Mayor Heath of Adrian (left) apologized for posting signs banning things like eating or sleeping in parks (right) before the city commission even held a vote on the ordinance the sign referenced, banning activities targeting homeless people.
Mayor Heath of Adrian (left) apologized for posting signs banning things like eating or sleeping in parks (right) before the city commission even held a vote on the ordinance the sign referenced, banning activities targeting homeless people.

After two hours of debate, largely consisting of citizens opposing the ban, Adrian passed its controversial anti-camping ordinance.

ADRIAN, MI—The city council in Adrian, Michigan unanimously passed a bill Monday that could criminalize homeless people sleeping and eating in public areas.

Adrian is the only town in Lenawee County with a Walmart. Outside the city, five minutes in every direction is soybean fields. This community near Michigan’s southern border is small and surrounded by communities smaller still. 

But Adrian residents have their struggles. From its early days with poor farmhands living in camps to a more modern history of bank loan policies that prevented Black residents from living in certain parts of town, Adrian’s history with housing issues has been rocky. 

And at a time when the city’s primary homeless shelter Share the Warmth has been left hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic which slashed their capacity for public health reasons, Adrian passed a ban on “camping” Monday night.

An Eagerness to Ban Homeless People

Even before the ordinance passed, the city had started posting signs about the camping ban, showing the resolve of the commission to see the ban implemented. Mayor Angela Sword Heath apologized for the preemptive posting of the signs and said that such a situation would not happen again. 

“Is it wrong that the hours were put up and the signs were put up prematurely? Yes,” she said. “That should not have happened. Shame on us.”

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As The ‘Gander explained, the camping ban was, in effect, making it a civil infraction to be homeless. It bans things like eating or having blankets in public parks — characteristics of a picnic — and affords local police the authority to decide who is picnicking and who is camping. That has the effect of allowing the ordinance to only apply to the people the commission intends it to apply to.

The Adrian City Commission didn’t mince words about the purpose of the ban being to criminalize homelessness, either.

“The situation we find ourselves in is a very small group of people, maybe 10 or 12, have trashed parts of Kiwanis Trail, Trestle Park and under some of our bridges.” 

Adrian City Commissioner Lad Stryer

“We’ve had these same people conjugate in such a way that others who want to use the trail or the parks don’t feel comfortable,” said commissioner Lad Stryer. “This small group has given the entire homeless community a black eye.”

Mayor Heath defended herself and the members of the commission as being compassionate to homeless Adrian residents. 

“If I see somebody that’s homeless, that I think might be, I don’t care if they’re homeless or not, if I see somebody that looks like maybe they need a cup of coffee or they need a meal I’ve offered that,” Heath said. “I understood when I took the oath of office that I was going to receive a lot of criticism and that I was not always going to make the popular decision in my voting. But I do want to say to call any of the commissioners incompassionate or not caring individuals is just wrong.”  

But the intention to criminalize homelessness was widely seen as exactly that by the public. And that intention prompted Adrian residents to show up in numbers at the over two-and-a-half hour Zoom meeting.

Finding Another Way to Approach Homelessness 

From ordinary Adrian residents to those who work with or have unhoused loved ones to an order of social justice nuns, the community came out to oppose the camping ban. The first two hours of the meeting were made up, principally, of citizens stepping forward to beg the city to abandon the ban.

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“My mother was homeless in 2017”, said Alexandria Burgess, whose mother lives in Adrian. 

“It’s upsetting that all of the times this issue has been brought up from a place of compassion and concern for homeless residents it’s been shot down, but the minute that other residents complain it becomes a priority.” 

 Burgess’ mother moved to Adrian to find housing, but when she did she lost the stable mental health system she relied on in Metro Detroit. People with neither housing nor those resources are the primary concern for Burgess. 

And she was far from alone. Speaker after speaker at both Monday’s commission meeting and the one earlier in September spoke about the need for compassion, not criminalization. 

“I would like to invite the commissioners to think out of the box, to think in a creative way of how we can respond to this homeless population in the city.” 

Adrian Dominican Sister Patty Harvat

 “It just seems completely uncompassionate to say they are not allowed to be near or in the parks at this time, which is just so problematic for all of us,” Sister Patty Harvat of the Adrian Domincan Sisters said at the Monday night meeting.

The Dominican Sisters formally opposed the ordinance, Sister Patty explained, because at a time when the coronavirus poses a threat to any disadvantaged group, their order feels unhoused residents of Adrian should be provided for.

Don Taylor and his wife volunteer at Share the Warmth, the city’s primary housing for homeless Michiganders. He urged the city commission to take a step back. 

“Why not put this on the back burner for a bit, spend more time talking to the community about it,” he suggested. “I’d like to see us step back and reevaluate this whole situation.”

The commission instead voted unanimously to pass the ordinance.

The Fight Isn’t Over

Michigan House candidate William Garcia told The ‘Gander that an effort to petition to have the ban brought to a vote in March is already drafted and will begin collecting signatures as soon as possible. There are also other ways the fight against the camping ban will continue, he said. 

One of those ways comes from the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC), which has cautioned Adrian that a lawsuit will likely come the city’s way as a result of the ban, but has yet to announce any specific action. 

“Whether viewed from a legal, fiscal, or moral lens, the proposed Camping Ban is not advisable for Adrian.” 

NHCL senior attorney Tristia Bauman

“In addition to raising awareness about ineffective, expensive, and harmful policies punishing homelessness, we litigate across the country to challenge these policies,” NHCL senior attorney Tristia Bauman wrote in a statement provided to The ‘Gander. 

Bauman mentioned that as of 2019, more than 600 people were either unhoused or facing a housing crisis in Lenawee County, and of those most resided in Adrian. That is only poised to get worse, as the coronavirus has created a looming eviction crisis in America. 

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To the legal challenge threatened by the NHLC, the Adrian commission struck a tone of defiance. 

“We have just been educated on municipalities and legalities of homelessness. I question that and I challenge that,” said commissioner Brad Watson, who motioned to approve the ordinance. “Why does this solely fall on our shoulders?”

Watson also lamented that he can’t, also, sleep in some of Adrian’s parks.

“I think it would be nice to spend a weekend in one of our parks,” he said. “We can’t do it though. We can’t open it up to one, we can’t open it up to many.”