Crowd supports Camp Take Notice as neighbors of Ann Arbor tent city circulate petition for eviction
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Florescent signs hung from wires affixed across Wagner Road between Jackson and Dexter-Ann Arbor roads Thursday afternoon as residents and supporters of the homeless encampment known as Camp Take Notice held hands behind the guardrail.
“We Work Together”...“Our Camp is Safe” read the signs.
As commuters drove past, some honked in support, others gawked while some seemed not to even notice the 80 or so people lining the road. The message the residents and supporters of the tent city were trying to get across was simple.
They want Camp Take Notice to stay put - even as some neighbors are circulating a petition asking that the camp be moved.
“We believe everyone has a right to a place to live,” said Beth Scriven, a priest from St. Clare’s of Assisi Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, while standing by the road. “We’re out here to show that our community supports this camp and that it is safe.”
The tent city is officially located in Scio Township, between Jackson and Dexter-Ann Arbor roads off of Wagner near M-14.
Unofficially, it’s off the grid.
To get to the dozens of tents that sit hidden in the woods a guardrail must be hurdled followed by a long walk down a straw covered path residents affectionately call the “Yellow Brick Road.”
The Emerald City doesn’t wait at the end of the path, but to the residents who live there, it feels like it.
Nineteen churches as well as individual donors help feed the residents of Camp Take Notice and try to help them get on their feet, which more times than not is easier said than done.
“My problem is, I’ve got a criminal record,” said Anthony Ramirez, 35, who has lived at Camp Take Notice for six months. “Not too many people want to hire someone with a record, so it’s tough.”
Ramirez said he’s been to shelters such as downtown Ann Arbor’s Delonis Center, but said that a sense of community at Camp Take Notice doesn’t exist elsewhere.
Brian Durrance, who is on the board of directors for Michigan Itinerant Shelter System-Interdependent Out of Necessity (MISSION) a non-profit organization that helps support the tent city, calls the community “a unique form of group therapy.”
But that therapy is currently taking place on Michigan Department of Transportation land, making it difficult for Camp Take Notice to operate in any sort of official capacity.
"It's not as simple as purchasing the land and getting a license," Durrance said. "It's much more complicated than that."
MDOT could force the residents to move out at any time.
“MDOT is not in the process of evicting, but we are working with (the Michigan State Housing Authority Development) to try and help provide alternatives,” said MDOT director of communications Jeff Cranson.
Alanna Gehringer, 23, has been at the camp for six months and like many of the people at Thursday’s rally, wants Camp Take Notice to be an official tenant of the forgotten parcel.
Cranson said he’s sympathetic to the residents’ plight, but that’s not going to happen. Cranson said that Camp Take Notice - which has existed at its current location for two years will eventually have to move on.
“Poverty is the problem,” said Julie Steiner, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, who was at Thursday’s rally.
“There just aren’t enough resources and this camp serves a valuable purpose.”
Not everyone is satisfied with the status quo at Camp Take Notice. Durrance said 65 people currently live there, but Scio Township resident Joe DaSilva Jr. said it was reported at the Scio Township meeting that 78 reside there.
DaSilva, Jr. is circulating a petition to try to expedite the tent city being moved and said he’s gathered 114 signatures in one week. He said signees include residents and nearby businesses such as Radio Shack, Kroger, the Clarion Hotel.
“This is our backyard. We live there,” said DaSailva.
DaSilva’s wife, Marissa, said they have lived with their nine-year old son within walking distance of the camp since 2003. She said she fears for the safety of the campers and the people in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“I have sympathy for people who struggle. Our intention is not to make it harder, it’s the specific location. It’s not a location that’s meant for that,” DaSilva said, pointing out there is no running water and that people have to climb over a guardrail to get there.
“It’s not safe,” she said.
Marissa DaSilva said flyers were circulated when Camp Take Notice originally moved there, saying it would be a temporary thing. She said she's concerned with the community's growth and seeming permanence.
The transient nature of the camp’s population is also a concern of residents. Another Scio Township resident, who asked not be identified for fear of repercussions, said a main concern of his was that registered sex offenders could be staying there and residents in the surrounding area would have no way of knowing.
“MDOT isn’t taking tally, there could easily be sex offenders living there,” said the man, who said he has contacted MDOT on the issue.
The concern can’t be dismissed as paranoia. University of Michigan lecturer Anthony Collings recently filmed a short documentary at Camp Take Notice and one of the stories told is that of Destiney Brown, of Battle Creek, who in the documentary is shown living at the camp with her boyfriend, Michael Leins.
Leins is a registered sex offender and during the documentary’s filming was arrested for failing to comply with reporting duties. He is now incarcerated.
“My concern is that people are choosing to live (on government property) that don’t qualify for staying at a legitimate facility because of criminal history,” the unidentified resident said.
Durrance said the self-governing community evict anyone who breaks the law while on grounds and notifies proper authorities when it happens, but said initial background checks are not performed.
Durrance said people at Camp Take Notice have a “clean slate” when they arrive and 75 people have been evicted for various violations.
Durrance hopes that if Camp Take Notice is provided an alternative if forced to move.
“We feel that we’re serving the community and we’d like to do that in a legitimate capacity, but we know that (MDOT) is very restricted in what they can offer,” he said.
Contact Pete Cunningham at email@example.com or by phone at 734-623-2561. Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.