Don Demond has been living in his van for more than 10 months.
In March, Demond, 51, was fired from his job at a local transportation company. Unable to pay rent, he said he was evicted from a rental home on Lansing’s south side. and since April, has called home an old Dodge van — frequently parked in the Moores Park neighborhood. There, local residents have been helpful with donations. Someone changed a flat tire for him last week. Another neighbor brought him a box of hand warmers and a can of propane to fuel his hotplate.
City officials tracked nearly 400 homeless households in Lansing in January 2020. Experts said that number — though precise estimates were unavailable — has only climbed. The city also tallied over 2,000 guests at emergency shelters and at transitional housing facilities between October 2019 and September 2020.
Demond wasn’t among them. He’d rather go at it alone.
Like several of those struggling with homelessness I spoke to in recent weeks, Demond was hesitant to seek shelter in a congregate setting while the pandemic continues.
“I’ve been trying to get a place since I was evicted,” Demond said last week. “I work about 22 hours a week, so it’s enough to cover the groceries and gas. Right now, I want to stay out here, COVID-19 free. At a shelter, you don’t know who might have it. I’d rather be safe and alone.”
Close quarters with strangers who often lack strict personal hygiene regimens obviously carry elevated risks of viral exposure, though no major outbreaks have been tracked at local shelters.
Demond’s dinner is usually soup or stew, cooked in his riverside bedroom — which doubles as a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room and a daily driver to and from his part-time job. He said he fires up the van’s engine every couple of hours to keep himself warm during the winter months.
“Here, the whole neighborhood knows me,” Demond added. “Everybody has been so helpful.”
Several homeless people in Lansing stay at makeshift camps near Frandor Shopping Center and on Lansing’s north side near Olympic Broil. Others sleep upright in chairs at the City Rescue Mission’s drop-in shelter on Larch Street. Dozens more are staying at the men’s shelter on Michigan Avenue or inside the Gier Park Community Center shelter, which reopened this month. Untold dozens also sleep alone beneath bridges, shielded only by tarps and donated blankets.
And until this week, another cadre of homeless people had stayed near the corner of Larch and Saginaw streets on homeless encampment known as the “Back 40.” City contractors were in the final laps of clearing out tents and trash from the 3-acre site Tuesday after weeks of efforts to secure alternative housing arrangements for those who remain.
Most Back 40 residents — as many as 20 people in the fall — have left over the last few weeks after Mayor Andy Schor announced plans to clear out the encampment days before Christmas.
One couple left for the camp near Frandor last week. Another left to stay with a friend. Others are now staying at Gier Park. Only three or four holdouts remained there by Tuesday afternoon. Among them: 42-year-old William File.
File is the self-appointed president of what’s left of the Back 40. He is often the first to speak with news reporters on the scene about “squatting rights” and how he is entitled to stay on the land. Last week, he helped saw down trees to block clean-up crews from returning.
He said he wants to find more stable housing. But he also wants to do it on his own terms.
“I’ve gotten in fights with half the people over at Gier Park. I’m going to end up in trouble again if I go into a shelter,” File told me. “My wife has a Section 8 voucher, but that hasn’t worked out. I’m not going anywhere. They can kiss my butt. I have every right to stand my ground here.”
File said he got “caught in a rut” after he lost his job, was evicted from his apartment and later lost custody of his child, who now lives with his mother-in-law. He stays on the Back 40 to remain close to his family. He also chooses to live outdoors to avoid fights at local shelters, trading a warmer place to sleep for the small freedoms of a Natty Daddy and a fireside joint.
Still, File spoke from a megaphone at Lansing City Hall alongside volunteers and advocates from the Lansing Poor Peoples’ Campaign on Monday — decrying the “tragic and traumatizing” camp shutdown, building a narrative that villainizes the city for clearing out the camp.
“Homelessness is not something we asked for. It’s something we’ve fallen into,” File said. “You think I want to be here? The government hasn’t done anything for us. Where does it all end?”
Schor’s administration decided to charge forward with plans last month to have the camp cleared, notifying at least a dozen regular guests that they would need to leave by Dec. 21 as temperatures dropped and living conditions became increasingly dangerous and unsanitary.
Piles of trash, needles and human feces only added to the filthy conditions of the camp. And after a 33-year-old man was found dead in a tent there last week, the clean-up efforts only became more urgent, Schor explained. Back 40 campers suspect the man — who they said had stayed at the camp for at least a week — had died of an overdose before he could be rescued. The Lansing Police Department is still waiting to hear back on the results of a pending autopsy.
“At this point, there are only about three people there and they all have options available for another place to stay,” Schor said. “We don’t want anyone in unsafe living conditions. We don’t want anyone to face the cold, human feces, carbon monoxide or other hazardous materials. This has become a significant liability, and our first priority, as always, is keeping people safe.”
Indeed, this winter marks the 10th anniversary of a fire at a homeless camp near Frandor in which a woman died.
