With people sleeping in parks, is Ann Arbor doing enough to house the homeless?

ANN ARBOR, MI — City Council Member Lisa Disch said she’s been hearing concerns about people camping out overnight and sleeping in Ann Arbor parks.

That led her to ask at a special work session on housing and homelessness Monday night, Oct. 23: Does the city have enough accommodations to house them?

Some residents believe if there are enough accommodations, the people camping out should be removed from public spaces at night, whether or not they want to go, Disch said.

While people regularly sleep in places like Wheeler Park and West Park, the city occasionally posts notices warning it’s illegal and punishable by $500 fines and gives them 48 hours to remove tents and belongings. But night after night, people still can be found sleeping outside.

Ann Arbor homelessness

A camping tent at Ann Arbor’s West Park with a city code violation notice posted on it on Oct. 9, 2023. “Ann Arbor Police have been notified of this illegal activity,” it states, noting camping in city parks is punishable by a $500 fine. “You will have 48 hours before your belongings are removed.” (Ryan Stanton | MLive.com)Ryan Stanton | The Ann Arbor News

Dan Kelly, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which operates the Delonis Center homeless shelter downtown, said there is a commitment to provide enough emergency shelter in the winter, but not other times. The city and county both help fund the programs.

“We’ll convert our cafeteria, we’ll do anything, we’ll add on sites all over the entire county,” Kelly said of the shelter response from the second week of November through March.

But from April to early November, they’re woefully short on beds, he said, adding he would love another 58 shelter beds, or even better, more affordable housing in the community.

Ann Arbor homelessness

A camping tent at Ann Arbor’s West Park with a city code violation notice posted on it on Oct. 9, 2023. “Ann Arbor Police have been notified of this illegal activity,” it states, noting camping in city parks is punishable by a $500 fine. “You will have 48 hours before your belongings are removed.” (Ryan Stanton | MLive.com)Ryan Stanton | The Ann Arbor News

The current lack of resources forces the shelter to maintain a “triage list,” which in typical years may have 40 to 60 people waiting for beds in the non-winter months, Kelly said, adding that has ballooned to over 100 and he predicts a record number of people needing shelter this winter.

“At this moment, we have over 100 people who are individuals that are actively experiencing homelessness who want a bed, they’re checking in every week for a bed, and we’re having to prioritize them,” he said. “And it’s a really sad process that we have to do this at all. We don’t have enough beds.”

Washtenaw County homelessness

Washtenaw County data showing the overall rise in homelessness in the county from 2022 to 2023.Washtenaw County

As for the people sleeping outside, Kelly said that number is relatively low at least in the winter, with about 20 people counted during last January’s point-in-time count. A street outreach team does a good job connecting with them, but no one is required to move inside, he said.

“If somebody doesn’t want to come in, they’re just not going to come in,” he said.

‘A drop in a flood’

Considering the rise in homelessness a crisis, the county has been funding emergency hotel stays this year. There were over 100 families and individuals staying in hotels through the program in March and now it’s down to 21, said county spokesperson Crystal Campbell, noting some have transitioned to housing or shelter placement.

Among those still in the program is Emily Walker, a single mother who has been staying at an Ann Arbor hotel most of this year with her 3-year-old son Sebastian.

Emily Walker

Emily Walker poses at the hotel where she and her three-year-old son Sebastian have been living since March 2023. Jacob Hamilton | MLive.com Jacob Hamilton | MLive.com

A Wyandotte native, Walker said she has lived in and worked various jobs in the Ann Arbor area over the years and is struggling to rebuild her life after being evicted from her trailer in Ypsilanti Township, escaping an abusive relationship and losing many of her belongings along the way.

She’s been meeting with a rapid rehousing specialist with hopes of getting into an Avalon Housing apartment, but she’s still anxiously waiting for that to pan out. In the meantime, she has been approved for child care assistance, but there aren’t any open child care spots anywhere, she said, so she spends all of her time tending to her special-needs son.

“So, I can’t just get a job at Panera or somewhere and get out of this situation,” she said. “I need community. I want to help other people as well, but I can’t just do all of this by myself without any help. I just feel like I’m drowning.”

Getting creative and drawing upon her food catering background, Walker started baking blue cornbread muffins in the shape of little stadiums resembling Michigan Stadium to sell to University of Michigan football tailgaters. She calls them Stadi-Yums.

Music may be her next side hustle, as she’s considering busking in downtown Ann Arbor.

She’s also hoping to be one of the lucky 100 low-income entrepreneurs chosen to participate in Ann Arbor’s new guaranteed income program. She has big dreams of doing more in the food sector and helping others.

A woman she met in April through a local resource-sharing group on Facebook also has started a GoFundMe for her.

Washtenaw County homelessness

Washtenaw County data showing the rise in homeless families with children in the county from 2022 to 2023.Washtenaw County

Walker said she’s just trying to get out of crisis mode and she knows she and her son are “a drop in a flood,” as sadly there’s a larger housing crisis.

