Fire at Kalamazoo homeless camp prompts safety concerns

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Officials say an explosive fire at a homeless camp in Kalamazoo was caused by someone trying to refill a propane canister for heat.

News 8 learned this isn’t the first fire and likely won’t be the last because there are few other options to keep warm. The people living in the tents say they have no where else to go.

“It is very scary,” Celest Olsen said. “I myself was right across in the next tent and I barely got out of there.”

Olsen moved into the camp just before Christmas. The site is tucked away on a side road off Michigan Avenue near downtown Kalamazoo. More than a dozen tents now sit on what was a vacant lot.

“Day-to-day basis is just trying to stay warm,” Olsen said. “Trying to stay a positive energy and I try to be, as much as I can, a goofball around here so I can make people laugh and smile.”

Olsen ended up at the encampment after surviving an abusive relationship and giving up her kids. She now struggles with PTSD and says she along with many others, can’t handle a shelter setting.

“At the shelter, I’ve been there, and my mental statues and issue go through the roof. They make you shower together almost like jail,” she said. “As much as it is outdoor, some people would rather be outdoors than mistreated by people who volunteer to try to help the homeless — Then help them, don’t let them feel less than they are; we are humans too.”

For those who want to stay at a shelter, COVID-19 has caused a drop in the number of available beds to allow for social distancing. At the same time, more people are struggling financially.

“That whole situation concerns me because it’s not safe,” said David Boysen, assistant chief of investigations with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.

Unsafe, but unsure of what to do is the city’s response to the latest fire in Kalamazoo’s tent city.

“I wish there were better alternatives. It’s unfortunate that anyone has to live in those conditions,” Boysen added.

Damaged items at a homeless encampment in Kalamazoo the day after a fire. (Jan. 25, 2021)

City officials are trying to create more affordable housing and recently purchased the old Knights Inn hotel. There is no quick fix, so for now, the city along with nonprofits are working to try and keep this population alive through the winter.

“Why would we allow people to live in these conditions in the richest country in the world,” said Leander Rabe with the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless.

“There should be an emergency response to these conditions,” Rabe added. “Prisoners get four walls, bathrooms and food, and they are prisoners. These people don’t even get that.”

Rabe says there needs to be a systematic solution with affordable housing being a huge piece of that.

To help address day to day needs the coalition started a GoFundMe page and Facebook page.

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