Most of the Back 40’s former and current residents — as well as local advocates who have battled homelessness for years — recognize the camp is no longer a safe place to call home. And despite rumors echoed by so-called advocates, local shelters still have available beds.
Still, the timing of the city’s plans have painted a tragic story after firefighters raked out a campfire there last month — on the longest night of the year, three days before Christmas.
And even secluded homeless encampments aren’t immune to politics in the city of Lansing.
“We are flexible. We’ve given people time. We’re finding other places for them to stay. We’ll never criminalize homelessness. This isn’t about putting people in jail. This isn’t about the police,” Schor said. “Unfortunately, people are going to continue to play on that narrative.”
Former Councilwoman Jody Washington became a regular visitor in recent weeks, helping to move guests to other encampments and shelters alongside dozens of other volunteers at local nonprofits. Councilman Brandon Betz, who upset Washington two years ago to win the 1st Ward seat, as well as other self-declared “anarchists” and eastside “progressives” have also been on the scene. Two women made a “Hands off the Back 40” sign. Another man dropped off a chainsaw to build up barricades. Others just sat around by the fire.
At times, the dueling forms of advocacy have created tension. Some activists tried to prevent City Pulse from taking pictures for this story. Washington also frequently bickered with teenage protesters on the property, belittling them for trying to defend the remaining Back 40 campers.
“Unfortunately, we have these people — Brandon Betz and the rest of them — getting everyone riled up. Everyone here has a place to go,” Washington said. “This should not be their destiny. We need to help these people regain their dignity, rebuild a sustainable life. If I had to live like this, I would be a drug addict too. I’m frustrated, but I’m actually trying to help these people.”
The Lansing State Journal, among other news outlets, have also repeatedly railed about how the city’s plans to clear the camp cross with current CDC recommendations during the pandemic. That guidance states that if “individual housing options” are not available, homeless people should be allowed to continue living in outdoor encampments. Often missing from that coverage is that the CDC calls for “the balance of risks” to be considered for each individual.
Schor maintains that health officials would be more likely to endorse the living arrangements at Gier Park Community Center over the life-threatening conditions that persist at the Back 40 — even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in Greater Lansing.
“They don’t push for congregate settings, but we’re also facing extreme circumstances that are clearly a health hazard in and of itself,” said Kim Coleman, the city’s director of human relations and community services. “At this point, it was too extreme to not move people out.”
Still, an overarching question remains: How do you help those who don’t want to be helped?
“Just keep trying,” said Sharon Dade, director of Holy Cross Services, which operates the Gier Park shelter, as well as an overflow space at the New Hope Community Center on Larch Street.
Dade and other advocates have helped Back 40 campers find storage facilities for their belongings as they’re shuttled off to other locations. All she can do is ensure options are there.
Experts said the camp shutdown is about more than simply giving people a cleaner place to live. Shelters also serve as an opportunity to connect homeless people with vital social services to eventually get them into permanent housing. Sometimes it’s as simple as helping people get a Social Security card. Other times, Dade personally calls landlords to find affordable options.
“I don’t buy into the idea that people actually want to live outside. I never have. I do think that trauma and mental health issues, together, can play a role in how people make decisions and how comfortable they can become with their current living arrangements,” Dade said.
Proactive efforts to battle homelessness are also ongoing. The Capital Area Housing Partnership has provided $1.3 million in rental and mortgage assistance since March, helping 435 families avoid eviction while also serving more than 300 households with counseling services.
City officials also plan to announce grant funds to four agencies totaling $1.8 million to provide shelter for homeless people or those at risk of homelessness who may be or have been affected by COVID-19. That cash will also be used for eviction prevention efforts tied to the pandemic.
Additional details were expected to be rolled out later this week, city officials said on Monday.
After buying two adjacent buildings along Michigan Avenue, the City Rescue Mission is also planning to double its downtown footprint over the next few years. Plans call for a $3.5 million renovation for at least 22 more emergency shelter beds, as well as 19 affordable apartments.
“Some of our guests have very limited income, but because of age or health issues, they are unable to work. This would allow us to offer living space for guests who contribute to their stay, while we provide a safe, clean environment. The Mission also serves as a community for these men, and this will offer long-term stability,” according to this month’s Rescue Mission newsletter.
Executive Director Mark Criss said the long-term goal of the City Rescue Mission — among other nonprofit groups — is always focused on permanent supportive housing rather than shelters, which serve mostly as a middle ground for homeless people to find stable resources.
“The Back 40 is really the result of what addictions can do to people. They’re at a point where they’re willing to remain in this unsafe environment, but at what cost? It’s easy to paint the city as the bad guy, but we’re all looking out for safety and getting people out of that environment.”
“Some of that is going to be tough love,” Criss added. “I think that’s the best thing we can do: Continue to engage and explain what services are available. This is all about trying to help.”