I’ve become a little disillusioned with council lately. They seem to be meek and afraid to stand on principle. I don’t get it. It’s very disappointing. At the January, 20, 2015 Ann Arbor City Council meeting, Council passed a largely symbolic resolution about homeless camps that puts the onus on the residents instead of on the city government.
As usual, lets start with the background. Last fall CM Kunselman called on the city to do something about a homeless camp that moved into the woods on Burton Road which is in the 3rd Ward that CM Kunselman represents.1,2 The homeless camp was illegally camping on private property and the property owner and neighbors complained. Homeless advocates and the homeless community got upset and wanted to fight back. They decided to start a recall campaign for CM Kunselman over the issue.3 After many attempts, language got approved by the Washtenaw County Clerk’s office for a recall election in May 2015.4 Now, the council has passed a resolution trying to appease all sides.5 My problem with this resolution is that the onus is on you and me, but not the city.
First off I want to say I am not for this recall (surprised you, didn’t I?). No matter how much I want CM Kunselman to not be on council, recalling him for this is not just, even though he may be an ass most other times. Recalling should be used for wrongdoing and misrepresentation, not for doing your job. I would prefer that those who are behind this recall find a candidate to run against him in August and beat him that way. I am not one that thinks ‘the ends justifies the means’ and would jump on the bandwagon. Winning at all cost to unseat him is not something I would support. Winning isn’t everything, but how you win is.
With that said, I was very disappointed that all of council did not get together and support CM Kunselman on this. Any one of them could be in this position of being recalled for something that is a legitimate stance. I know we have 2 adversarial sides on council currently, but a show of solidarity would have done a lot for their image as a whole. This should have been a no brainer of support IMO. Maybe they are more like ‘the ends justify the means’ sort of people and were hoping the recall will work. I don’t know, but it is so very disappointing.
Nonetheless, in all this drama over the past few weeks, Kunselman made a brilliant move politically. In the deafening silence from his colleagues, he proposed a resolution to force all of council to state on the record their opinion of the illegal homeless camps. Were they for the camps or against them? Previously, most stood silent while he was attacked for his stance on the issue. Now they could be silent no more. This was brilliant and would be something I wish I would have enough guts to do if I was ever in his position. Kudos for smart political gamesmanship.
What this accomplished though was a compromise resolution that says that the city cannot turn a blind eye to the homeless camps if there are complaints. Here are the resolved clauses from the resolution:
RESOLVED, That humane displacement of homeless camps on private property is an appropriate response to complaints from private property owners;
RESOLVED, That humane displacement of homeless camps on public land is an appropriate response to citizen complaints;
RESOLVED, That human services organizations will continue to seek out those who are homeless when the temperatures are forecast to be below freezing and the danger of hypothermia is imminent;
RESOLVED, It is not the practice of the City of Ann Arbor to proactively seek out homeless camps for removal, nor to broadly deploy strategies to render areas used as campsites unusable; and
RESOLVED, The Ann Arbor City Council requests a recommendation from the Continuum of Care Board regarding policies related to humane displacement and how to better meet the needs of individuals not currently served by the formal shelter system. This request assumes the participation of key stakeholders in this discussion, including current and recently unhoused individuals.
I don’t like this resolution for the simple reason that it solves nothing accept for transferring responsibility for enforcing the law from the city on to the residents. Now I have to complain if a camp moves next door to me in the woods or the neighborhood park. Yes, I know that many of the civil infractions in Ann Arbor are complaint based. For example, the city does not go out and look for snow covered sidewalks, someone needs to complain for the city to ticket. But this is different to me. This is not something trivial. What is the possible fallout for filing a complaint? If I call up and file a complaint, is it anonymous? Can someone FOIA my name? Will the homeless community come out in droves to harass and bully me into silence? These are not superficial questions considering the harassment CM Kunselman received over this issue. It is not speculation, but now actually reality. The council, not wanting to deal with the issue, now made this a bigger problem for the residents, but less of a headache for them.
This reminds me of the state legislature not dealing with the road funding issue. The republican controlled legislature did not want to raise taxes to fix the roads, even though the majority of state residents and business leaders wanted them to. Instead they were so afraid of the tea party movement and their pledge to Grover Norquist to never raise taxes, that they passed the buck over to the residents for a vote on raising the sales tax, delaying the much needed road construction. (I won’t go into why raising the sales tax vs a higher gas tax or higher income tax is not a good idea.)
Our council is doing the same thing here with the homeless issue. They are passing the responsibility over to the residents in order to reflect blame.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am NOT for having anyone, the police or staff, proactively make rounds through the city looking for homeless camps. That is a waste of resources. But I don’t think the camps should be ignored once they are found, especially if there has been police calls to the site. I agree with what CM Eaton says here that the police need to be proactive when they are called about problems at the homeless camps. Turning a blind eye to the homeless problem while waiting for a neighbor to complain is just not right. Take a listen:
Kunselman goes on to explain that the police were at the homeless camp on Burton road many times before the neighbors called to complain.
