As Kalamazoo homeless camp grows, so do its needs

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A homeless camp of tents and tarps, of broken men and women, has more than doubled in size since the spring on the outskirts of downtown.

The camp clings to a bend in the Kalamazoo River, just off East Michigan Avenue.

Every day, strangers pull up with whatever the homeless need to survive — food, coats, firewood.

With the coldest air of winter coming, the needs will be even greater.

A homeless encampment in Kalamazoo. (December 2020)

Sue Roebuck is one of the camp’s newest residents, a good neighbor who keeps a tidy tent. She especially appreciates the donated porta-johns and the trash service.

She moved here two weeks ago, she said, from the YWCA.

Roebuck likes her place — a four-person tent covered with a silver tarp. She plans to pitch that tent inside an eight-person tent.

“I’m hoping it will help keep me warmer,” she said. “‘Cause I am cold all the time.”

Sue Robuck stands in the homeless camp in Kalamazoo. (December 2020)

The last few of her 54 years have been the hardest. She lost her job two Marches ago as a night manager at a discount store and has been in and out of the hospital, she said.

“I usually just plan for today, get through today,” she said.

She sleeps on an air mattress and recently got a propane heater, though it’s already burned a hole in her floor.

The nights, she said, are long.

“I don’t want to be out here, no, no, I want things to change, but I am here, and I’m not going to cry about it, and I’m not going to have a bad day over it,” she said. “Life will go on and I’ll do it happily.”

Her days, she said, are filled with the kindnesses of strangers.

“They’re here all day, every day, dropping off all kinds of stuff,” she said.

On Thursday, some served turkey noodle soup and chili from the trunk lid of a Ford Mustang.

“Just out here trying to help feed some of the homeless people,” volunteer Destry Vallor said while stirring the soup.

Brad March, who helps when he can, said he has watched the camp, and its needs, grow this year.

“This spring, there were probably about 10 or 12 tents out here,” March said. On Thursday, News 8 counted two-dozen. Some, he said, may have come from a camp nearby that was shut down.

The camp is spread across land owned by the state, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, the city and an LLC, according to property records.

A bird’s-eye view of an encampment erected by homeless people in Kalamazoo. (Dec, 10, 2020)

“When they do go down to the mission, there are rules that they have to follow,” March said. “They can’t leave for certain periods of time, so there’s a lot of stipulations. And I think they’re just like everybody else, where they want to have some freedom.”

A man who goes by Oz sometimes visits the camp.

“It’s just like the Wizard of Oz around here,” he said. “Nothing is what it seems.”

Oz lives in a tent, behind his own curtain, away from this crowded camp.

“We don’t like the term homeless,” he said. “The term is houseless.”

He’s ready for winter, but fears others are not.

“It’s going to be frostbite,” Oz said. “It’s going to mean that people who are unprepared are going to really suffer, unfortunately.”

Christmas decorations at a homeless encampment in Kalamazoo. (December 2020)

That is what brought Jerry Mandigo and his 9-year-old son, Noah, to the camp this week.

“Someone had dropped all this wood off, but a lot of it was too big  to be useful, so I thought it would be a good thing,” Jerry Mandigo said as he and his son split a chunk of pine. “God put in on our heart to come down here and split it up.”

They used a wood splitter he had trailered from their home about a half-hour away in Paw Paw.

“We’ve been here about two hours and people have been dropping stuff off,” he said. “About every 15 minutes somebody pulls in with various food or clothing.”

“I think it’s sad,” his son said. “But if anyone could come down here and help out, that’d be a miracle.”

Jerry Mandigo and his son, Noah, split donated wood at homeless camp. (Dec. 10, 2020)

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