Lansing firefighters didn’t want to put out a small bonfire at a homeless camp off Larch Street on Monday evening. They were just doing their job, following orders from the top, they explained.
After all, it was the darkest night of the year. Temperatures were nearly freezing. Snow was flurrying.
No firefighter signed up for the job with plans to put homeless people out in the cold — three days before Christmas and in the midst of a pandemic. But “city policies” dictated otherwise.
“I’m sorry. We hate doing this, you guys,” one firefighter told a group of several people gathered at the camp just after sundown on Monday. “I have to, or I’ll get in trouble. It’s a city policy, hun.”
The incident was captured on video and later published to Facebook by Ruckus Steve Swart.
“Merry fucking Christmas,” one man, a frequent resident of the camp, shot back in response. “We’re copacetic. We’re just trying to live, man. We don’t want to be in that COVID ward.”
“This shit is pitiful. It’s fucking COVID going on,” another man shouted back. “They’re all outside so they don’t have to get COVID. And this what y’all are fucking doing? It’s fucking sickening.”
The firefighters appeared to leave moments after raking around embers, leaving coals burning. The fire was relit that night. A small crowd was still gathered around the fire Tuesday morning.
“I’m not going anywhere,” one man said. “The firefighters told me they wouldn’t be back again.”
The homeless encampment — the “Back 40” — is tucked into a vacant field owned by the Sam Eyde Management Co. at the corner of Larch and Saginaw streets. Eyde hasn’t raised concerns about the camp or been involved with plans to clear it out.
The location admittedly hasn’t attracted much development interest in recent years, he said.
“We’ve always said, unless they have a place to put them, we won’t do anything,” Eyde added.
Still, the city of Lansing is charging forward with plans to have it vacated as quickly and as humanely as possible. Under the direction of Mayor Andy Schor, city officials announced last week that at least a dozen regular guests of the camp would need to leave by Sunday night. The plan from last week: Dismantle tents, clean up trash and shoo away those who tried to stay.
The news garnered some ire from local residents in recent days, as well as an outpouring of community support. Donations have been dropped off daily. Several news outlets and camera crews have been on site. Several volunteers and politicians have also recently shown up to the camp, including First Ward Councilman Brandon Betz and his predecessor, Jody Washington.
And despite the firm deadline set last week, most of the camp remained intact on Tuesday.
A city spokeswoman said that code enforcement officials will soon clear out the remaining tents and debris in hopes that those who remained there this week will find their way into a shelter.
Those who remain at the camp this week were largely there by choice and not necessity. The City Rescue Mission, Haven House and Holy Cross’ New Hope Community Center each reported dozens of vacancies this week. But traditional shelters aren’t always desirable.
For many, the Back 40 serves as an alternative sort of shelter, a sense of companionship, comradery, an escape from the routine, a place to crack open a tall boy and sit around a fire — a rare sense of freedom during especially dark times. Others said they just want to avoid indoor congregate settings, where guests could be at a much greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“We’re not hurting anybody out here. We’re just minding our own business,” one guest said. “Have you actually been to a shelter? Have you stayed there? It’s not a great place to be.”
Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail hasn’t tracked many coronavirus cases at homeless shelters in Lansing, which managed to escape most of the pandemic without an outbreak. Haven House, with nine active COVID-19 cases, is the only one still on Vail’s radar this week.
“We have done really fairly well within our homeless community,” Vail said this week. “Of course, anything that drives people indoors with less flexibility about wandering outside is going to change the dynamics of what is going on. We have a few challenges, but nothing out of control.”
Kim Coleman, the city’s director of human relations and community services, said it’s up to code enforcement staff to ensure the space is actually vacated. Exactly what those plans entail, however, remains unclear, but she said a forceful police removal isn’t in the city’s playbook.
And the timeline announced last week was apparently a flexible one. City officials didn’t provide a precise timeframe for when garbage, tents and other materials would be cleaned up on site.
“It had just become too much of a health hazard and was no longer safe,” Coleman said. “It’s difficult to pin down dates when things like this absolutely should happen. Our intent is to make sure that people are safe and in a healthy environment. It became imperative that we do something.”
Mountains of trash are still piled between rows of tents and tarps on the vacant lot. A car that has been parked nearby for at least the last week has its windows smashed out. One tent was covered in feces. Rotting food on site was known to attract insects before the winter arrived.
