOT.
Common health issues create uncommon hardships
Since the residents of Camp Take Notice don’t have the same access to hospitals and disability services as people with homes and jobs do, staying healthy can be a struggle. Counted among the 30-plus residents of the camp are a pregnant woman and individuals with serious health issues, such as mental illness, diabetes, high blood pressure, broken limbs, and pulled muscles.
Poirier and other members of the camp’s executive committee dedicated a new “office tent” to help relieve some of these problems that residents have. A set of drawers has first-aid supplies for residents, and the office contains paperwork with important information on the residents, which helps keep track of supplies as they are issued to residents, such as tents and sleeping bags.
The residents don’t have the luxury of an elevator, and the stairway leading into camp from Wagner Road is treacherous at best. Constructed from donated railroad ties, the stairway winds down the camp’s dirt path, making the trip downhill safer, especially during rainy and snowy weather.
Improvements to the stairway have been a hot topic at the camp’s Sunday meetings, but the issue is not without controversy. Officially, MDOT has requested that no permanent structures, such as metal railings, be installed in the camp or near Wagner Road. Concerned about a backlash from MDOT, some campers voted against the building of a railing on the stairs, eventually leading to a compromise with the camp’s majority for a less-visible, semi-permanent railing.
Shelter Association of Washtenaw County
Despite having created a system for waste disposal, drinking water, heating and cooking, the camp still lacks running water and a physical address to receive mail, which is where the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County (SAWC) comes into the picture.
SAWC’s program at the Delonis Center downtown offers showers, laundry, mail, and storage services, which residents of the camp rely on to fulfill the needs that the camp cannot provide. Additionally, the Delonis Center has offered the ‘Warming Center’ program in previous years, where the homeless can stay on the first floor of the five-story structure and away from the biting winter cold.
The future of the Warming Center was in jeopardy, however, according to Shelter Association CEO Ellen Schulmeister. Citing the difficulty of finding donors to fund the program through the winter months, she said that the likelihood of the program being continued was questionable, adding that Shelter Association employees were trying to solve the situation.
As of mid-October, the Warming Center gained the funding it required to operate, albeit at a smaller occupancy of 25 people per night. At Camp Take Notice’s Oct. 23 meeting, a number of residents showed interest in participating in the program, which is open to men and women. At the Warming Center, they will have access to caseworkers and a full night of sleep on a clean mat with blankets in a heated room.
Barry Minowitz, 58, is the Operations Manager from the Shelter Association. He provided a sign-up form for residents to access the Warming Center. He also informed residents of a church-based program known as the Rotating Shelter, where a small amount of Washtenaw County’s homeless can register on a first-come, first-served basis to access shelter in a network of local churches. Deriving its name from the fact that residents will sleep in a different church every night, the Rotating Shelter is offered to men only.
Staying warm and dealing with difficult weather
As the summer months give way to fall, weather that most homeowners wouldn’t bat an eye at has been plaguing residents of Camp Take Notice. Most recently, heavy rains pounded some of the smaller, flimsier tents until they collapsed, soaking through clothing and spoiling food.
The camp’s executive committee has been planning for future rains and inevitable winter snow by stockpiling heavy-duty tarps and receiving donated winter tents which can keep residents warm at temperatures approaching zero degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to sturdier shelter, the campers were able to get a few propane tanks – enough to use sparingly for cooking, but not enough to run propane heaters full-time.
From October through early spring, residents who find the insides of their tents too cold can move to the community tent, where two wood furnaces burn firewood, which is easier to come by than propane. Additionally, the camp will undergo an organizational change – instead of consisting of many tents spread out over a large distance in the woods, the camp will condense to a small area around the community tent, so the residents can stay close together.
Richard McKendry, 40, says keeping snow off the ground will be a challenge in the winter. Instead of trying to clear the entire area that the camp currently occupies, the situation will be simplified as the tents move closer together and only a smaller area will require clearing.
Residents have found other ways to beat the cold than huddling together, though. In two different sections of the camp, residents have placed their small tents together between trees, and built a much larger tent around the trees, enclosing the smaller tents. Creating an additional buffer zone between the tents and the outside world, the residents living in these “mega tents” are able to keep items outside of their tents while still protecting them from the elements.
With the camp located on the eastern edge of Scio Township on the border with Ann Arbor, law enforcement responsibilities lies with the Washtenaw County Sheriff Department and the Michigan State Police. While the sheriff’s department denied a Freedom of Information Act request for police records regarding Camp Take Notice, Director of Community Engagement Derrick Jackson confirmed that deputies conduct a weekly patrol of the camp to “check in on folks and see how things are going.”
“It is actually state property, so it’s technically the Michigan State Police [responsibility], but obviously it’s in Scio Township and we want to make sure we keep an eye out and make sure everything is okay out there,” said Jackson.
The Ann Arbor Police Department responded with one police record dating from April 18, 2010, which resulted in no arrests. Residents of the camp attribute Camp Take Notice’s success to the current location on mdot-owned land.
The camp has endured fewer interventions from law enforcement since it moved from the former locations behind Arborland Mall and the Ann Arbor-Saline Road Park and Ride, which were much more visible to the public.
Some furry friends
While for some residents life in Camp Take Notice can be bleak, they are able to take solace in the feeling that they are part of a community that provides a shelter for those who have none. And as the campers have each other to lean on, they have three more close allies — a family of cats, brought to the camp during the summer.
Dashing around playfully and jumping into the laps of residents while they eat their Sunday dinner, the cats bring joy, a little excitement, some warmth and a few smiles. They heighten spirits among the campers.
As nighttime falls and the residents retire one-by-one to their tents, the cats are never far behind. Those residents who leave their tents unzipped are frequently greeted by the cats, which will curl up and make a camper almost feel like home.