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CRAIG PORTER/Detroit Free Press

Craig White, 42, checks a trash can in downtown Royal Oak for bottles and cans last week. White sleeps outside a Royal Oak church and survives on the street as best he can.

Homeless people living on the street in well-off locales

Royal Oak, county see increases with shelters closed

June 26, 2000

BY BILL LAITNER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Craig White rolled out of a bedroll last week in bushes beside a Royal Oak church.

TO HELP OR GET HELP

  • If you're homeless, anywhere in Michigan, get help by calling 800-274-3583 anytime.

  • To assist the homeless, send donations to the Salvation Army, Eastern Division, 16130 Northland Dr., Southfield 48075; or call the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, 517-377-0509, 9-4 weekdays.

  • Then he shuffled off to drink his breakfast: vodka from a Mountain Dew bottle.

    White, 42, has been sleeping outside for weeks -- despite living in a county that is America's second wealthiest, according to 1999 estimates of per capita income in counties of at least 1 million residents.

    His camp-outs with pal Dan Dowding, 46, began in April, when all but one of Royal Oak's half-dozen homeless shelters closed for the summer, spilling the destitute into a downtown known for chic restaurants and boutiques.

    Many fanned out to other communities or left the region entirely, shelter operators say. But police estimate that 40 to 50 people have made the streets of Royal Oak their summer home.

    Royal Oak is not the only place where homeless people congregate. On cold nights, shelters in Detroit, Mt. Clemens and Pontiac attract thousands, many of whom live outside during warm months, say homeless advocates.

    Oakland County had an estimated 4,500 people who needed a roof over their heads at some time last year -- a 15-percent increase from 1998, said Donald Jones, resource development director for the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency, a Pontiac-based charity that serves both counties.

    Pontiac by far has the highest concentration of homeless people in Oakland County, and likely the highest of anywhere in southeast Michigan outside of Detroit, Jones said.

    But Royal Oak has become the focus of homelessness in south Oakland County, he said. Police officers say there are good reasons: The city offers the homeless a lower crime rate than Detroit, a ready supply of returnable containers to redeem for cash, sources of free food and shelter at church and nonprofit programs, restaurants with Dumpsters of haute garbage and prosperous shoppers ripe for panhandling.

    Escalating rents are evicting the poorest of the poor in Oakland County, pushing them onto the streets, homeless advocates say. Some find their way to shelter programs that offer mandatory drug and alcohol detox programs, such as the South Oakland Shelter, while addressing long-term housing needs. But many shun the programs, choosing the streets.

    A dozen years ago, the Royal Oak-based South Oakland Warming Center -- run by a coalition of Royal Oak and Berkley churches willing to admit anyone, even the visibly intoxicated -- averaged two dozen patrons a night. Two years ago, the average was about 80. Last year it averaged 110, with some nights as high as 133, said Sister Therese Allgeyer, director of Christian Service at St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak.

    Each spring the program closes, to save money and return church space to other uses, Sister Allgeyer said. Most of the program's guests remain homeless over the summer, she said. Last week, she gave 25 bag lunches to the wandering hungry.

    On a recent sunny morning, as White and Dowding rolled cigarettes and chatted on a bench near City Hall, Larry Tiller, 51, was leaving a men's room of the Washington Square Plaza building, three blocks away.

    Tiller had cleaned up there after spending most of the night in an unlocked car, he said -- before he was chased off by the vehicle's irate owner.

    Dressed in spotless white tennis shorts, white sneakers and a white sleeveless undershirt -- the gifts of a church -- Tiller apologizedfor not having shaved.

    "I haven't had a drink yet. My hand's shaking too much. I'd cut myself all up," he said, chuckling.

    Royal Oak leaders are divided about handling the street people. One city commissioner wants stronger police enforcement against vagrants who break laws and scare customers from the store she owns.

    But a lawyer active in a merchants group wants business people and the city to develop services to fill the shelters' summer void and treat the alcoholism he says is rampant. Anywhere from 65 to 95 percent of the homeless are drug or alcohol addicts, advocates estimate.

    City Commissioner Laura Harrison said she wants to see fewer vagrants in her downtown. Many choose to live on the streets, she said last week, and street people have harrassed patrons of her picture frame shop.

    "And I've had numerous complaints from other business owners," Harrison said.

    They include Tom King, who lives in Ferndale and owns Raupp Campfitters in Royal Oak.

    "When customers see people sleeping on benches, it tells them this may not be as safe as other places. You don't see them in Ferndale and you don't see them in Birmingham," he said.

    But attorney Jim Rasor, active in the Downtown Royal Oak Association -- a branch of the Royal Oak Chamber of Commerce -- said merchants and the city should cooperate to create "a place where these people can go during the day and get help."

    Rasor said an effective program would "improve the shopping climate, make the city look friendlier, lower crime and reduce the demands on our police.

    But paying for a program -- any program -- might be a challenge.

    Most shelters and other homeless programs are staffed by nonprofit groups and funded through federal grants, said Kip Diotte, executive director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness in Lansing.

    Oakland County receives $143,000 a year in federal grants earmarked for homeless shelters, said Gordon Lambert, chief of operations for the county's Community and Home Improvement Division.

    Communities such as Royal Oak usually pay in other ways. Royal Oak police have arrested some street people dozens of times over the last decade.

    "We're on a first-name basis with a lot of them," Officer Ron Race said.

    Last month, city workers cleared debris and weeds from vacant property in the city's south end, where homeless men had strewn liquor bottles in what neighbors told officials was a "tent city." City Manager Larry Doyle downplayed the problems.

    Certainly, the city would be interested in suggestions for helping homeless people, Doyle said.

    "But we're not a San Diego, where you see people sleeping in doorways," he said.

    Near Doyle's office, White and Dowding shrugged off the profanity directed at them by a person they identified as a fellow street person.

    White laughed when asked if he had been treated for alcoholism.

    "More than once," he said. In one program, he had dried out for fully six months.

    "I'm not ready for that right now. But I'll try it again sometime."

    Contact BILL LAITNER at 248-586-2608.

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