Dec 21, 2014 11:28 AM
Tent city sprouts in shadow of downtown Detroit
The Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) Bankruptcy behind it, Detroit's atmosphere swirls with the promise of better days. Charles Floyd Jones can only hope that the city's good fortune trickles down to him and the 10 other residents of a tent city that's sprouted in the shadow of a resurgent downtown where rental occupancy is close to full and restaurants and shops are doing brisk business.
Jones and others in this makeshift community of seven tents believed to be the only tent city in Detroit say they have nowhere else to go.
"By us being out of bankruptcy, they can see that you got people out here that's struggling," said Jones, 51.
The city's homeless numbers swelled over the past decade as manufacturing and other jobs disappeared and homes were lost during the national foreclosure crisis. All told, about 16,200 of Detroit's 680,000 residents almost 2.4 percent are believed to be living on the streets or in temporary shelters and that doesn't account for other types of homelessness, such as teens going from friend to friend and families living in motels.
By comparison, only about 1 percent of San Francisco's more than 800,000 residents are homeless. But San Francisco is on much firmer financial ground than Detroit, which shed $7 billion in debt during bankruptcy. Its restructuring plan aims to raise revenue and improve city services with $1.7 billion in funding, but it also calls for austerity in budgeting.
"I love Detroit. I'd hope things would get better," said 29-year-old Josh Reslow, who shares a tent in the encampment with girlfriend Brittney Hines, 25. "I'm a carpenter and with no work going on, I guess, that's part of the reason I'm on the street."
The city has "tried to provide" for homeless programs throughout Detroit's financial crisis and bankruptcy, according to the Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of the nonprofit Cass Community Social Services. Her nonprofit is one of three that will operate warming centers through the end of March on behalf of the city.
"They want to make sure that people are safe and that their needs are met throughout the winter," she said.
Like others sheltered only by layers of warm clothing beneath canvas tents, Jones "hustles" because he can't find a steady job. He accepts handouts and makes a few bucks directing fans into downtown parking lots before sporting events. He said he helped start the tent city about two months ago, with others joining later.
"It's quiet and you really don't get bothered by too many people," said Jones, who also lives with his girlfriend and has been homeless for four years.
He isn't a fan of the rescue mission: "The last time I was there, I got bedbugs. Hopefully, I can find a shelter somewhere that's presentable and me and my girl can go and make a stay for the winter."
Lewis Hickson, operations manager of the Neighborhood Service Organization's Tumaini Center, said his group has dropped off coats at the tent city that can be used as sleeping bags.
"You try to encourage them to come in out of the cold," Hickson said. "They really don't like shelter life because of the rules."
One strategy to get the chronically homeless off the street is to make them eligible for state and federal rental assistance programs, according to Dr. Robert Okin, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School. Similar programs are found in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan.
"That can then be used to help the city pay for low-cost housing. It will cover a lot of the rent," said Okin, who wrote about homeless Americans in his book "Silent Voices."
Nationally, about 85 percent of the chronically homeless stay in permanent housing once they have access, but Okin warned that it should be supportive housing, with "staff that can help people when they get into trouble."
Detroit officials have received no complaints about the tent city and have no plans to move them from the park, said Sgt. Michael Woody, a police department spokesman.
"They're not breaking any laws that are violent in nature or effecting quality of life issues," Woody said. "If they did want to leave, we would help them with what resources we could muster, but discussions may need to be had soon in finding them something a little more permanent."