Rather than tolerate and wait for the residents to complain, wouldn’t it be better to stop the problem camps before they are out of control? Chuck Warpehowski made a comment during the meeting about most camps being invisible. Fine then, no problem. If they are invisible, then the police don’t know about them either. However, I think if the police or city staff know about a camp, they should handle the situation before it escalates to the point where the city residents have to make a complaint because they feel that they are in danger or feel threatened. I resent the fact that the onus is put on us rather than the city officials or police.
What I would have liked the resolution to include is a clause that said this
RESOLVED, That humane displacement of homeless camps on private property is an appropriate response to complaints from private property owners or the neighbors to the property;
RESOLVED, That humane displacement of homeless camps on public land is an appropriate response to citizen complaints;
RESOLVED, That humane displacement of homeless camps on public or private land land is an appropriate response to any criminal activity or civil disturbance known to the city police, city staff. or city official.
This shares the responsibility amongst all of us. The police can take care of situations before they escalate while the residents still have the option to complain. This would make me feel much more comfortable.
You’ll notice I also added neighbors to the first resolve clause. I am not sure if this was an oversight or intentional by the authors, but as written this is completely unacceptable to me. As written this gives permission to a private property owner to allow a camp on their land, ignoring all zoning laws….ignoring all neighbor’s complaints A neighbor complaint would not justify the human displacement as an appropriate response to the homeless camp on private land. No way. Neighbor complaints should be an appropriate response to displacement from private property .
To sum up
The issue of homelessness is complicated….way too complicated for me to go in to depth here. It is way too complicated to solve with any sweeping generalizations regarding affordable housing. If fact, using the term ‘affordable housing’ really muddies the issue because this term seems to be used whenever anyone talks about ‘work-force’ housing, ‘low-income’ housing or housing for the homeless. These are distinct and separate issues with different problems that call for different solutions. Yet many seem to call it one problem and they look for one cure-all solution. They can look forever, but they will never find one.
During the council meeting, there was lots of discussion about affordable housing and how we need more. Same old story. Everyone wants to help, everyone feels bad. My issue with this is that no one brought up the real issue. The real issue about why we have these camps? Why we have these camps that tend to get bigger by the year? The issue is not that we don’t have enough affordable housing. It is not affordable housing because many….some…most….(I’ll go with) a large proportion….. of the homeless don’t want ‘housing’. They want to live outside, for whatever reasons, for their own reasons. No amount of money you throw at subsidized housing will fix this. Even if you gave them 100% free housing, they still will not abide by the rules that will be necessary for group living in an apartment building or shelter situation, which is why they choose to camp instead. Mental illness and drug addiction will prevent many from taking advantage of the social services that are out there to help them.
Proof of this is shown in the recall language that was put forward. They claim that they are unable or unwilling to use the services an shelters, therefore making them move their camp puts them in danger. Some of the homeless have been banned from many of the shelters for misbehavior or for alcohol/drug use. Others simply don’t want to be confined, are anti-social and have mental health issues. All valid reasons. All personal reasons. Everyone has free choice. We, as a community provide services to the best of our ability, but if you don’t want to partake in the services no one can force you.
Here are some excerpts from the recall language that was submitted and approved by the Washtenaw County Clerk for the recall campaign against CM Kunselman:
“Because some homeless men and women are unable or unwilling to use the official shelter, the lives of those individuals will be placed in danger when they lose a place to shelter their selves from the elements.”
“The lives of homeless men and women who are unable or unwilling to use the city shelters will be endangered when tents, sleeping bags, and other possessions are removed during a winter eviction.”
The homeless activists behind the recall actually thought that this language was going to get them signatures? News flash…..The homeless don’t have a right to live outside for free on private property. Most people tolerate the homeless because they believe that the homeless have no where to go, not because the homeless are refusing the help from the shelters that are out there for them. The residents of Ann Arbor pay a lot of money to support the homeless shelter and supportive services. We don’t want to hear that they are refusing the services, and we now must allow them to camp next door to us for free or we are putting them in danger.
We only have so many beds at the shelter with a growing homeless population in the city. The population grows because we are so lenient with the homeless, not because our local economy is creating the situation for our county residents. Homeless individuals travel here because of our tolerance of the homeless. This new resolution does not prevent that from happening. It only encourages it. We the residents of Ann Arbor cannot be expected to solve the homeless problem for the State of Michigan or the country. It is a vast problem with many causes that cannot be fixed with turning a blind eye to the situation because we feel bad. Council was bullied into this by an activist group. Will the residents now be bullied if they happen to complain to the city about a homeless camp near them?
orbis non sufficit
1 Ryan Stanton, “Burton Road homeless camp in Ann Arbor under scrutiny following complaints.” Mlive.com, November 20, 2014.
2 Ryan Stanton, “Property owner authorizes police to evict homeless camp on Ann Arbor’s east side.” Mlive.com, November 24, 2014.
3 Ryan Stanton, “Homeless community launching recall campaign against Ann Arbor council member.” Mlive.com, Decemebr 2, 2014.
4 Ryan Stanton, “Homeless advocates file 4 more versions of recall petitions against Ann Arbor council member”. Mlive.com, December, 19.2014.
5 Ryan Stanton, “Ann Arbor officials: city can’t turn a blind eye to homeless camps when there are complaints.” Mlive.com, January 21, 2015.