with gallery: Thanksgiving comes early for homeless in tent city
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As Washtenaw County residents plan their Thanksgiving meals this week, many of the county's homeless are trying to fill their stomachs one day at a time.
At Camp Take Notice, the tent city of homeless people set up near Interstate 94 off Wagner Road, volunteers are coordinating with local churches and other organizations to help make sure people have enough to eat and that they're safe.
The camp has two iron stoves in one tent and hopes to get some heaters soon. There is no running water, so no showers or bathrooms are on the property.
Volunteer Brian Dorrance says that everybody is welcome at the camp as long as they are drug and alcohol free. They also are expected to participate in nine to 12 hours of work at the camp each week.
Every Sunday, churches in the area rotate bringing dinner to the camp. Webster United Church provided an early Thanksgiving dinner this past Sunday. Following dinner at 7 p.m., residents of Camp Take Notice are asked to participate in a weekly meeting in the community tent.
Two of the camp's residents, Caleb Poirier and Tate Williams, are hybrid campers, meaning that they live at the camp and also serve on the board of MISSION, Michigan Itinerant Shelter System-Interdependent Out of Necessity, a nonprofit partnership between homeless and "homefull" county residents supporting self-governing tent communities in the state.
The current camp population is 45 people, more than double what it was last year at this time. Ten percent of them are women. For the first time, there are three pregnant couples at the camp. No one younger than 18 can stay there.
"We're hoping they will be in permanent housing before their babies are born," Durrance said of the pregnant couples. "Many people who come out here are not prepared for what it's like to live in a tent city, but it's a healthier alternative to living on the streets."
Al and Mary, both 51, (who prefer not to give their last names) are a couple who live at the camp. He is from Ann Arbor and became homeless three years ago, soon after losing his job at a local publishing company and after not being able to make ends meet at a part-time restaurant job.
Mary is a recovering alcoholic who says that she was kicked out of her sister's home in Chelsea because of her drinking.
"Being cold is hard, and the whole mental aspect of living in a tent is hard," said Mary, who spent last winter living at the Delonis Center in downtown Ann Arbor and hopes to move back there this winter. "I wouldn't want to be alone at this camp as a woman."
"This camp is much safer than where I was living — under a bridge by the University of Michigan Hospital," said Al. "This is a great location because it's on the bus line and you can walk to Westgate and Kroger."
Alonzo Young, 46, has been at the camp for seven months and has been studying social work at Washtenaw Community College. He takes pride in his role as an executive committee member at the camp.
"I put a lot of dedication into this place and make sure we work like a team," said Young. "Working with people like Caleb is an inspiration to me, and the people here are like a family to me."
Newcomer Tracy Williams, 34, shares Young's sentiments about the camp feeling like a home.
"I'm from all over Michigan and this is the first place I'd call home even though I'm living in a tent," said Williams, who has spent time in jail.
Mark Douglas, 54, a six-month resident of Camp Take Notice, says he became homeless when he ran into a tough economic situation and was unable to pay rent.
"People from the area are generous with their food and clothing donations," he said. Although he'd like to find housing, he said, "There's a good probability I'll be here for the winter."
Douglas says that one of the challenges of living in the camp is personality conflicts. That was one of the topics on the agenda at the Sunday meeting in an effort to have residents work out their differences. Other issues that are regularly addressed include being quiet at night, food and environmental safety, security of personal belongings and sanitation. Residents run the meeting with help from Durrance, Poirier and WIlliams.
Durrance reminds residents, "Everybody living here has an obligation to this community."
People are referred to the camp by places like the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office and the University of Michigan Emergency Room, as well as the Delonis Center, which houses the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County and has reduced its housing availability due to budget cuts.
In addition to specific types of food donations and bottled water, Camp Take Notice needs blankets, sleeping bags, tents and large construction tarps. To donate, contact Peggy Lynch at 313-408-5196 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.