Before he moved into Miller Manor four and a half years ago, Matt V. had at least seven bouts of homelessness. Suffering from schizoaffective and substance abuse disorders, he moved in and out of the Delonis Center homeless shelter and transitional sober houses.
He likens homelessness to “being bounced around like a tennis ball. Some of it is your own behavior, some of it is just the way things work.” For him, the cycle ended only when he was able to change his own behavior: he proudly shares that he just celebrated six years of sobriety, and has a part-time job landscaping and gardening at Miller Manor, a high-rise on Miller overlooking West Park.
That was how it used to work for the chronically homeless: to escape the streets for good, they first had to master the troubles that made them homeless in the first place. Like Matt, some did–but others did not. In the past, says Carole McCabe, executive director of Avalon Housing, when “the area’s homeless and chronically homeless have received housing, many have subsequently lost it, and ended up back in the shelter or on the street again and again.”
Yet this year alone, the Ann Arbor Housing Commission is moving forty-five chronically homeless individuals into Miller Manor. “Almost everyone we’re moving in is not only homeless, but unsheltered,” says Beth Yaroch, the building’s AAHC residency manager. “Many of them aren’t even welcome at the shelters ’cause they’ve burned that bridge.” Yet the AAHC and Avalon believe that with the right support services, they can become successful tenants at Miller Manor.
The partnership is not only giving Miller Manor tenants on-site safety and support to keep them permanently housed, it’s also changing the beleaguered reputation of the seven-story, 106-unit building. Yaroch says that calls to police have dropped significantly since the program started in May.
When Miller Manor was built in 1971, it exclusively housed elderly residents. But in 1988, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was amended to prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of disability and family status. Under the new law, AAHC began to accept tenants with physical, mental, and/or substance abuse issues.
Criminal activity followed the new residents. It was caused, for the most part, not by the tenants themselves but by others they let in, or outsiders who slipped in while the security door was open or malfunctioning. They brought with them theft, vandalism, drug activity, and assault. The worst moment was in 2002, when an intruder killed one of the remaining senior tenants, Evelyn Walther.
Staffing the front desk around the clock might have prevented her death, and many other crimes. But Miller Manor was designed to provide housing for self-sufficient seniors; it had neither the experience nor the funding to manage its new, more troubled population. In 2005, then-executive director Betsy Lindsley told the Observer that the commission wasn’t able to pay for round-the-clock security, “and it never will be.”
Much has changed in ten years. The AAHC still manages Miller Manor and the city’s other affordable housing complexes, but the buildings themselves are now owned by public-private partnerships. The private investors, taking advantage of federal tax credits, are pouring tens of millions of dollars into replacing or rehabbing aging buildings.
Like the rest of the system, Miller Manor is benefiting from a major remodeling. And a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is funding an array of support services designed to allow it to successfully house homeless and chronically homeless single adults. Residents now have on-site access to case management and recovery services; Food Gatherers’ distribution; a weekly cognitive-behavioral therapy group; a weekly AA meeting; transportation to medical and dental appointments; and community activities that include Friday movie nights, Bingo, coffee in the lobby, and a breakfast on Friday mornings.
The services are provided by Avalon team leader Molly Smith, ten residential support specialists, two case managers, one community builder, and three peer advocate supports. (“Those who’ve lived similar experiences as our tenants have a better chance of engaging with our people who may distrust professional social workers,” explains McCabe.) The front desk is now staffed by at least one support specialist around the clock, and two people on the afternoon and evening shift.
“One of the hardest things for folks who have long histories of homelessness, or are chronically homeless, is needing a lot of support,” Yaroch explains. “Some of that support is really just house security–keeping friends out that don’t live here, that don’t respect the space. And it’s hard to say no to cause you’ve got IOUs out there, drinking buddies, whatever that might be.” The front-desk staff, she says, “help people in real time make the decision about ‘Do you really want this person in?'”
While residents continue to use key cards to enter the building, as they have for years, all guests and visitors must now show a driver’s license or other ID. “If they don’t have an ID,” says Yaroch, “there’s some red flags right there.”
“We’re very excited with the changes,” says Sgt. Tom Hickey, the Ann Arbor Police Department’s director of community engagement. “If you’re a resident, knowing that everybody that walks through that door is welcomed and identified has got to be a big relief. It sends a message to folks with a criminal or ill intent: ‘You’re under the watchful eye and you’ve got to be accountable.’ This wasn’t always the case.”
