Every night at about 9:30, Vivian “Mama Bear” Thomas waits excitedly for her friends to come by for dinner. She sits beneath a deck umbrella and blue plastic tarps, held together by dead tree branches. Over her shoulder are three small bedrooms and a kitchen area.

    There are three pathways that lead to Thomas’ camp from Kalamazoo Street, the River Trail and the Whiskey Barrel Saloon parking lot on Lansing’s east side. Clothes and rugs hang out to dry after Thursday’s heavy rainfall, while shelves full of pots and pans sit stacked on a wobbly metal stand.


    Her friends are Roxy and Oliver, both females, and Thomas makes sure to have food ready for them each night.


    On Sunday night, a pot of fish stew sits on Thomas’ cast-iron stove as three men stand around sharing stories, smoking the cheapest cigarettes they can buy or whatever is given to them. Thomas favors JWs, a brand of mini-cigars that cost $1.50 per pack.


    Thomas has spent the past five months turning the woods near the Whiskey Barrel into her home. Roxy is a raccoon; Oliver is a stray cat (Thomas thought she was a male at first, but the name stuck). But their devotion to Thomas’ food is no weaker than her wantonness to live outside among the critters, permanently, in Lansing.


    “I came out here to find my peace, quiet and serenity and get away from the riff-raff,” Thomas said Sunday night with a headlamp bound around her head. “We do pretty good out here.”


    Thomas is one of about 4,200 homeless people in the greater Lansing area. In the 1960s, her doctor told her she had an upside-down chromosome, which today is called a bipolar disorder. She says the woods help her stabilize mentally, and it is only when rowdy neighbors set up camp in the woods that she is liable to “go on the nuts,” she said.


    Thomas believes she is doing the city a service by staying out of trouble, minding her own business and keeping the woods clean. (Bags of garbage she has picked up line her camp.) She says she lives no differently than her grandparents, who raised their children in a three-room shack with nothing but a wood-fired stove.


    She is 52 and chooses to not have an apartment, even though she gets a $698 Social Security check at the beginning of the month. She supplements her income by “can-dogging,” or collecting returnable aluminum cans, for cigarettes and food. She does not drink or do drugs, unlike many of the homeless.


    With fall upon us, Thomas shrugs off the thought of below-freezing nights this coming winter. Her main concern is the “riff-raff” that has moved into her woods, staying up late, drinking and generally being rowdy.


    “I’m just a simple person and don’t like a lot of confusion in my life,” Thomas said.


    “But with them over there — being loud, stealing stuff — I go on the nuts. They’re trying to take over the camp, and I’m very defensive.”


    There are two types of homeless camps in the Lansing area, oftentimes close to the River Trail. Some are permanent and constructed in the woods, like Thomas’. Others are more transient that change locations daily from, say, beneath a bridge or in a parking ramp. Attitudes of residents at these camps vary from proud to ashamed, peaceful to afflicted.


    The homeless profess to three primary ways of scraping together enough money for their next bottle, pack of cigarettes or snacks: can-dogging (collecting deposits on aluminum cans), panhandling and prostitution.


    You can usually spot a homeless camp by the inordinate amount of trash in a given location. Perhaps a tarp is still nailed to tree branches, though these are more permanent sites. There can be anywhere from three or four to 15 camps set up between Michigan State University and the Turner Dodge House on the River Trail.


    Though not all of these camps will disappear as the mercury drops and snow starts falling, most will. Sleeping outside is an alternative to local shelters and Christian outreach ministries. However, there are not enough beds to accommodate everyone, and none of them will accept someone who has been drinking.


    City officials and law enforcement do not encourage homeless camps in the city, partly because of their appearance, but mostly because hanging around together furthers their addiction or mental illness. Sometimes both. And while conversations with some homeless may leave you feeling hopeful that they have others to share their crisis with, city officials warn this isn’t necessarily healthy.




    ’I never thought being homeless is a choice’


    Around the time Thomas moved into the Kalamazoo Street woods, the Lansing Human Relations and Community Services Department issued its annual homelessness study. The exact count of those who received city services in 2009 was 4,185, down 65 people from 2008. However, the trend since 2006 continues to climb. Almost 1,000 more people received assistance such as food, shelter and counseling in 2009 compared to 2006. The report said 670 beds were available on a nightly basis in the greater Lansing area in 2009.


    Department director Joan Jackson Johnson said the city works with local shelters to divert people from setting up camps.


    “It’s
    not that we don’t have the bed space, it’s that they choose to be out.
    It is not something the city encourages at all,” she said.


    Johnson
    said the foreclosure problem has only exacerbated homelessness,
    sometimes putting whole families on the streets. The city has received
    federal and state money to purchase foreclosed properties, renovate them
    and place families.


    “We are proud of our efforts, but foreclosures have not helped at all,” she said.


    Together
    with fledgling mental health budgets, the rise in unemployment and
    substance abuse, Johnson said homelessness is not a choice, but more of a
    societal imposition, no matter what they say. If it comes off as a
    choice, they are probably not in the best mental shape, she said.


    Patrick Patterson, vice president of operations for Volunteers of America, agrees.


    “In
    my 12 years’ experience (at Volunteers of America), I never thought
    being homeless is a choice,” he said. “These are people with very
    precarious circumstances. If that’s a rational choice, I don’t know what
    rationality is.”


