‘Danger’: Kalamazoo’s homeless living on contaminated soil

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The signs recently posted at the entrance of the city’s biggest homeless encampment warn of the dangers in the soil: “Danger. Soil under the grass contains unsafe heavy metals.”

The signs outside the so-called Hotop camp warn against touching the soil, of digging or growing edible plants.

The camp on the edge of downtown Kalamazoo has been here for years on a former fly ash dump site for an old coal-fired power plant.

It is home to more than 200 homeless people who live in tents, under tarps, in small campers and in lean-tos built of old fencing and pallets.

It has more than doubled in size since the city shut down the former Mill Street tent city just a few hundred yards away this spring.

“Where else are people going to go?” asked Keith Drenth, who lives in a tent on the edge of the camp. “It’s a big open field. We can kind of keep an eye on each other. It’s semi-social.”

Drenth, 46, teed up golf balls Friday on the edge of his campsite, launching them over the camps across the way.

“That went right on me,”  he said after one shot.

He said he’s a former Marine on disability and has lived in this camp about two months since his house burned down. He fishes in the adjoining Kalamazoo River to fill his time. But he is disgusted by his surroundings: the garbage at vacated camp sites, the puddle of green and orange water on the other side of the camp.

Toby Knight, 21, said he moved to the old Mill Street camp after his house burned down, then moved to Hotop.

“It’s like a free-roaming refugee camp,” he said.

He said he can’t find a job.

“Because of the way I look, nobody wants to hire me,” he said. “I don’t have a way to bathe or anything.”

He said he and his girlfriend live in a tent in a corner of the camp.

“We had a garden going but because the soil is so contaminated, we can’t even have a garden out here.”

They rely on volunteers who bring food, water and other supplies.

He said he believes the homeless were left with just the Hotop camp because “it was the easiest place to go.”

“I don’t think that that bothers them (city leaders),” he said of the contamination. “It’s not their problem. Their problem is that homeless people were living under bridges and out in open public fields, and this was a big empty lot.”

City officials said with a shortage of affordable housing and with COVID-19 restrictions in place, the homeless have few choices in Kalamazoo. The Hotop camp is owned by the city’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, which recently put up the danger signs.

A sign at a homeless camp in Kalamazoo warns of dangerous soil.

Leander Rabe, head of the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Homeless, said he’s complained to local leaders about the contaminated site.

“Certain people would say they’re out of sight, out of mind, that’s OK, and we’re saying this has got to change, this can’t be acceptable to a community,” Rabe said.

Not only that, he said, but the camp is drawing a “criminal element.”

“The wolves are coming in and prowling and preying upon them,” he said. “Crime is increasing. It’s a very desperate situation.”

He said the homeless population will only grow after a program to house some in local hotels ends this week and after the federal moratorium on evictions end on Saturday.

Jonathan Williams, 57, said he’s recovering from stage 4 lung and liver cancer and has lived at Hotop since a fire forced him from his home. He lives in a tent with a full-sized bed, chairs and table and a Coleman stove. He said he has no choice but to live atop contaminated soil.

“I mean, it’s better than going somewhere else where the police are rousting you and throwing you off, or somebody else is stealing your stuff,” he said. “The people here are really just trying to survive.

“They give you a warning sign that says heavy metals in the ground, no digging, no planting edible plants that you would eat, which is understandable, but people got to live through these conditions at the time because you have nothing.”

Shoes dry at a the Hotop homeless encampment in Kalamazoo on July 30, 2021. (Ken Kolker/WOOD TV8)

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