Platitudes or sincerities?

By Drew Winter
Courtney Baker

Lansing homeless advocacy group grills candidates for city office on support, Oliver Towers

Lansing’s poor and homeless community had a chance to press its concerns with candidates and incumbents for city office Thursday when the Michigan People’s Association hosted a forum.

The forum was held at the Central United Methodist Church in downtown Lansing, and candidates' answers were judiciously recorded by the questioners for accountability's sake.

Lansing mayoral candidates Charles Ford and Carol Wood and incumbent Mayor Virg Bernero were there. Also there was City Council Fourth Ward candidates Jessica Yorko, Chris Lewless and Dennis Burdick and At-Large candidates Rina Risper and Harold Leeman Jr.

The format had volunteers from the MPA, most of them homeless Lansing residents, posing three questions to the candidates, who were allowed up to two minutes each to respond.

Candidates were asked if they would direct Lansing’s government to work with local homeless groups and supply them with federal stimulus money. The questioners also wanted to know whether the candidates would make efforts to evaluate whether the former Oliver Towers site in downtown Lansing could be used for homeless housing.

Oliver Towers, which was low-income housing before a fire rendered it useless in 2000, has been a central question over the past few years in the local discussion on how to care for the homeless.

Candidates responded with virtually unanimous support for all ideas, with a few voicing reservations about turning Oliver Towers into housing because it would put the homeless all in one place. Lansing's Human Services Department has taken a stand that scattered-site housing is best for the homeless.

Yet, all candidates seemed to be voicing agreement without actually agreeing — their loyalty to ideas like revamping Oliver Towers were caked with qualifications about “new problems arising” and the need to “explore different ideas.” There was also a lot of seeming platitudes about “helping the community.”

Moderator and MPA Volunteer Ted Jones said he thought the event went well and is very hopeful that the candidates will work to fight homelessness, but also said he thinks some candidates “said yes just to get what they want.”

Jones, 26, has been homeless for several months and said he couldn’t get a job because employers were “embarrassed” to employ someone who lives in a shelter.

Ford emphasized his plan to build “police substations” around the community to act as “safe houses” and make police walk around the community on foot.

This was not good enough for Lansing resident Bengt Thulin, who claims police do not help the homeless. Thulin said another man in the shelter where he lives assaulted him twice within three days in January, but the police never even showed up to file a report. Thulin said the problem of police ignoring assaults against the homeless is systemic.

“It’s willful neglect of duty. If they aren’t going to do anything, what’s the point?” he said.

The MPA was started in 2003 as an offshoot of the National People’s Association by a group of poor and homeless Kalamazoo residents who wanted to stand up for their rights. A chapter was activated in Lansing in January.

Most of the MPA members are homeless, and the group relies on donations and grants to host activities such as movie nights and its weekly meetings, which are held Wednesdays at 2 p.m. at the Northstar Center on Lathrop Street in Lansing.

Michigan has 28 homeless per 10,000 people, higher than the national average of 22 persons, according to 2007 data from the Web site, Exactly how many people are homeless in America is difficult to calculate because of disputes over the definition of “homeless,” but most numbers are somewhere around 700,000 and 2 million, with children making up a significant portion.

As for the forum, volunteer Chris Singer said he hopes that getting elected officials on tape making promises will pressure them to follow through.

“If they don’t do what they say, they’ll be held accountable,” he said.