    Patterson
    said the amount of homeless camps in Lansing is cresting this time of
    year, or did so a short time ago, because of the changing weather. He
    refers to the situation of living outside with mental illness as a
    “crisis” and the outside environment can “drive it harder. It (the
    weather) brings more people basically to their wit’s end. There’s a natural reach-out for help during these times,” he said.




    Cards, drinks and a longing for family


    When
    I first met 47-year-old Janice Dugger on a Sunday night, she was
    joyously playing spades with three other men in Adado Riverfront Park
    near the Shiawassee Street bridge. She has been homeless off and on for
    seven years and welcomed me warmly into her circle.


    “This
    is my wilderness. This is my life,” she said pointing at the river.
    Dugger is of Native American descent and said she ran away from her home
    in Saskatchewan at 19.


    “These are my friends,” she said while dealing a hand. “We drink, camp and get along.”


    Dugger is preparing for her fourth winter outdoors, and she concedes that she goes inside when the weather is too rough.


    Todd
    Weaver is sitting behind Dugger, facing the river and a small campfire
    that was used for cooking fish before my visit. He is hardened and
    rarely smiles; he misses his family. Weaver moved to Lansing from
    Jackson and has lived outside for the past two months. Nightfall is the
    hardest part about being homeless for Weaver.


    “I dread it all day long,” he said staring at the river. “I never thought I’d be here.”


    Weaver
    said he lost his marriage, two kids and a good job in Jackson because
    of crack and alcohol addiction. His fellow homeless is the only family
    he has now.


    Suddenly,
    a wobbly, drunken man named Frank sitting near me gets his pant leg
    caught in the campfire. I’m the only one to notice and put it out before
    it ruins the bottom of his jeans.


    “This is why I hate the fires,” Weaver said, disgruntled.


    Laurinda
    May Lee joins the conversation. She is no stranger to hard living and
    has been outside for the past three years, she said. Her tone is less
    sullen than Weaver’s as she points out the communal feeling among the homeless.


    “The
    funny part about us homeless is that we all look out for each other,”
    she said. “We stay where we can and we all stick together. We don’t
    leave nobody alone.”


    Alcoholism is something they have in common, she said.


    “To be honest, most of us are alcoholics.


    I’ve been to rehab, but as soon as I get out I want a drink,” Lee said.


    Lee
    goes on to explain how the homeless scrape together enough money for
    their regular diet: King Cobra malt liquor, gut-rock gin or vodka that
    costs less than $4 per pint and Cheyenne cigarettes.


    “Well, you can turn tricks, can-dog or panhandle,” she said. “We know how to make money.”


    For
    Lee, it’s the community of homeless that makes it bearable. Even though
    there are only three blankets for nine of them Sunday night, that’s
    “better than none,” she said.


    At
    9:30 p.m., I prepare to leave the camp in Adado Park in search of more
    camps. This crew has scraped together enough money for a couple of
    40-ounce beers, perhaps a pint of liquor. Now they face the dilemma of
    who will actually buy it. The consensus is that each of them is already
    too drunk, have been banned from all of the local stores or don’t have
    an identification card. I wish them luck in their pursuit to maintain
    their high.


    Johnson says this behavior is friendship masquerading as mental illness and is exactly the kind she wants to discourage.


    “We
    want to transition them into a healthier lifestyle,” she said. “They
    get around too many of their friends. It becomes a problem from a public
    safety standpoint.”


    Johnson said there is an important partnership between her department, the
    Lansing Police Department, the Fire Department and the shelters. It is
    difficult to get a handle on, though, because there are no shelters that
    will admit anyone who has been drinking. She hopes a new detoxification
    center set to open in October (see story below) will provide relief to
    the police and emergency crews who have no choice but to bring them to
    jail or the hospital.


    If
    you want to call it a family, Patterson said it’s more of an
    impoverished one. “The problem is that their family lacks resources and
    strength,” he said. “All people need a sense of attachment and people
    who feel part of a family can be beneficial. But that doesn’t mean it is
    good for them collectively to have that kind of family.”




    No end in sight


    Given the
    current economic climate of foreclosures, unemployment and funding cuts
    for mental health services, Patterson and Johnson see no end to the
    homeless crisis. The political will to restructure com munity health
    budgets is about the only solution Patterson could offer for solving the
    problem. And that is a reflection on our society.


    “As a society, we say we won’t let you die.


    But as a society we don’t say that we’re going to keep you out of homelessness,” he said.


    Back
    at Mama Bear’s camp, the cold and darkness is settling in on Sunday
    night. She is silent for a moment as she hears her drunken neighbors
    stirring. She is angered and wonders if she will have to throw one of
    her pans at them.


    But
    her tone shifts to reflective as she realizes the drunkards will likely
    thin out of the woods once the cold sets in. Thomas lived for two weeks
    in the woods before realizing she could make a permanent home there.
    It’s quiet and secluded with nearby city amenities like self-service
    laundry and a place to get soda and cigarettes.


    “I’m
    no angel, but I’m not a perverted sicko that comes out here to rape the
    land, either,” she said. “Most of all, I have learned to like myself
    again. I have made amends.”


    We
    get back on the exit trail in the pitch-dark woods. Thomas shows me the
    stacks of garbage she has collected from these woods and will soon take
    to a dumpster.


    “I am clearing the garbage that was tearing my life apart,” she said.


    Literally and figuratively.

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