The line outside St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church starts forming before 7 a.m. Sometimes as many as sixty men, women, and teens wait for the doors to open to free hot oatmeal, grits, and coffee. At night, more are seeking shelter at the Delonis Center or local churches. Some who can’t find a place, or can’t abide the place’s rules, sleep out in parks and vacant lots. Others cram their kids and their possessions into a car or SUV and sleep on side streets or in friendly gas station lots for weeks at a time.
A census last January found 640 homeless people living in Ann Arbor. The number has grown by at least 30 percent since then, says Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. And the county office of community development estimates that thousands more are at imminent risk of losing their housing, more than half of them families with children. With the jobless rate in Ann Arbor approaching 10 percent, predicts Schulmeister, “we will see more people fall into homelessness.”
The region currently has about 140 beds in shelters. To get ready for the winter, several groups are working on short-term solutions, from more temporary shelter beds in churches to developing an official tent city. The Shelter Association is collaborating with the city, the county, other nonprofits, and some churches to help people such as Mark Vincent Nadon, who’s been sleeping outside or in his truck for almost two years.
Nadon, a regular at the daily St. Andrew’s breakfast, tries in turn to help those who are newly homeless with advice and information. “They look just like everybody else,” he says. “But they’re in crisis, and they don’t understand the options just yet.” The tall blond man adds: “It’s shameful–what’s going on,” referring to the September eviction of the tent city dubbed Camp Take Notice from a site behind Arborland.
Smaller homeless encampments–often only one to three people–have taken root in many places around Ann Arbor. There’s a futon mattress on the portico of St. Andrew’s on Division, and a handful of people sleep on the grounds of First United Methodist Church at State and Huron. Homeless men and women sometimes sleep on picnic table benches or under the trees at West Park; others stay near I-94 off State Street, along the Huron River, and on various wooded lots around town.
As cold weather approaches, the need for shelter increases. About sixteen churches already take in a total of twenty-five people a night during the winter on a rotating basis. Activists are asking them to take more and are also seeking extra volunteers.
“I would imagine most congregations already involved would be willing to step up and do more,” says Rev. Paul Duke of First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor. His church built a small pavilion for people to sleep in and has been reassessing what more can be done. Duke calls the growing number of homeless people in Ann Arbor “the biggest moral issue the city faces.”
“These are extraordinary times,” says Mayor John Hieftje, who’s been involved in the planning. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since the Great Depression.” The city and county are seeking funding to add twenty-five beds in a second rotating shelter and twenty-five more overflow spaces at Delonis, plus temporary housing vouchers for ten families. Hieftje says the goal is to have it all in place by Thanksgiving.
At Camp Take Notice, a group of local activists and homeless people is trying to develop an officially sanctioned tent city. They say the ten or so residents govern themselves, share resources and support, and stay clean and sober–a major issue, since January’s census found that about half of the homeless have problems with substance abuse.
“The underlying goal is to help one person at a time re-enfranchise through contributing positively to a community,” says Brian Nord, a U-M grad student who’s on the board of directors of MISSION (Michigan Itinerant Shelter System: Interdependent Out of Necessity), a nascent nonprofit working with Camp Take Notice. “No one has stepped up yet” to provide a legal site, Nord says, so they are regrouping in an undisclosed location and preparing for winter.
On an October Sunday, camp residents and volunteers hang a huge blue tarp between two pine trees to create a sheltered work and meeting space. Some cook meals on a camp stove and small charcoal grills. “We all take care of each other,” says resident Ashanti Gonder. Gonder, who has lymphoma, moved to the camp two months ago after splitting up with her fiance.
Danielle Mack, the camp’s director, has a zero-degree-rated sleeping bag, an afghan, a purple shag carpet, and an air mattress in her tent. Mack also has rigged a rack to hang clothes–so she’s ready for job interviews or classes. She hopes the camp will “fill in the gaps” for those whose lives don’t fit the regimented approach at Delonis or other official shelters.
Nord says creating an official tent city is only an intermediate step–“we don’t intend the camp as a permanent location for anyone.” He’s hopeful the shelters will come up with more beds for the winter, and he will urge residents to use them. But, he adds, “It may not take care of everyone. We’re here for those people” and for those unable or unwilling to live in a shelter.
The tent city, like most shelters, is geared toward single adults. Yet families remain the majority of those in need. At Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County, about 600 families or individuals a month are coming in to pick up bags of groceries from its emergency food program–triple the number served monthly in 2007, says CSS president Larry Voight.
“Every kind of family configuration, including people who are working,” is seeking help, Voight says. Some of the same people turn to the group’s behavioral health and mental health units for counseling after being evicted. “That can be quite traumatic,” he says. “The whole transition is incredibly painful and difficult.” Voight sometimes notices people in cars outside the CSS office on Packard and wonders if they’re sleeping there overnight.
