When there’s a late-night crisis at Alpha House, the local shelter for homeless families, shelter director Latania Fair gets the call. It may be a staff member wondering whether a client needs to go to the emergency room. Or perhaps, Fair says, someone is “feeling hopeless and about to leave” the shelter. Then there was the time the basement flooded. Sometimes Fair can handle the problem over the phone; other times, she drives over to the sprawling building on Jackson Road.
A social worker, Fair, fifty, has been with the Interfaith Hospitality Network for fourteen years. When she started, the shelter was still housed in local churches, which took turns hosting homeless families. In 2001, St. Joe’s donated the building on Jackson, a former treatment center, and volunteers refurnished it with beds, toys, and play equipment.
As Fair leads a tour of the building, a couple of elementary-age kids returning from school bound through the front door. A mother and her young daughter hang out on a couch in a common room that’s lined with bookshelves and a TV. Fair unlocks the door to one of six private bedrooms. Other than a single bed and a bunk bed, it’s empty; the family that slept there last night moved today to an Ypsilanti apartment complex.
Fair says parents are often “hurting” and “feel defeated” when they arrive. Her first priority is to “help them feel safe and meet their basic, critical needs.” In a bright yellow crew neck sweater, khakis, and clogs, she has a matter-of-fact demeanor but is quick with a laugh and a smile to reassure anxious parents and bewildered or excited kids. Former Alpha House executive director Julie Steiner says that “people don’t get” the “extreme stress” produced by homelessness. “Latania totally gets that and knows almost instinctively how to work with them.”
Steiner recalls, “People have said, ‘She can be really tough on me, but I know she cares.'”
It’s dinnertime, and a church group is serving tacos. A mother holds her infant on her lap while she keeps an eye on her energetic preschooler across the table. “I came here to start over completely–to get back on my feet,” she says. She’s been at the shelter for about a month while she looks for permanent housing. During the day her kids are in child care, and she goes to a job with help from the Michigan Works program.
The years 2006 to 2009 were “really, really bad,” explains Fair. “What was a recession for us was a depression for them … There is somewhat of a rebound in the economy, [but] it’s hard for these families to get a second or third chance for past mistakes or evictions.”
In addition to nearly twenty part- and full-time staff, about forty religious congregations and civic groups provide volunteer support to Alpha House, including cooking and serving meals, mentoring, child care, and spending the night as back-up for the paid staff. Families meet regularly with a case manager and have access to parenting classes, legal support, and other services. “About four or five times a year,” Fair says, she has to ask a family to leave because members can’t follow the program’s structure, or break rules prohibiting drugs and alcohol. “She’s good about keeping things pretty black and white,” says Alpha House executive director Nicole Adelman, “Her expectations are clear.”
Families can stay at Alpha House for only ninety days, so staffers work to find them permanent housing as quickly as possible. It’s not easy: though many residents work, their average family income is less than 30 percent of Washtenaw County’s median, and Ann Arbor has little housing for families headed by someone making only $8.50-$10 an hour.
Fair says about 90 percent of families eventually do find housing in Washtenaw County. Alpha House keeps in touch with them for a year after they move out, and it’s not unusual for a former client to greet Fair in a grocery store. When space is available, new families are referred by Housing Access for Washtenaw County after a phone screening.
Raised in Southfield, the daughter of a daycare provider and a medical technologist father, Fair attended Eastern. She says a counselor’s comment that she had a “keen personality and that I tended to connect to people immediately” influenced her decision to get her bachelor’s in social work. She began as a case manager with local nonprofits, including Catholic Social Services and the county’s Community Mental Health program. When a supervisor at the Interfaith Hospitality Network set out to recruit her, she volunteered for two weeks before she took the leap. The experience convinced her that “I could do this–I could make an impact.”
Eight years ago, Fair met her future fiance, Larry Siden, a software developer, when he volunteered as a tutor at Alpha House. They plan to wed this year–her first marriage and his second. “It’s time,” she smiles. Although she’s active in Ypsilanti’s First United Methodist Church, and Siden is Jewish, the differences in religion or race (she’s African American, he’s white) don’t matter, she says. Her mom keeps nagging her to set the date for what she says will be a “small, low-key” ceremony.
Several years ago, Fair took in a teen foster daughter who spent her high school years with her. “Over time she grew to trust me,” Fair says. Now she’s a senior in college, and they stay in touch by texting. “I’m seen as a friend who helped her during adolescence.”
Fair swims, enjoys “going out with dear friends,” and watching HGTV and cooking shows. These diversions, she says, are the reason “I’m able to come back [to work], because I try to have a full life outside.” Of course, she never knows when the phone will ring at night–and Alpha House will beckon again.