By Jim Clark
Groundcover vendor No. 139
Do you remember Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street — the muppet that lived in a trash can outside the apartment from Maria and David? I was once told that Oscar represented the homeless population in the Sesame Street universe. The message I got from that was even though he lives in
the trash and is always in “mal humor,” he is part of the community and deserves compassion and respect from his neighbors. In 2019, I was homeless in the real universe. Instead of being surrounded by friends in a peaceful barrio, I camped in the parks of Ann Arbor. In the parks, I found where Oscar sleeps. In the camps, there were remnants of past campers’ garbage and abandoned property.
Homeless people are already considered cast-offs, discards or wastrels. Having been homeless myself and placed in one of these camps by Michigan PATH (Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness), it felt like I was being told, “this is what you are in society, so this is where you stay — in the garbage pit.”
The PATH program, run by Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, places people in public parks, state property such as the Michigan Department of Transportation or private properties such as the University of Michigan or local churches. The Ann Arbor Police Department contributes to the disaster and confusion by conducting “sweeps” or mass evictions from the very places PATH placed us in. These sweeps are initiated by the City of Ann Arbor, U of M, and MDOT. MDOT tends to look the other way but has also initiated sweeps and evictions (such as Camp Take Notice in 2014).
The sweeps are sudden and force the homeless population to leave equipment and personal belongings. It ends up looking like garbage since residents are forced to vacate their camp and are
not allowed to take more than they can carry. The abandoned camps tell the stories of how people’s lives, already in tragic shambles, are further humiliated.
Finally, there are the citizens who are environmentally conscious and use the parks to commune with nature. Ordinarily, they may be sympathetic to homelessness but are upset to see the trash left behind by sweeps. In some instances, people staying in parks are not accustomed to “camp culture” which prescribes to the “leave no trace” or “leave it cleaner than you found it” mentality. Indeed, when I was struggling with homelessness, coming to these places, thinking all these thoughts made me feel less respect for all involved. I felt this way towards the authorities who conducted the sweeps, my peers who left the messes that could have been avoided, my community of neighbors who complain about the camps but do nothing to alleviate the problem, and myself for letting my life get so out of control that I must now sleep where Oscar slept.
The solution to this problem is to clean them up. If PATH, the police, the citizens (who also allow homelessness by supporting anti-housing legislation and anti-sentiment for the poverty-stricken), and peers started cleaning projects, I believe this would heal relations and become a platform for change.
Recently I joined Washtenaw Camp Outreach, a volunteer organization that provides services to the homeless, and I am helping with a clean-up effort. This has been a rewarding experience that could help restore respect from county and city residents and self-respect for those who had to stay in the camps. If you are or were homeless or a volunteer, please join the effort to clean up the parks. To get involved with Washtenaw Camp Outreach, connect with the organization on Facebook @washcampoutreach.