Team leader Smith and Koran Boze, one of the front-desk residential support specialists, bristle when the front-desk staff is referred to as “security.” “I think security is an off-putting word,” says Smith. “It undermines the service complement we offer here,” Boze adds. “When you think of a security guard, you think of someone in a uniform just standing there. We not only check guest identities, we offer residents a cup of coffee and visit with them. We make sure that they’re all right and that if they need help, we can direct them to other staff.”
“The beauty of Miller Manor is that front desk,” McCabe says. “It brings a lot more control and safety. The front desk can be really helpful to people not getting moved in on. You know, it’s not uncommon for our tenants to be vulnerable.”
“For some people, affordable housing is all they need,” Yaroch says. But for someone to become chronically homeless, “Something else has to be going on that is really clouding their judgment”–whether it’s substance abuse, mental health disorders, PTSD, or a combination of factors. And many have physical health issues as well.
It may seem obvious that many homeless people need more than housing, but it’s actually a fairly recent development. In Ann Arbor it dates to 1991, when Avalon was founded to provide long-term housing for people coming out of the shelter–along with the social services they needed to stay housed. “The whole idea of supportive housing started really in the early 90s, right about when we did,” McCabe says. “And now there’s twenty years of data and research showing the effectiveness of this model to end homelessness. Providing on-site or nearby access to social services to tenants is a national trend for moving people from transitional to permanent housing.”
McCabe says providing the services needed to keep a formerly homeless person in affordable housing averages around $5,000 a year. “And you look up what it costs to support somebody in a shelter, psychiatric hospital, or jail, that figure can be ten or twenty times higher.”
“The world is finally figuring out that supportive housing is both the humane and compassionate response to people, the increasing number of people, who have so little in our community,” Yaroch says. “But it’s also way cheaper for the community … If you’re not moved by caring for your fellow human beings and not having them die on the street–not to be cavalier about it–but seriously, fiscally coming at it, it’s just such a clearly more cost-effective method. It costs the community to not house people.”
At Miller Manor, AAHC performs the administrative and management duties of landlord, while Avalon’s supportive services team helps residents stay housed. McCabe and Yaroch say the alliance will help Washtenaw County meet its commitment to Zero: 2016, a national initiative to end veteran and chronic homelessness by next year.
By housing dozens of chronically homeless people, Yaroch says, “Miller Manor is a key part of that plan. It’s a well-proven, well-documented fact that housing with services works, keeping people who couldn’t keep housing before housed,” Yaroch says. While using the services is not required to live at Miller Manor, she says, it is strongly recommended.
“Some [residents] need a lot of help, some need a little,” McCabe says. “Some need just fifteen minutes to make sure they’re managing their medications correctly.”
Of course, some tenants still break the rules–but the partners are committed to responding in ways that will allow them to remain housed. McCabe gives an example of a man who came in on a weekend night, drunk and belligerent. Instead of bouncing him out of the building or calling the police, the staff defused the situation, then met with him the next morning to discuss his behavior and what he could do to reduce the risk of a future occurrence. The tenant committed to getting active in his substance abuse recovery and staying away from old using buddies.
“I’ve said for years we’re public housing, not public evicting,” says Yaroch. “We have to find ways to resolve problems and to continue to house people even when problems occur with their tenancy, to figure it out.” While she and McCabe don’t rule out evicting a tenant, it hasn’t happened yet.
McCabe says the alliance between AAHC and Avalon’s service team is stopping many problems before they begin. Staff and management meet together weekly to talk about who’s at risk, she explains–“who’s behind in rent, who’s got problematic guests, who’s got whatever. And that’s the priority for services interventions.”
For many residents, the bigger problem is not behavior but physical health. “We have a lot of very medically fragile folks,” McCabe says. A new grant will fund a part-time nurse practitioner in the building, she emails, “and we are in discussions with Packard Health Clinic about setting up a satellite clinic there down the line.”
Sustaining the program at Miller Manor depends on Congress, says Yaroch, but she is optimistic about continued funding. “If you get a HUD grant specific for services you’re almost guaranteed to be funded year after year,” she says.
But long-term funding also depends on proving the value of the program–so McCabe is looking for a grant to evaluate its results. “The biggest changes HUD looks for are length of time people are stably housed,” she says. “That’s the bottom line–that people are not evicted.”
Matt V., for one, has no complaints about his new neighbors. “There’re some characters here,” he says, “but I don’t have any problems because everybody knows I’m sober and go to bed at nine o’clock.
“I think there’s a feeling of safety and security that we didn’t have before. The only reason people knock on my door is to offer me food. With so many programs here, anyone would be foolish to leave.”