Morghan Boydston, human services manager for the Washtenaw Office of Community and Economic Development, says they never planned to put people on the street. When the program launched in January with about forty families, she says, it was an emergency response to an immediate crisis: A federal Covid rental assistance program had ended in December, and evictions were rising.

“It was the first time we had seen a lot of families who had been determined literally homeless but were waiting for shelter placement,” Boydston says. “And that’s how we got into this position—how do we keep people alive and off the streets during the winter?”

Since the Salvation Army converted its former family shelter to veterans’ housing last year, the county has space for just eleven homeless families. A false alarm about “evictions” from a winter hotel program revealed deeper problems.

That’s why the county initially funded the housing in four area hotels only through March. It also expected some families to move on as their economic circumstances improved, they were “diverted” to other places to stay, or were placed in permanent affordable housing.

Boydston says they peaked at eighty-seven families. Seventeen “self-diverted,” and fifteen more “exited for behavioral issues.” With few staff to provide assessment and support, the rest were left largely on their own.

In late March, as advocates for the homeless warned that “evictions” were imminent, Washtenaw Housing Alliance executive director Amanda Carlisle visited about a dozen households in the hotels. “Not one of the families had seen a person who was designated to help them until the end of March,” she says, “days before they thought they were going to be asked to leave.”

Several families had options, Carlisle says, because “they either aren’t from this area and maybe have a resource or home to connect them back to, or they have family or friends they can stay with.” But others had no idea where they would go if the program ended.

It never came to that: The county commission appropriated $700,000 to extend homeless services, and the Ann Arbor city council kicked in $300,000 to help people stay housed. Boydston says that in mid-April, fifty-nine families were still in hotels, with no cutoff date.

Carlisle points out that OCED was caught in a perfect storm of rising need and diminished resources. The Salvation Army converted its Staples Family Center shelter on Packard to veterans’ housing, leaving just eleven shelter spots for families in the entire county. The end of a coordinated funding program between the county, United Way, and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation squeezed the budgets of the Alpha House family shelter and the Shelter Association. And then Housing Access for Washtenaw County, the county’s central point of contact for people needing assistance, collapsed.

Boydston says that when she returned from maternity leave last June, “we discovered that there were about 2,000 unanswered phone calls” from people seeking help. The Salvation Army, which had been taking calls and doing assessments under a contract with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, said it was dealing with a combination of technical and staffing problems. But OCED and MSHDA weren’t happy with their progress, so the county announced it would take over housing access.

By the time OCED did so in October, however, many workers had left. They had to “bring in new staff, train new staff, get them competent enough to do these assessments in a way to really capture the need, and yes that does take time,” Boydston emails.

Carlisle sympathizes. “Morghan has been dealing with so many fires to put out over the last six months,” she says. The first hotel residents had all been assessed before moving in, but while the new staff were still training, word spread that hotel rooms were available, and more homeless families showed up. They were moved in without being assessed.

Boydston admits that some of them may have been from other counties. The intake form asks where they are experiencing homelessness, but the parents “have kids,” she says. “They’re cold and they’re scared. They will say whatever they need to say in order to get the services that they rightly deserve … Where they were actually experiencing homelessness, who’s to say?”

“From the get-go the [winter hoteling program] was set up without the input of the experts in the homeless system of care who know and work with families on a daily basis,” Carlisle says. “Everyone agreed that that was a great thing to do, to at least safely shelter families during this period of time. It’s just been the execution of that program” that fell short.

Even when the system is running well, Boydston says, federal homelessness funding is so limited that three-quarters of the people who meet the criteria for assistance get nothing. “Only the most dire cases get served. That’s why we have to assess people to figure out where they are, and that’s why we expect some people to self-resolve. That’s why we use diversion.”

She says staff from the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, SOS Community Services, and the Shelter Association “have been stepping in to help with the diversion conversations.” The solution “can be as simple as [providing] a bus ticket” to a place where they have family, she says. “Or they have a family member [who wants to help, but] the family member’s income isn’t sufficient enough to provide support for a whole family, so they might need grocery support. It varies what could help stabilize folks.”

The remaining hotel residents, she says, can stay “until they’re diverted, they get their own housing, or until a COC-funded housing resource becomes available.”

COC stands for “continuum of care,” the county homelessness program. Carlisle, who’s on the COC board, says that they recently met with OCED staff and “had a very good conversation, and we set up a winter task force to plan for next winter in a different way.

“They’ll hopefully have a plan of how to structure it—if there are funds—that is better for all who are experiencing homelessness.”