Mark Nadon, who works odd jobs and volunteers at the Kiwanis sale on Saturday morning, says he worries most about homeless families. He says he’s part of an informal program that matches families living in cars with willing gas station owners. The families buy gas, juice, and milk from the station, he says. They use the bathroom–and often clean it as part of the bargain. And they get a place to stay where they won’t be run off or in danger.
Compared to living in a car, the Shelter Association’s Delonis Center is a palace: it has fifty beds for men and women, a medical clinic, and programs to help residents find jobs and housing. But in October Delonis had a waiting list of about fifteen people. As an emergency measure, it opened its fifty-chair “warming shelter” earlier than usual this fall–when temperatures hit thirty-five degrees, instead of the twenty-degree mark used in years past. “It’s too extreme to wait,” says Schulmeister.
In mid-October, Chris McMahen had been staying in the warming shelter for a few weeks after “sleeping on the streets over in Royal Oak” for a while. The Delonis chair shelter had nearly three dozen people in it at the time, but McMahen thought the cushioned chairs and sofa-like sleeping surfaces were quite comfortable.
A rail-thin man with several teeth missing, McMahen says he used to live with his ex-wife and two daughters in Dearborn Heights, but about a year ago that didn’t work any longer. Since then, he’s spent time with friends in the Phoenix area, where he expects to return before long. “I’m homeless there too,” he says.
Some homeless people admit they’re drawn to the Ann Arbor area by the variety of services and free meals provided by the shelters and churches–McMahen says they’re superior to those offered in Oakland County. According to Schulmeister, however, at least three quarters of the homeless helped by the Shelter Association used to live at Washtenaw County addresses or have family members here.
Ann Arbor’s reputation for a stronger economy also draws people seeking work, says Schulmeister. Lately, though, layoffs are plunging even longtime locals into homelessness and anxiety.
Natalie Mobley, a nurse practitioner, volunteers at the daily breakfast at St. Andrew’s, checking blood pressure and offering basic medical assistance and advice to guests. “The job situation is so bad…people are more stressed” than they were a year ago, she says. Some cannot afford blood pressure or other medication; others don’t know where to turn after their jobs at General Motors or Ford were eliminated.
“You lose income. You lose your livelihood. You lose stability,” says one man who asked to be called Jeff. He lost his job about six months ago and has been living at Delonis for almost four months. Jeff grew up in Ann Arbor and has a son in college in California. He’s found a job as a cook at a restaurant near the U-M and is working close to fifty hours a week, saving up money so he can get his own apartment again soon.
“I stay focused and move forward,” he says. He calls being homeless a “humbling experience” but adds: “Just because I’m down, doesn’t mean I’m out.”
Unemployment can drive people into homelessness–and make it harder for them to get out. Alpha House executive director Julie Steiner says that two years ago parents staying at the family shelter on Jackson Road typically found a job and an apartment in fifty days. Now most of them stay the full ninety days allowed.
“People can’t find jobs. So we’re getting a logjam,” Steiner says. “Now all those who lost their jobs are willing to take jobs that we try to get the homeless into.” About thirty families a month are calling Alpha House for help, and typically eight of them have nowhere else to go. Yet the shelter has room for just six families, and only a couple of spaces open up each month. Steiner says the waiting list has seen “a significant increase” in the last year or so.
Steiner is among those working to find more housing for homeless families this winter. “We’re trying not to leave any rock unturned” to locate places where more families can sleep, shower, eat, and stay warm–ideally, closer to downtown than Alpha House and on a bus line.
The hard part is finding the money at a time when government funding is shrinking. Alpha House counts on government sources for two thirds of its $600,000 annual budget. About half of the Shelter Association’s $2 million annual budget comes from various units of government.
The Shelter Association served 1,506 people in the year ending in August. That was 46 percent more than the previous year–though Schulmeister feels some of the increase is due to better data gathering. Yet its revenues are down by about 10 percent from 2005, according to its annual filing with the IRS.
No turnaround is in sight. County funding will be cut 20 percent next year, and the state’s contributions are likely to decline too, Schulmeister says. Corporate donations also are down. Generous individuals have stepped up and given more–“they helped us fill that [revenue] gap,” Schulmeister says. Still, the organization had to dip into its cash reserves this year.
Alpha House’s parent, the Interfaith Hospitality Network, also is relying more on individual contributors. “Our donors are so loyal and so willing to help,” says Steiner, that when she needs extra pillows and blankets, she puts out a plea, and someone walks in with arms full of them within days. Last year’s year-end fund-raisers brought in as much as in flusher times, Steiner says, thanks to “slightly smaller gifts from more people.”
And there is one new source of money in the equation: the federal economic stimulus. The county recently landed about $500,000 from the federal Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. Unlike efforts aimed at helping people who already are homeless, HPRRP tries to keep renters from being evicted. The program is designed to help people who just need a “short-term influx of money to be okay,” not the chronically homeless, Schulmeister explains. Individuals or families can receive up to three months in back rent–not mortgage payments–and up to $1,500 for utility bills.
“It will help us help people on hard times,” she says, “and divert people from the shelters.”