By Robert Tomlinson
[UPDATED 9:40 A.M. SATURDAY, FEB. 10]
THREE RIVERS — A homeless encampment that has been in place near the Walmart store in Three Rivers were forced to begin the process of clearing out Tuesday.
According to residents of the encampment who spoke with the Commercial-News, officers from Michigan State Police and the Three Rivers Police Department had showed up to the encampment Tuesday requesting that the encampment, located between the AutoZone and Walmart stores in a wooded area on Fabius Township land, be cleared out, but reportedly did not give a reason why at the time.
“The officers were very nice, there were state troopers and a Three Rivers officer,” Wendy Alexander, a resident of the encampment along with her husband Jerry, said. “One of the state troopers, you could tell in his heart he did not want to do this, he was like, ‘I don’t want to rush you and I don’t want to do this,’ but I don’t even know what happened. We don’t even know what happened.”
Three Rivers Police Chief Scott Boling told the Commercial-News in an interview Wednesday that the property owners at the AutoZone store the encampments sit behind had contacted dispatch to ask that the residents of the encampment be removed from the property, which includes the wooded area.
“It went into dispatch, and it went to Michigan State Police. MSP were dispatched, and we had officers go with them to assist,” Boling said. “Michigan State Police went down with our officers, they explained to the people down there that the business wants them off their property. The whole interaction was polite and cordial.”
Boling added that TRPD officers were also there due to “talk” that there may have been a wanted suspect living in the encampment, but did not clarify if one was living there or not.
MSP Det. Sgt. Todd Peterson said in an email Wednesday that troopers handled a trespassing complaint for the AutoZone store, and added that the property owners wanted the people camping to leave the property.
“They did not press charges for trespassing but were ordered to not return,” Peterson said.
St. Joseph County Undersheriff Jason Bingaman told the Commercial-News Tuesday night he did not know exactly why the owners wanted them to leave, but noted there have been some complaints of trash issues in the encampment from residents in the past.
“We had checked with AutoZone previously, and they didn’t seem to have a problem with it. But something must have changed; I don’t know what it is,” Bingaman said.
Bingaman also confirmed that no sheriff’s deputies were on scene when the clear-out was ordered Tuesday. This contradicts the account presented at Tuesday’s Three Rivers City Commission meeting by Mayor Tom Lowry and City Manager Joe Bippus, who claimed there would have been sheriff’s deputies at the scene and that there were no city officers present.
Residents and those helping out with the encampment that were aware of the clear-out told the Commercial-News they noticed that “No Trespassing” signs had gone up recently along the north end of South Tolbert Drive, right around the western edge of AutoZone’s property, in the days prior to the trespass notice. Boling said he was not aware of the signs having been put up, but acknowledged that the signs are a “form of precaution and enforcement.” Wilkins added he did not know who posted the No Trespassing signs either, nor when they were posted.
It is not known how long residents of the encampment, which has been located in the wooded area between AutoZone and Walmart since summer 2023, have to clear out the area; Peterson said there was not a deadline given to the residents. While the number of people living in the encampment sometimes fluctuates, it usually contains at least eight people.
Casey Tobias, executive director of Three Rivers-based homeless organization Homeless Outreach Practiced Everyday, criticized the clear-out in an interview Tuesday night. She noted her objection was to the timing of the order, saying that it came days after what is known as a “point-in-time” count, which is essentially a census of the homeless population in St. Joseph County, and which is used to determine how much federal funding a county can receive based on their homeless population.
“What’s unfair and what’s unjust about it is that the county is now going to get money for those people getting counted here, and many people are going to end up at my place tomorrow, and I’m going to have to ship them to Kalamazoo or Bay City or South Bend or wherever they have family or someone or a homeless shelter that can take them in,” Tobias said. “How do you get through this, when you have to tear down, you have to find someplace safe? It’s just setting them up for failure and destroying any kind of security that they had and any kind of circle or bond.”
Boling acknowledged that there had been a point-in-time count taken, but couldn’t say whether or not it had anything to do with why the clear-out happened. In the end, he said, “it looked like the business just wanted them off their property.”
While the encampment will need to be cleared out in the near future, some, like Alexander, whose husband is paralyzed from the waist down, say they aren’t sure where they’re going to go from here.
“We have nowhere to go. We don’t know,” Alexander said. “I even asked the officers about another place we could put a tent here where we wouldn’t be in trouble. There’s nowhere else to go. Everything’s filled up.”
[UPDATE 9:40 A.M. FEB. 10] In a statement to the Commercial-News Friday morning, Fabius Township Supervisor Dan Wilkins said that, at his request, AutoZone was notified earlier in the week that they “were in violation of our ordinance,” and that it is “the responsibility of the property owner to remediate the violation.” He did not say what specific ordinance was violated by the store.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.