'It's been a mild winter' for 2 dozen homeless living in tent city near Ann Arbor
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The 25 people living in Camp Take Notice showed a sunny disposition Tuesday, despite the dipping temperatures and snow covering the village.
It was a normal day that could have been taking place in any neighborhood. Only Camp Take Notice is a tent city just west of Ann Arbor in Scio Township.
The otherwise homeless residents were pushing snow off of the camp’s tents and building a fire in one of the two wood stoves in the main gathering tent. The camp’s cats, cared for by residents, darted around feet and chairs, occasionally taking a break to claw at tree trunks.
Tate Williams, who is spending his fifth winter at the site, said there’s a bond that keeps the residents of the camp going through the winter months. It’s up to the residents of the camp to keep themselves going because the rest of society has seemingly cast them aside, Williams said.
“The only way to get through the winter is the sense of community and camaraderie in the camp,” he said.
Between 20 and 25 people are living at the camp right now, down from a peak of 69 people earlier this year but up from between six and eight residents last winter, Williams said.
The camp is located off Wagner Road between Jackson Road and Elizabeth Road, accessed by a trail situated just beyond a guardrail near M-14. After a short walk, the sprawling camp comes into view, complete with an office, bulletin board advertising religious ceremonies and community meetings and more than 20 tents that stretch into the woods.
About 10 people were milling about the camp Tuesday, keeping warm by the heaters in their tents or hanging out with other residents in the main area. The rest were out looking for jobs, according to camp residents.
Williams emphasized the camp is not a permanent place of residence; instead, it serves as a place where people begin to rebuild their lives. The average length of stay for a person is between two and three months, and people like him, who stick around for longer periods of time in order to help it keep functioning, are rare.
“Part of the reason that I like the hardness aspect of the camp is that (residents) have to contribute,” he said, adding the camp shows people that hard work will result in rewards and failure to comply with the camp’s rules will result in eviction — just like in society.
Camp Take Notice is not a place that exists outside of societal norms, Williams said. Sobriety is required, cleanliness is a must, and all residents are required to contribute to the betterment of the camp. People who disobey those rules are evicted from the encampment.
There are even weekly meetings involving everyone at the camp where residents get the chance to talk about what they want to see from the camp and votes are taken on new rules and expectations, William said. Society may have forgotten about them, but the campers haven’t forgotten how to live in society, he said.
“Otherwise, they might as well go live under a bridge by themselves,” he said.
The Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office makes two patrols through the camp every week, Williams said. Police have previously said that there is a very low amount of crime inside the camp and there's a positive relationship between deputies and residents.
The camp also is getting some international attention from the BBC show Panorama. In a report called "America's Homeless Resort To Tent Cities," members of the camp detail how area shelters are actually referring people to Camp Take Notice because the shelters don't have room for them.
Paul Harris was among the residents chipping in Tuesday afternoon, going from tent to tent brushing snow off of the tarps that hung on strings spanning the length between trees.
He said MISSION, or Michigan Itinerant Shelter System: Interdependent Out of Necessity, helps out the camp residents immensely. MISSION is a nonprofit organization that helps support self-governing tent communities in Michigan, according to its website.
The group has supplied the campers with sleeping bags and heaters, which have helped through the winter months, Harris said. The fact that the typical bitter winter chill hasn’t truly descended on the state this year helps, he said.
“Well, it’s not too bad. It’s been a mild winter,” Harris said with a grin.
Many of the residents at the camp have some sort of mental or physical disability that makes it almost impossible to find work that pays enough to keep a permanent living situation, Williams said. But, Camp Take Notice is purposely set up to be temporary: The residents do not have explicit permission from MDOT to live on the land, he said.
However, they’re doing their part to contribute to society, he said.
The camp has adopted the stretch of Interstate 94 between Jackson Road and Zeeb Road and removes trash from the area, he said. In the time that Camp Take Notice has been located at the Scio Township site — a little more than two years —about 15 years worth of trash has been removed from the area, Williams said.
He said he stopped counting how many full trash bags were taken from the camp after he reached 500.
Jackie Starkey said it’s important for campers to do work that helps out a society that seems to have forgotten about them because it shows that residents still care and still want to be a part of that world.
Starkey is another anomaly: She came to the camp out of need after losing her job in 2011 but now has the ability to go live with one of her three children. However, she remains at the camp because she wanted to live through a winter in a homeless encampment and help give back to the community that helped her.
Most of the residents at the camp have college degrees, Starkey said. The people that live there could be the people who lived in a normal neighborhood not long ago, she said.
“We’re your next door neighbors. We’re no different than you,” she said.