City Ordinance Legislation Change Sparks Homeless Protest

Joshua McKissic

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Downtown Kalamazoo, Bronson Park, lively with greenery and blue sky’s. Former Home to the Homeless Encampment nicknamed Freedom Encampment. Photo Credit / Andrew Jameson, Professional Photographer

Downtown Kalamazoo is a place filled with opportunity, greenery, and unfortunately, homeless people. Over the last few weeks, a homeless encampment has stationed itself in the center of downtown Kalamazoo, Bronson Park.

On August 19th, twenty one city ordinances were changed from misdemeanors to civil infractions. An unpopular language change decreased the amount of time people are allowed to sit or sleep in parks with their belongings. This was the beginning of the homeless encampment, which was nicknamed Freedom Encampment. The camp members are protesting in the name of reforming the cities policies on public housing and survival services.
“Their basic needs are immediate needs, food, shelter, water, electricity, showers,” said Kalamazoo City Manager, Jim Ritsema.
On the 31st of August, an agreement was signed by members of the homeless group and city officials allowing the homeless to camp overnight in a city-owned vacant fire station until September 30th. Unbeknownst to the spokespeople of the camp, who have been called incompetent by many other camp members, the fire station was filled with asbestos, a crystal that is incredibly hazardous to humans and there were no proper waste services.
A homeless citizen of Kalamazoo named Andre Lee said, “The city has tore down more houses than they have given away,”
The people of Kalamazoo know very little about this situation. The most popular forms of news are the television, social media and newspapers or radios.
According to the Pew Research Center, “76% of all American teens aged 15-17 have, or have access to smartphones.”
When a poll was taken at Loy Norrix High School, only 83 of the 114 students had seen or heard about the homeless encampment. When asked if they support government housing, 96 out of the 114 agreed that it was a good idea. Sixteen were either indecisive or did not know what it was.
Loy Norrix junior Alex Courtney said, “This issue should be publicized and legitimized … everyone should wake up and wake up everyone else,”
On September 18th, Ritsema announced that camping after 7p.m. would be trespassing on city property and that anyone loitering would be liable to arrest. In a sign of solidarity, residents of the city and members of the local churches banded together, ‘led’ by City Commissioner Shannon Sykes, fighting and speaking for and with the homeless people of Kalamazoo.
Many citizens cleared out for fear of arrest, while others willingly went to jail as a sign to city officials that people will not stand for the wrongful treatment of its people. Although, over 100 tents were in the park on Sunday September 16th, only 14 people were arrested on the 18th, one of them being commissioner Sykes.
The official reason for shut down was “unsanitary food conditions,” so all the food that was made and donated by the people of Kalamazoo has been thrown away. City officials have stood by this decision, citing the unsanitary conditions. Since then, the camp has split into three locations dividing 100 tents and almost 200 homeless citizens.
Loy Norrix senior Jonah Verhage has a different perspective on government housing than the majority of students. Verhage said, “Our government is a republic which means we can vote to pass laws that change the restrictions and criteria for public housing; therefore, if a money-hungry politician wanted to tear down some public housing to build other stuff, he’s well within his power to do that.”