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Here's what you need to know about why the homeless are protesting in Kalamazoo

Update: 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 19

Kalamazoo police officers arrived at Bronson Park this morning to clear the park of homeless people and protestors.

The city imposed a deadline of 7 p.m. Tuesday night for homeless campers to leave the park.

Some people have been arrested, including city commissioner Shannon Sykes.

Update: 10:24 p.m.

No arrests have been made, despite threats of removal from the park and potential arrest if the park wasn't vacated by 7 p.m.

There were several people who came to support the protesters who made a circle around the homeless residents, who were prepared to spend the night in jail for their cause. 

Shannon Sykes Nehring, a Kalamazoo City Commissioner who is protesting with the homeless residents, says it's important that all the protesters stay together.

"So that if and when the police come to arrest folks, we know where they go, we can make sure they’re safe and we can get them help," she said.

Original post: 5:14 p.m.

The homeless residents have been protesting in Bronson Park since August 19, after the city proposed alternative penalties for sleeping overnight in a park.

The protesters have a number of complaints related to the city's treatment of the homeless population, including:

  • the limited number of shelters and available space for homeless residents;
  • poor building conditions at the largest existing shelter;
  • accusations that police are unwilling to investigate allegations of assault at a local shelter;
  • and a chronic shortage of permanent housing for low-income residents.

The protesters argue that these conditions mean the penalties the city has proposed - while less severe than previous penalties have been - essentially criminalize homelessness in the city.
One resident of the encampment, Faith, who's known around the camp as Turtle, said that dispersing the camp is a kind of silencing.

“We’re being forced to shut down and told that we can’t say certain things, we can’t do certain things," she said. "We look at it as this is our freedom of speech."

Shane, who's been in the encampment since nearly the beginning of the protests, took issue with a visit from a city official who “gave us options and then turned his back on us when we wanted him to hear our demands.”

“That wasn’t right. Wasn’t right at all. I mean we listened to him, the least he could’ve done is listened to us instead of turning his back and walking away,” Shane said.

In an interview with Stateside last week, Kalamazoo City Commissioner Shannon Sykes Nehring – who passionately advocated for the city to start discussions around the protesters demands – said that at one time Kalamazoo was named “one of the meanest cities in the country towards its homeless residents.”

“Every so often we have our homeless residents who have just had enough,” she said. “This just happens to be the first time that I was an elected official when this was going on.”

She also laid out some of the demands the city has received from the protesters, which include:

  • the city of Kalamazoo’s engagement in discussions about homelessness and displacement;
  • the police department’s willingness to investigate alleged incidnets of assault at Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, the only emergency overnight shelter in the city;
  • full access to mental and physical healthcare, especially for homeless residents who are precluded from staying in shelters because of their health, like those with epilepsy;
  • structurally sound buildings that the residents can develop before the first snow comes;
  • developing a housing-first strategy for the city.

Nehring noted that the city has been engaging in discussions about homelessness, but said some of the other demands are outside of the city’s jurisdiction. In those cases, she said, the city can “definitely be conveners.”
In an interview with Stateside on Tuesday, Pastor Michael Brown, head of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, weighed in on the protest. He also addressed some of the allegations made against his shelter, which is the only emergency overnight shelter in the city. 

“It just seems to me that because of the way that negotiations have gone – or not gone – it seems as though that some folks just won’t be satisfied, period,” Brown said. He claims that there are “plenty of resources” available. Often when people leave the shelter disgruntled, he said, it’s because they were expecting services the shelter doesn’t provide.

Stateside’s conversation with Michigan Radio’s Bryce Huffman and Pastor Michael Brown, who heads the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission.

Listen to the full conversation with Pastor Michael Brown above. 

When asked about the allegations of uninvestigated assaults that occurred in the shelter, Brown said the shelter will “do something about it when we know about it, but if they choose not to tell us about it then there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Brown says that Kalamazoo Gospel Mission has been reviewing its safety policies over the last year in anticipation of a new, bigger shelter it’s preparing to build. And after staff complained about men sleeping between cars in the parking lot and urinating around the building, they have recently hired a security agency to walk the property in the evenings.

Although the city has held meetings with the protesters for several weeks, the encampment has continued to grow. At one point, it seemed the city had reached a deal with protesters to allow them to continue the protest on the grounds of an old fire station, but the protesters refused to move citing safety and lack of shade as concerns about the new site.

In early September, Kalamazoo city manager Jim Ritsema said the protesters were violating city ordinance by staying overnight in the park, but that the city didn’t want to arrest anyone. “We’re dealing with people that are already at risk,” Ritsema said, “and we don’t want to do anything hastily. We’d rather peacefully work this out.”

Now, though, Ritsema said camping at the park is not safe or sanitary, and the protesters are keeping other residents and visitors from using the park.

In her interview with Stateside, Commissioner Nehring’s account of her experience at the encampment is different than Ritsema’s characterization. Nehring said people have a lot to learn from watching the community living in the encampment. While visiting the encampment overnight, she saw people help an older, legally blind man with mobility issues clean himself and his tent after he defecated on himself.

“Numerous folks got up in the middle of the night to help him get up and cleaned off and into clean clothes and cleaned out his tent for him and laid him back down gently to go back to sleep,” Nehring said. “And those are the sorts of things you see over and over in this encampment. Folks showing up for one another. Folks taking care of each other.”

Nehring has been in her position as commissioner since 2015. She said she’s been frustrated at the lack of willingness by her colleagues to dive into the issues of gentrification, displacement, and homelessness, which were some of the issues she addressed very early on. Inaccurate stereotypes about drug use, alcoholism, and laziness play a large role in the demonization of the homeless, she said. 

“Actually we have folks living in the encampment who have full-time jobs, who go to school full-time, who are seniors living on social security, who are homeless for the first time in their lives, folks living on disability who just don’t get enough to afford rent,” Nehring said.

The city said it will start dispersing the encampment at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Ritsema said if its necessary, police will arrest those who refuse to leave.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
jd is a Digital / Social Media Assistant at Michigan Radio.
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