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September 22, 2010 — ‘Can-dogging,’ alcohol and family: Life among Lansing's homeless camps


Andy Balaskovitz gave us a glimpse into a way of life in our midst but seen by few of us in this account of a homeless camp. That winter, the camp burned, killing Mama Bear.

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 riffraff," 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.

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.

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."

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.

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.


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