"Can-dogging," alcohol and family: Life among Lansing’s homeless camps
|By Andy Balaskovitz|
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.
“We are proud of our efforts, but foreclosures have not helped at all,” she said.
Patrick Patterson, vice president of operations for Volunteers of America, agrees.
Cards, drinks and a longing for family
“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.
“I dread it all day long,” he said staring at the river. “I never thought I’d be here.”
“This is why I hate the fires,” Weaver said, disgruntled.
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.
“Well, you can turn tricks, can-dog or panhandle,” she said. “We know how to make money.”
Johnson says this behavior is friendship masquerading as mental illness and is exactly the kind she wants to discourage.
Johnson said there is an important partnership between her department, the
No end in sight
“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.
“I am clearing the garbage that was tearing my life apart,” she said.
Literally and figuratively.