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Residents of Detroit tent city move to housing

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The unofficial mayor and others residing at a makeshift tent city downtown have accepted an offer for refuge, officials confirmed Friday.

After spending seven months at the site on Jefferson, Stephon Charles Jones, the “mayor” of the tent community, agreed to a stable housing arrangement. The campers have moved to a private location within two miles of where they had been residing, said Alexis Wiley, the chief of staff for Mayor Mike Duggan.

Wiley confirmed that Jones and about 10 other campers have taken up the offer facilitated by the Neighborhood Service Organization.

News of the move comes one day after Duggan vowed to continue sending social service workers to the tents to try to move the homeless individuals into buildings. The mayor also stressed that the conditions were not safe and that the city could soon take action on the tented living quarters off east Jefferson Avenue, between Rivard and St. Aubin.

“We’re going to have to solve that,” the mayor told reporters as he toured the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center on Thursday.

In a Friday phone interview with The News, Jones said he feels good about taking the help and that it was provided to everyone. Initially, he resisted any offers for housing.

“What basically made me change my mind is everybody got the chance to move, not just one individual,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.

“I feel good about it,” he said. “Nobody is out in the cold no more.”

Wiley said the city’s administration called on several community organizations to keep daily tabs on those living in the tent community and offer them refuge from the elements. Shelter beds had been offered daily. Others had been extended offers for vouchers for long-term housing.

“From the very beginning, the mayor has made it clear that he wants to work with the organizations that do this work every single day,” she said Friday. “We’re pleased that their consistent outreach has really been a crucial resource for the people who were staying in this location.”

“Even (the campers) realized that this was not a safe situation for them, considering the dangerous weather,” Wiley added.

Justin Petrusak, a program manager for NSO’s homeless recovery services, said the agency hammered out plans for the move with Jones on Friday morning.

“He approached us about options and we certainly had options for him in regard to housing,” he said. “Not just for himself, but for his encampment community. He thought that was an ideal plan.”

NSO took the lead on the effort that’s also being coordinated by Southwest Solutions, Cass Community Social Services and the Homeless Action Network of Detroit.

“Once the (campers) were able to see (Jones) taking the initiative to change his own housing status for the better, many of them followed along behind or beside him,” Petrusak said.

Petrusak said the homeless individuals were able to immediately obtain housing Friday through a program funded by the city. Ongoing housing for the campers will come from “wherever it needs to come from to make it happen,” he said.

On Thursday, Jones appeared at a City Council subcommittee meeting, urging members to allow for a partnership that would put the homeless population to work fixing up and occupying some of the city’s vacant housing stock.

“The homeless of Detroit, we are out there,” Jones, 50, said Thursday. “Instead of kicking us away, let (us) help and build something.”

Jones has said that an estimated 100 homeless people had been coming through the tent city daily.

To keep warm, the tent city dwellers kept a large fire constantly burning. At night, people huddled inside one of the six tents equipped with blankets and a kerosene heater. They prepared meals on portable grills.

On Friday, Jones noted many donations had come in for the tent encampment. They will be donated to other area shelters.

District 5 council member Mary Sheffield is advocating for a transitional housing and job program for the city’s homeless population. She’s said she intends to raise the issue again at the council table next week.

“We need to begin a conversation about homelessness in Detroit and make sure we have an overall strategy to address it,” she said after Thursday’s meeting.