North Camp deadline: Some leave, others stay

A man called Cookie at the new shanty he built after he was told he would have to leave the homeless settlement in Walker referred to as "North Camp." (June 4, 2014)

WALKER, Mich. (WOOD) — As the deadline nears for the homeless to leave North Camp — a makeshift neighborhood of shanties and tents they’ve called home for years — some are preparing to move while others are expected to hold out.

Hold-outs could face arrest for trespassing if they’re still there on Saturday, according to social service officials who are trying to find them homes.

But one of the dozen or so residents — a man known as Cookie — took action on his own. He moved pieces of his old shanty and carted it — a wheelchair-load at a time — to another bit of land he doesn’t own.

“One wheelchair-full at a time,” he said. “Strap it to my wheelchair and run back and forth.”

Three days ago, he moved into his new, temporary home.

“This is home right now — a little 8-by-10 shack that I built,” he said.

Cookie lived in easily the nicest place at North Camp — 12 by 14 feet with a generator, pitched roof and half-moon window.

He built it himself several years ago out of old pallets and donated lumber. He said he had lived on the streets for years and didn’t want to live by the rules of a shelter.

But then, last month, he and his dozen or so neighbors at North Camp — north of Ann Street NW and along railroad tracks — learned they would have to move by the end of the day Friday to make room for a railroad expansion.

The camp has been in that spot, hidden by trees, for at least 20 years and has grown to include 10 shacks and lean-tos and about a dozen residents — with the blessings of the City of Walker.

“I’m the only one who’s really busting a move to do anything,” Cookie said Wednesday as he smoked a cigarette on his new home’s only chair. “I’m not going to rely on anybody else ’cause every time I try to rely on anybody else, it comes back to slap me in my face.”

He’s built his new temporary place in the woods. He plans to rebuild his bigger home soon.

“It breaks my heart to have to take it down, it breaks my heart. Believe me, I’ve cried several times over this. … But it’s coming down and it’s coming over here and it’s getting resurrected,” he said. “I’ve got too much heart into that place to let them ‘doze it over.”

He doesn’t want 24 Hour News 8 to say where his new home is because he is not sure who owns the land.

“This is me right here,” he said. “This is where I’m at. I’m making my stand here.”

Others at North Camp said they were working with social service agencies — led by the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness — to find new places.

Coalition Program Manager Jesica Vail said the agencies already found an apartment for one North Camp resident. They will move some of the residents into motel rooms first, with plans to find them permanent homes. They also will help find jobs for those who can work, she said.

The agencies are using funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Vail said. She’s not sure how much it will cost.

Robin Wright, who has lived at the camp four years, said he plans to move into a motel room on 28th Street for up to 30 days.

But he said a few men have no plans to move.

“There’s people who say they’re not going to leave ’til the bulldozers come,” Wright said. “That’s on them.”

Wright said he moved to North Camp more than four years ago after his wife died.

“I just want to be by myself,” he said. “So I’ve been out here in the woods.”

But life at North Camp is getting old, he said.

“We don’t have a stove you can just turn on,” he said. “You gotta cook over the fire. You can’t just go open the fridge and grab a beer or whatever.”

He’s looking forward to “a nice hot shower. Every morning get up and take a shower.”

“TV. I get to watch some TV. That’s going to be nice,” he said. “Watch the news. I miss my news.”

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