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Updated: Thursday, 02 Aug 2012, 8:53 PM EDT
Published : Thursday, 02 Aug 2012, 5:02 PM EDT
WALKER, Mich. (WOOD) - The homeless call it "North Camp," a collection of stick-built homes -- one with blue vinyl siding -- on a long, skinny patch of woods that runs along railroad tracks in the city of Walker.
A few miles away, homeless men and women sleep in tattered tents on "Island No. 3" -- an island that formed in the last century or so in the Grand River, with a view of downtown Grand Rapids.
The city of Walker's "North Camp" is growing, with at least 10 "homes" built mostly of wood from old pallets. Most have outhouses; one has a sink; the one with siding features a decorative half-moon window above the front door.
Police deliver winter coats; churches donate lumber.
"Actually, we've been pretty spoiled back here in a way," said Gary Owczarzak, who lives in a home he helped build last year out of wood pallets and scrap lumber.
But the story is far different on Island No. 3, where the city of Grand Rapids is chasing the homeless from their tents.
A local homeless expert said these camps appear to be popping up in new places and growing, leaving city officials struggling with how to deal with them.
"Camps have been getting much, much larger, a lot more people have been finding them, building them," said Patrick Cameron, executive director of Servants Center, a non-profit agency that helps homeless get off the streets.
Camps like these are nothing new -- throw-backs to the Great Depression.
Photos: Hidden Homeless Camps in West Michigan
"There aren't a whole lot of jobs, and for people that have issues with work, with working with other people, they seem to migrate towards the folks that don't really get along with the rest of society, and then they started building the camps bigger and bigger," Cameron said. "Word gets around, and pretty soon they're up to 20-25 people."
ISLAND NO. 3
Island No. 3 is a sliver of land just beyond the shadows of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, the JW Marriott and Charley's Crab restaurant.
It might as well be called "Homeless Island."
"It's right in the middle of the city," said Grand Rapids City Attorney Catherine Mish. "It's the first we had heard of it, so it was a surprise."
About 90,000 motorists a day drive past the island, on U.S. 131, but they can't see the island from the highway.
Sam, who is 28, said he followed a friend to the island in May, after the death of his father left him with nowhere else to call home. He lives in a tent under a large tree. He keeps his toiletries on a shelf built into a tree trunk.
"I came to Grand Rapids because I figure it's a lot easier to be homeless in Grand Rapids than it is in Muskegon, 'cuz in Grand Rapids, I heard it's really nice to be homeless here, cuz there's like a church on every corner."
He has lived there with at least two-dozen others, he said. Camp sites are scattered around the island. Old tents, blankets draped over rope to form tents, a rug with a pillow, a queen-sized mattress under a tree.
There are two ways to reach the island: a pallet that leans up against a railroad trestle, or by wading through the river.
"It's a 10-minute walk from downtown," Sam said. "It's 20 degrees cooler right here than it is anywhere else, completely shaded; there's little to no bugs; it's all sand. You can walk around barefoot. It's great."
Since early July, though, Grand Rapids police have been chasing them away, after receiving a complaint about the camp. About the same time, a worker in one of the nearby buildings complained to 24 Hour News 8 through Report It.
When police visited the island at 9:30 a.m. on July 3, they found 23 "suspects" ranging in age from 15 to 31, according to a police report obtained by Target 8 through the Freedom of Information Act. They also found campers there when they scanned the island with a thermal imager late one night.
Not only are the campers trespassing, the city says, but they are offending workers in nearby office buildings, and putting themselves at risk.
"This was driving away tenants for the building," said Mish, the city attorney. "They were tired of seeing teenagers in their underwear bathing in the river."
"Also using the river as a toilet," she said.
The city attorney also fears what might happen if somebody gets hurt or sick on the island.
"How do the public safety officials get them off the island to get them medical attention?"
Sam said he doesn't plan to leave Island No. 3. He has returned despite being chased away.
"I'm just trying to exist," Sam said. "I've already been driven to the brink of society, you know, and they still don't want us here."
He questions how the city can say he is trespassing when it can't even prove who owns the island.
Old city maps reviewed by Target 8 show the island wasn't even there in the late 1800s. It may have started forming after a railroad bridge was built in 1882.
