By James Rivard
As April approached, and their existing shelter arrangements came to an end, Jeff and Chris found themselves looking for a place to camp. There was nowhere that they could afford to sleep legally, yet they needed to find a place that would fit their needs while working towards securing housing placements. They found a patch of wooded land between the Radiant Church parking lot and the antenna behind the Kroger off Maple Rd. The spot was covered in trash and polluted by noise from the adjacent M-14 highway, but secluded and close to needed services.
Joined by their friend John and his handsome service dog Jackson, they got to work cleaning up the trash and setting up camp. Through the collection of discarded items, use of their own funds and help from community members, they soon had simple accommodations. Besides tents, the camp had a propane grill, a well-insulated mini-fridge converted into a cooler, a pump sprayer made into a shower, office swivel chairs and a tarp shelter. They hung a sign with a picture of three crosses, identifying them as the “Three Ghosts” on a tree in the middle of camp.
Jeff explained the situation to me. “We’re just trying to survive. Each one of us is waiting for something. I didn’t get my unemployment or stimulus checks. I lost my birth certificate, social security cards, everything. Now I’m working on getting all that back. With COVID it is twice as hard,” he said.
They chose the site behind Kroger because it made the Three Ghosts’ lives easier and gave them some control over their environment. The traffic on Maple Rd made for a good place to collect money by flying signs. Kroger provided bathrooms, bottle returns and a place to buy groceries with their Bridge cards and cash. The bus stop provided access to transportation. Some of the Three Ghosts are recovering addicts, and the services at the nearby Ann Arbor Comprehensive Treatment Center were critical to their health.
Jeff expressed to me that as a recovering addict, it was important to him to be away from downtown because of his concern that he would be exposed to more drug use there. The matrix of needs that the Three Ghosts Camp location fulfilled made it ideal for these men while they focused on improving their situation.
Besides the initial cleanup of the camp site, the Three Ghosts continued to keep their space clean. They recycled and acted as good stewards of the land they lived on.
“We stopped people from dumping tires in Radiant’s parking lot,” Jeff said. “We deterred illegal parking and suspicious people. We were like unpaid security guards.”
“We did at least $1000 worth of cleanup work over there,” Chris said.
On Thursday, June 10, after over two months of camping, Kroger brought in the AAPD to serve a trespass notice to the Three Ghosts. Kroger never reached out to the campers before the eviction. Initially, Kroger wanted the camp cleared out immediately. Chris spent an hour arguing that they should be given 15 days to move, and eventually the Kroger manager, Joe, capitulated.
I was visiting the camp at the time and spoke to Joe. I provided him with my contact information, asked him to reconsider allowing the camp to remain and offered to organize a group to mediate any conflicts between Kroger and the camp. He never reached out to me. Within the 15 day grace period, I worked with Washtenaw Camp Outreach (WCO) to transport the Three Ghost’s belongings to a new site.
Given my positive impression of Jeff, Chris, John and Jackson, recognition of their right to have a place to live, and Kroger’s unwillingness to work towards a humane solution, I was angry, and I had a lot of questions. I reached out to Kroger, Radiant Church, and the Ann Arbor City Council representative for the 5th Ward (where the camp is located) to try to understand what led to Kroger’s hostility. The store manager Joe had already transferred to another store, so I got in touch with the new manager who refused to answer any questions or to provide contact information for Joe. I also reached out to Kroger corporate and Radiant Church, before publication time, neither responded.
Council member Erica Briggs was responsive. She explained to me that there were many complaints about homeless people in the area around Kroger from nearby residents, customers, and staff at Kroger and Radiant Church. One complaint was that a member of the camp had threatened to kill a property owner who was putting up “No Trespassing” signs near the camp. When I asked the Three Ghosts about the truth of this accusation, they all had a straight, consistent story contradicting the accusation. According to them, this property owner had insinuated that he would shoot them, and then started to goad them into assaulting him.
They understandably became angry and exchanged words, but deny ever threatening to kill him. The property owner eventually resorted to calling the police with a fabricated story. Briggs left out all the details about the harassment the Three Ghosts were experiencing.
These men are constantly subject to harassment from their less vulnerable neighbors. Drivers are constantly yelling obscenities at John when he is flying a sign. Recently, John was riding down the side of the road on his scooter, when a truck swerved to run him off the road. He fell off the scooter, badly scraping up his arm and elbow and rolled over onto his backpack. Inside that backpack was his new puppy, Sabitha, who thankfully was unharmed.
Hostility and prejudice toward the homeless is common, and I do not doubt for a second that an angry property owner would make false accusations. Besides, no one has been able to provide evidence for any of the accusations made against these men, and we have a societal duty to listen to those who are vulnerable and marginalized.
Radiant Church told Briggs that the campers had damaged an electrical box. This was easily explained by Chris, who said that the box had been poorly attached and fell off when they tried to plug their phones in to charge. After this incident, Radiant locked up the exterior electrical outlets. To me this seems like a misunderstanding that would have been easily resolved had Radiant made a greater effort to communicate with their homeless neighbors.
The final accusation was that homeless folks in general were stealing from Kroger and other businesses and residents. Again, no evidence was provided. Besides, if the homeless must steal to survive, shouldn’t a corporation such as Kroger with their 38-billion dollars in assets have the ability and resources to work with the community to understand why needs aren’t being met? Shouldn’t they be able to come up with a solution better than shuffling people to another camp site where they will face the same problems?
The Three Ghosts have a right to exist, and to have a place to live and sleep. They were good stewards of their space. Yet they became further victimized by prejudice and indifference. Rather than work towards a just arrangement, their neighbors harassed them and used a legal system biased towards powerful landowners to displace them. Given their immense wealth and power, Kroger is especially egregious in their actions of dismissing community members who want to come up with equitable solutions.
I encourage anyone reading this to avoid shopping at Kroger until they sincerely demonstrate significant support for the housing insecure people in our community. The eviction of the Three Ghosts is not the only recent socially irresponsible action by Kroger. Indeed.com reports that Kroger cashiers earn only $9.18/hr — 17% below the national average. In May 2020, Kroger discontinued their $2/hr COVID hero pay after only two months — despite the pleas from workers to extend it. In Long Beach, California, Kroger went so far as to shut down two stores rather than implement a $4/hr COVID hero pay mandated by the city government. A recent lawsuit against a Kroger in Milford, Ohio contends that Kroger intentionally subjected an employee to torturous conditions that were directly responsible for his suicide. Try shopping at a more responsible alternative such as Aldi’s, Trader Joe’s or the People’s Food Co-op.
If Kroger had agreed to work with me and others to establish boundaries and mediate conflict with campers, I am confident that we could have come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.
I am interested in finding a business with suitable space that would be willing to try hosting a small camp on their property. A community group with members of the homeless community and their supporters would provide guidance and mediation for the business and the campers. If any business is interested in making this happen, or if any readers want to support this idea, or send ideas, comments or questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also encourage readers to join or support Washtenaw Camp Outreach, whose members are focusing their efforts on ending evictions on city property. WCO can be reached on Facebook @washcampoutreach.