Housing Needs & Placemaking at Forefront of 8 Mile & Woodward Collaborations

Housing Needs and Placemaking at Forefront of 8 Mile and Woodward Collaborations

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Aug. 6, 2020)

Ferndale, MI – Over 100 participants took part in a Zoom call with officials from Detroit and Ferndale to address the cleaning up of 8 Mile and Woodward Ave.  The corner features a tri-level intersection with some cars on 8 Mile going under Woodward, while part of Woodward also goes over 8 Mile. The design gives many convenient places to panhandle, and the bridge provides shelter for homeless people living there.

Belongings have accumulated, at times including tents, blankets, mattresses, shopping carts and milk crates full of stuff.  Periodically MDOT, who controls both roadways, would clear out the items.  However, officials on the call said that a pending lawsuit now prevents them from doing that.  In addition to the items, the area is littered with trash. Unwanted food items dropped off by well-intentioned people end up strewn across the roadway, attracting birds and rats.  The lack of toilets adds to the sanitation issue.

On the call were neighbors frustrated by break ins, by homeless people sneaking into their back yards to sleep, do drugs, and have sex.  They complained of street harassment, public urination, and the other erratic behavior influenced by mental illness and substance abuse.  There was a mother who wants her kids to play in the yard without worry.  There was a man who wants to ride his bike along a street that is clean and safe.

Also on the call were those concerned about allowing the homeless people to remain at the intersection, including volunteers who bring food and clothing, as well as a person who volunteers to do medical checks.  Among the reasons shared were that some homeless people are not ready for housing, that some do not qualify, and some people rely on the heavy traffic at the corner for income from panhandling.

The City of Ferndale has been exploring the challenges of the intersection over the past few years.  Crime in the area raised concerns, particularly when a person overdosed on a neighbor’s lawn in 2015.  Following the death, Oakland County Times ran a three part series detailing crime reports at the Motorama Motel, and the City of Ferndale began the process of shutting them down.

The motel was able to stay open through the appeal process, and in 2018 the owner sold the property, which is currently being remodeled into apartments.  As the city looked at how to make the environment safer, they also began to gather resources and agencies to work with in crafting solutions that are helpful to all the stakeholders, including those living at the corner.

For Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana and Detroit Council Member Roy McCalister Jr, the bridge is both a physical connection between the communities, and a symbolic one as they strive for more regional collaboration.

They’ve also brought folks to the table from Wayne County, Oakland County, the State of Michigan, and several organizations that serve homeless populations.  The goal is to coordinate efforts, learn from each other, pool resources, and make well-informed decisions. There are weekly human service visitors to the corner who speak with the residents and try to connect them with resources that meet their needs.  There are bi-weekly cleanups that remove debris and unclaimed litter while not removing personal items per the law.  There are regular check-ins with nonprofit to share observations and challenges in the field.  And they are now tracking the results of their weekly visits and exploring potential solutions with all of the partners involved.

The meeting announced two key components of the group’s efforts. The first is the lower-hanging fruit of bringing physical change to the space.  And the second is formalizing the efforts to understand and address the human needs.  They will explore how creating partnerships, pooling resources, seeking grants, and working in coordinated ways can provide better outcomes.

Jordan Twardy, Ferndale’s Economic Development Director led the Zoom meeting.  “The time is to elevate the game,” he said. “Making sure that environment is safe, inviting, and welcoming for all who use it, but also elevating the game on the human services.

“To this point, there’s been no sort of formal structure, it’s been the institutions kind of working together with no additional funding, no additional support from beyond anything we’ve been able to kind of cobble together, just cities and agencies trying to work together, so that’s what this is about, elevating the game.

“What that means is it’s going to be a multidisciplinary approach.   We’re gonna walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s not either or.  It’s not one or the other.  It is both, with equal fervor.  So, that’s what you’re seeing here. Consistent and effective human services, learning the lessons of previous engagement, and really a lot of this, for me, coming as a professional from economic development, we do this stuff for businesses every day.  We’re gonna propose doing it for people too.  Streamlining access to services and connecting it to the things they need and want.

“So one of the things I want to assure folks here is we’re going to do these things with these folks, not to them.  They’re going to be at the table…If you want to help somebody you have to start with asking them what they need.”

Twardy added “It is a critically important piece that we formalize partnership agreements and funding for sustainable engagement…We’re trying to build something here that lasts, that is consistent, and that will be effective in responding to the actual conditions.”

As the cities and the agencies work on solidifying the structure of their efforts, the 8 Mile Blvd. Association has stepped up to lead the effort on making physical improvements to the space.  The idea is to put out an RFP to organizations that can do artistic improvements that are both beautifying and practical.

Jacob Jones of 8MBA presented examples overpasses in other communities that were brightened up with lighting and art.  Lynn, Massachusetts was among those shared. There the community had three underpasses where the lack of lighting made them uninviting for pedestrians, more prone to crime, and higher risk for vehicle crashes.  Lighting was an obvious solution, but city leaders took it a step further and aimed for an artistic installation that would make those once dreary spaces into a place people wanted to visit and be proud of.  The walls are now covered with art, and the LED lights which are programed for multi-colored changes create an inviting ambiance that has reduced crime and improved the neighborhood.

A similar idea could work at the corner of 8 Mile and Woodward, which is not only a major intersection, but a welcoming point between Detroit and the suburbs.  “Our goal is better outcomes for people under the bridge, people around the bridge, people who use it by foot, by bike, by car,” Joes said.

The next step is for 8MBA to put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to companies that could create a vision for the intersection and carry it out to completion.  They are currently looking into funding options, but hope to have details down in a month or so before putting out the RFP.  From there they’ll leave it to designers to bring their creativity to the table for a design that includes lighting and art.

A committee made up representatives of both cities will review the proposals and decide.

“Your putting up lights and art isn’t going to make these people disappear,” said Gail Marlow who co-founded Motor City Mitten Mission, which is a group dedicated to helping homeless people and those in need.

She cautioned that there is “a broader area than just that intersection.”

One of the men living at the intersection, Abe Hagenston, made national news in 2016 for having a website that accepts credit cards, and identifying homelessness as his business plan.   He joined in the Zoom meeting, stating that he and others do not trust the agencies the city is working with.  “They’ve been coming up here for years and all of us don’t trust them, we look at them as a con artist organization, both of them, we don’t want anything to do with them,” he said.

“I know you want to get us all out of here, and I respect that,” Hagenston said.  “There’s only less than 2,000 beds in all the shelters in Detroit Metro, and none of these programs or any of these options are a fit for any of these people that are out here now.  And the only thing we’re doing is surviving.  You know, there’s not any other option for us. Most of us don’t get disability, we don’t get food stamps.  We could be breaking into ya’all’s houses and committing crime but the truth is, we’re not.  We’re just sitting here hoping somebody will help us.  I hope you keep that in mind when you go do this.”

Twardy reiterated throughout the meeting that the physical improvements were being planned in conjunction with finding human service-based solutions.  He was excited to see people in the Zoom meeting that hadn’t yet been on the cities’ radars, stressing that this would be an effort with many people at the table, stating that the meeting was being held to “cast a wide net” in finding people to be part of the efforts.

Those who want to get involved, who want to be part of the ongoing conversations, and those with questions or ideas can contact Jacob Jones, Operations Manager of 8 Mile Boulevard Association, at jjones@eightmile.org.

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