“I don’t feel like a victim,” she said. “I just feel like a survivor who’s been going through a lot.”

Thousands waiting for help

In addition to a lack of shelter resources, officials acknowledge there’s still a big needs gap when it comes to affordable housing. And there are several thousand people on waitlists for federal rent subsidy vouchers administered by the Ann Arbor Housing Commission.

Ann Arbor homelessness

A homeless man panhandles on the streets of downtown Ann Arbor on Oct. 24, 2023. (Ryan Stanton | MLive.com)Ryan Stanton | The Ann Arbor News

While people from all across the country can apply for them, the commission gives preference to residents in its voucher territory, which includes Washtenaw and Monroe counties, and further prioritizes people with disabilities and homeless people, Executive Director Jennifer Hall said.

The percentage of people on the waitlists who live in Ann Arbor is small because so few low-income people can afford rent in the city, Hall said, so they tend to live in places like Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, even after getting vouchers and even if they work in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor housing vouchers

A map showing where housing vouchers administered by the Ann Arbor Housing Commission are being used in Washtenaw County. While some are specific to the commission’s apartments in Ann Arbor, the ones helping people subsidize their rents in the private market and giving them the choice where to use them are mostly being used in the Ypsilanti area where rents are more affordable.City of Ann Arbor

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, said housing affordability is a serious concern and the federal voucher program is a vital tool, but current funding levels serve only about one in four eligible families, fueling waitlists and uncertainty.

“While housing shouldn’t be a partisan issue, we’ve seen attempts to cut and defund federal funding for these critical programs,” she said, voicing support for legislation like the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act and the Ending Homelessness Act to strengthen tax credits to drive investment in new affordable housing and expand vouchers.

Ann Arbor homelessness

Someone’s personal belongings at a camp site at Ann Arbor’s West Park on Oct. 9, 2023. “Please remove your personal items within 48 hours or they will be disposed of,” states the posted city notice. “Camping is not allowed in Ann Arbor city parks.” (Ryan Stanton | MLive.com)Ryan Stanton | The Ann Arbor News

“I also continue to support funding increases to federal housing assistance programs in annual appropriations to stop waitlists from growing,” Dingell said. “It is vital that we defend these investments to protect our most vulnerable families.”

At Monday’s work session, Council Member Cynthia Harrison, D-1st Ward, asked Hall about the possibility of Ann Arbor securing “master leases” for apartments to make them available to people in need as a stopgap measure like the county has talked about doing.

Some nonprofits do it, but it’s a challenging model, Hall said, adding she wouldn’t recommend the city try it.

Ann Arbor Housing Commission

A summary of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission’s efforts to provide housing assistance to people locally, including counts of its affordable apartments and the federal rent subsidy vouchers it administers.City of Ann Arbor

The Housing Commission has been designated as a “Moving to Work” organization, which means it now has greater flexibility in using federal dollars, for example, to help people pay security deposits and application fees for apartments.

“That’s been super helpful,” Hall said.

Amanda Carlisle, Washtenaw Housing Alliance executive director, said there’s been a commitment over the past decade to put more of the community’s federal assistance for homelessness toward permanent housing. The annual counts of people experiencing homelessness in the winter gradually dropped from 2014 to 2022, but officials are concerned about a dramatic rise in 2023, which has been attributed to COVID-19 assistance programs ending, steep rent hikes and a breakdown in the county’s central housing hotline last year.

Homeless point-in-time counts

A summary of Washtenaw County’s homeless point-in-time counts done each January, showing counts trended down from 2014 to 2022.Washtenaw County

The length of time for homeless families to get placed into housing has gone up significantly, taking about 160 days on average, while the goal is less than 90 days, Carlisle said.

In terms of temporary housing assistance, only for military veterans are there more resources and beds than there are needs, Carlisle said, highlighting deficits for other groups, including youths, domestic violence survivors and seniors.

Washtenaw County affordable housing

A chart showing the amount of affordable housing in Washtenaw County over the years in relation to other housing.Washtenaw County

While Ann Arbor voters approved a new tax to fund more affordable housing in 2020, the city has yet to see any big wave of new units, with projects mostly still in the planning stages.

“Some people are expressing concern that we council members have not told them the truth about the affordable housing program because they’re not seeing units,” Disch said, asking Hall if there’s a way to accelerate getting more built.

“If we can figure out how to do local bond financing, that will help,” Hall said, though she cautioned it can take up to six-plus years to make an affordable housing project happen, including multiple years just to secure all the funding, which often includes seeking competitive tax credits through the state.

“And then it’s two years to build roughly, if it’s new construction, so that’s what takes so long,” she said.

Ann Arbor OKs $6.2M deal to set stage for downtown affordable housing

Ann Arbor officials suggest surrounding communities could be doing more to help address housing insecurity in the county by putting more funds toward affordable housing and shelter. In the meantime, in addition to continuing to fund such programs, the city has put hundreds of thousands of additional dollars toward eviction prevention this year in hopes of keeping more renters from slipping into homelessness as the cost of living rises.

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