Many guests said they have mental illnesses or struggle with substance abuse. One man — who was known to use drugs — reportedly defecated last week into a small clear box containing the camp’s only emergency ration of Narcan, medication used to reverse an opioid overdose.
Another man who identified himself only as Buster said the camp has been active for a decade. In recent years, however, its population has only grown. The COVID-19 pandemic has also pushed those numbers higher as homeless people look for alternatives to traditional shelters.
Buster estimated that up to 20 homeless people have been staying there each night this month.
“I understand why some folks are unhappy to see this out here,” Buster said. “It’s scary looking in the day time and it’s scary as shit in the night time. If you’re not street, I wouldn’t suggest you come out here at night. Most of these folks are always welcoming. Others, you never know.”
Few have argued the necessity of the city’s plans, but the timing has been a bitter pill. Firefighters put out a fire there in April and haven’t been back since, campers told City Pulse. The most common question: If the camp has operated for so long, why clear it out now?
Coleman declined to explain exactly how or why city officials decided to shutter the camp during the wintry months of a pandemic, except to note that local residents have called in an increasing number of complaints in recent months. The city of Grand Rapids also decided to clear out a similarly sized homeless encampment this week, but Coleman maintains it’s entirely unrelated.
“Our intent is to help make certain that people are safe in a healthy environment,” Coleman added. “It became imperative that we did something about that. Whether it was today, yesterday or even next week, it was a big concern for us to make sure people were taken care of. This wasn’t the first time we’ve taken these steps, and it won’t be the last. It’s a public health hazard.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise against breaking up homeless encampments without offering readily available alternatives for shelter. Coleman said those opportunities are available. And it’s unlikely the CDC would condone the camp’s conditions.
“This is an environment that is contrary to a healthy environment,” Coleman added. “It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not asking them to leave with no other options. We’re busy ensuring anyone that wants one can have access to a clean, safe space to sleep at night.”
Jody Washington, the former First Ward Councilwoman, has been among those spending her free time at the camp in recent weeks. She just wants people to know that other options exist for shelter in Lansing. Most volunteers, city officials and residents agree: The Back 40 has only devolved into an increasingly unsanitary, unregulated and unhealthy space in recent months.
“I really believe people brought too much attention to this place,” Washington added. “This is disrupting an entire culture, and there wasn’t a lot of time to work on it, but there are options available for these folks. They just need to take advantage of them. They don’t need to be out here. At the end of the day, they all want what we have: Dignity, safety, a sense of belonging.”
Betz, who replaced Washington on the Council, was at the camp Monday, keeping guard with a group of volunteers with the Poor People’s Campaign, an advocacy team dedicated to eradicating racism, poverty and other social issues. Betz disagrees with the city’s plan to shut down the camp, but if it was going to happen, someone needed to ensure it was done humanely, he said.
“I thought it was best to keep watch,” Betz said. “With this mayor, you just never know.” Betz is among those who have demanded Schor’s resignation over issues of civil rights and social equity.
Coleman said the Lansing Police Department won’t be involved in any forceful plans to clear out the camp. The city doesn’t intend to criminalize homelessness, she said. For her, it’s all about ensuring that residents of the camp have access to other options. It’s still unclear what will happen to those who refuse to take advantage of them, but forced removal doesn’t sound likely.
“There are operational teeth and a plan to move this forward, but I cannot speak to this plan,” Coleman explained. “It’s now up to code enforcement, and I haven’t been involved with that.”
In addition to available space at local shelters and drop-in centers, Coleman said the city also plans to reopen the Gier Park Community Center by Jan. 6 for those who need a place to stay. If the cold weather becomes unbearable before then, it could reopen even sooner, she said.
“That’s being set up as we speak,” Coleman explained on Tuesday morning.
Coleman also said the city has no active plans to clear out other homeless encampments in Lansing, including one near Frandor and another steadily growing camp on the north side. The Back 40 was targeted, in part, because of its large size, she said. The others are much smaller.
In the meantime, advocates said residents who are looking to support the local homeless community can donate directly to service agencies (like the City Rescue Mission or Holy Cross Services) that have been engaged in the battle against homelessness for the last several years.
The City Rescue Mission, in particular, is searching for cereal, granola bars, coffee, stuffing mix, turkey gravy, tissues, cough drops, chapstick, gloves, insulated clothing and more. And those who remained at the encampment only voiced one request on Tuesday morning: “More tents.”