The city says neighboring property owners, Grand Valley State University among them, may have claim
to the land.
But the city's own assessor's records show differently -- that the city owns it.
"Right on the map it says that it's city property listed on the map," said Sam, who said he also looked up the assessor's map at the library.
Mish, the city attorney, acknowledged there's a question about ownership, which the city is trying to figure out.
"If we're able to confirm that the city of Grand Rapids owns the island in question, then it's very simple," she said.
Either way, Mish said, Sam and his island-mates must go.
"I would say there's a number of missions downtown where he could probably find lodging," she said.
About three miles north, somewhere between Island No. 3 and North Camp, there is a settlement known to the homeless as "East Camp." It's along the east bank of the Grand River in northern Grand Rapids, on land owned by the state.
And, the city of Grand Rapids hasn't bothered the campers. Mish, the city attorney, said she wasn't familiar with this camp.
A man known as Doc said he staked out the land two years ago, putting up the first tent. Now, it's home to at least a half-dozen men and women.
It's a step down from North Camp. They have tents instead of stick-built homes. Instead of using outhouses, they bury their waste in the woods.
But, Doc says, it's still a step up from the streets.
Some of the homeless who live in these camps survive on welfare Bridge cards ; some work odd jobs; many get food from church pantries.
"That's why I'm here," Doc said. "Nobody will give me a job."
Some get money by "flying signs," at nearby intersections, begging for money.
"I stand out there...I stand out there like this. This is my sign," said a woman named Sandy, who showed her sign: "Homeless. Anything will help. God Bless."
Some, like Doc, have criminal records. For many, not surprisingly, alcohol abuse is a common denominator.
"I'm a drunk," Doc said. "I'm not an alcoholic; alcoholics go to AA ."
BACK TO NORTH CAMP
In Walker, police know exactly where to find the slowly expanding "North Camp," and they have left it alone, except to drop off coats in the winter.
"One of them came back here, said, 'You guys need a few cigarettes?' Gave out a couple cartons of cigarettes," said Gary Owczarzak, who lives there with his brother and his brother's girlfriend.
On a recent hot day, residents say, firefighters filled up wading pools donated by a local preacher. Walker City Commissioner Chuck Deschaine says he stops by to check on them.
"This is a nice place," said David "Cookie" Rodgers, who last year built a chalet at the camp. "Walker city commissoner says as long as we don't have any complaints that he doesn't care if we're down here."
Walker Police Chief Catherine Garcia-Lindstrom said police "have not had any major problems there."
Target 8 isn't saying exactly where the camp is. The land is owned by the railroad.
Passing motorists can't see it from the street, but it's visible from space, at least according to satellite images on Google Earth .
Residents say a military veteran put up the first home about a decade ago. Since then, it has grown to about 10 homes with 15 to 20 residents. Just the other day, a man was building a new place, about 12 by 12 feet. Several others have been built in the last year.
"We have our own neighborhood down here," said Rodgers. "We're a pretty tight band of brothers down here; we look out for each other.
Just about everything is built of wood from old skids.
Most of the homes have outhouses. They don't have running water, but get fresh water from a spigot not far down the tracks.
Some want it kept a secret, including a man wielding a club and wearing a "Security" shirt who confronted a Target 8 reporter and photographer.
"I dont know who brung ya; I don't know who told ya, but get the f--- outta here," the man said. "Plain and simple. We don't want nobody here."
Garcia-Lindstrom, the police chief, said the man is like the chief in the book, "Lord of the Flies" -- a protector who helps settle differences between the campers.
The "Security" chief said he's afraid the publicity will lead "North Camp" to get too big and force the city of Walker, or the railroad, to shut it down.
But others welcome you to their off-the-grid neighborhood.
"This is Cookie's humble hunting cabin," said Rodgers, who built his chalet last fall.
"It's just the privacy, and I don't really have to answer to authority, you know," Cookie said. "I have a small problem with authority, and I don't have anybody telling me what to do back here.
His chalet is 180 square feet, with a pot-belly stove, the half-moon window above the front door, and a loft he sometimes rents out to other homeless friends for $25 a week.
He also put up a mailbox: 123 Railroad Dr.
And, he keeps five pet rats in a cage.
"I don't have television, I have rat-vision," he said.
"This is definitely the best place I've ever lived in."
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