Shelter, transportation ... action

By Liz Reyna

A homeless advocacy group comes to Lansing and gets to work pushing local politicians on its issues

On a 92-degree day, Mike Evans, lead organizer of Michigan People's Action of Lansing, isn't thinking about himself. He is thinking about the group of homeless men and women seated around him in the Northstar Center.

With fans roaring around them, they are discussing the lack of reliable transportation and quality housing that the homeless desperately need on days like these.

The Lansing MPA is new to the city, opening up shop at the Northstar Center just a few weeks ago. The homeless activist group is hitting the ground running, planning to hold a forum on July 16 for candidates running for Lansing City Council and mayor that will address homeless issues in the city.

“I think with this presentation, candidates will think a little more deeply about how homelessness is created,” Evans said. “Homelessness is created by policies, not by the homeless people.”

MPA volunteers, many whom are former or current homeless individuals, will conduct the forum, which will be at Open Door Ministries.

Candidates confirmed to attend the forum are Council hopefuls Rina Risper and Jessica Yorko. Mayoral candidate At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, and At-Large Council members Kathie Dunbar and Brian Jeffries, and candidates Bryan Decker and Cynthia Redman have expressed interest. Each candidate will be given two minutes each to answer three questions presented by the MPA.

Topping the list is the question of what to do with the Oliver Towers apartment building in downtown Lansing, which has sat empty since a 2000 fire that destroyed the first floor. Members of MPA see promise in the building as revitalized homeless housing, but the Lansing Housing Commission has refused to allow the public to view the apartments above the first floor. MPA will ask candidates if they would allow an unbiased inspection of the building.

The group will also ask if the candidates will pledge to open a weekend and holiday homeless center that would offer reliable transportation and food services everyday of the week.

“These questions are the most important issues for homeless people right now,” Evans said. “They are the things that come up again and again.”

Finally, with President Barack Obama’s plan to offer $1.5 billion for homeless prevention and $1.6 billion in homeless grants, MPA will ask candidates if they will allow state money to be used by nonprofits to provide apartments for poor and homeless people.

MPA is part of a national organization advocating social reform in the areas of housing, immigration, education and health care.

MPA of Kalamazoo, also known as the Kalamazoo Homeless Action Network, began in 2003 with the help of then-state representative Robert Jones. In 2003, Jones and the organization worked together to maintain affordable bus rates and provide $1.3 million in housing for the homeless.

The candidate forum is one of three primary goals for MPA while in Lansing, in addition to the ongoing effort to work with homeless to get and maintain housing and jobs.

In addition to the forum, MPA also plans to ask politicians to spend a full night homeless and to ask help from homeless individuals in the next homeless count in Lansing — estimated at 900, though probably closer to 2,000, Evans said.

With the candidate forum rapidly approaching, volunteer Chris Singer said he hopes the candidates see the mission and the potential behind the MPA.

“Michigan People’s Action really puts the homeless first,” Singer said. “We are looking to see if we can better our community and give people the dignity and respect they deserve.”

An earlier version of this story was incorrect in naming candidates set to attend the MPA forum. We regret the error.