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As area homelessness spikes, officials say resources lacking

BY JEFF WARANIAK
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 24, 2010

As the number of people experiencing homelessness in Washtenaw County grows, shelter officials and homelessness activists are saying the resources in place aren’t enough to adequately address the issue.

The number of homeless individuals registered in the county grew from 3,940 in 2006 to 4,618 in 2009, according to the Washtenaw County Office of Community Development.

Though the reasons for this increase are specific to each individual, the escalation may be attributed to an increase in the number of homeless people who are coming to Ann Arbor from areas outside of Washtenaw County.

Social service providers like Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, are aware of the incentives that attract people to the city. Schulmeister said that for panhandlers, the University’s campus can be a profitable place.

“The generosity of students certainly is a factor for panhandlers coming to Ann Arbor,” Schulmeister said.

Another factor that brings people to the city is the sense of security that Ann Arbor offers.

Brian Nord, a founding member of the tent city for homeless individuals known as Camp Take Notice, said that some people feel more comfortable in Ann Arbor in comparison to other cities.

“It may be a little safer here than it is in Detroit, for example,” Nord said. “Some people at camp have said that they’re happy to be here because they don’t have to worry about someone stealing a few dollars from them.”

Nord is the president of the non-profit organization MISSION that helped establish Camp Take Notice in 2009. The camp, which is located in the woods at the intersection of I-94 and Ann Arbor-Saline Road, is a self-governing community of people who, for various reasons, are without traditional housing.

But as the number of people without traditional housing increases, shelters are becoming overcrowded, Nord said.

To people like Nord, it seems unwise for those who seek shelter to leave their family and their community in order to come to Ann Arbor in this climate.

“It’s a long trek just to get here, and I think people know that service centers are over capacity,” Nord said.

The Delonis Center, which is the primary shelter center in downtown Ann Arbor, offers 75 beds as part of their permanent residential program. The program is designed to help people obtain income and find housing within the local community.

According to Schulmeister, the program is capable of serving 400 people a year in its permanent residential program. However, through other shelter services, the Delonis Center serves 1,200 to 1,500 people a year.

But for Schulmeister, that’s not enough to accommodate all of those in need.

“We just plain don’t have enough resources,” Schulmeister explained. “We can’t move people through shelter fast enough in order to have empty beds.”

And for the past several years, the Delonis Center has had to accommodate more people than ever. The reasons for the increase, however, haven’t been officially determined.

“We can substantiate the fact that there have been more people becoming homeless since the economic downturn,” Schulmeister said. “But the idea that there’s a huge influx of people coming here who aren’t from our community hasn’t been proven.”

But whether or not Ann Arbor’s homeless population can be attributed to an influx of non-county residents, many students say they've noticed an increase of panhandlers in their neighborhoods.

Engineering senior Justin Kahl said he encountered a panhandler one night at his fraternity house.

The man approached the house asking for money and cans, Kahl explained. And though he turned the man away, Kahl said the man returned another night and entered the house.

“He climbed in through a window in the front room, and started collecting cans from the tables,” Kahl said. “It was pretty unreasonable.”

Kahl said he asked him to leave and the man did not return.

LSA sophomore Kelly Muir said she has encountered panhandlers near her house on West Jefferson Street.

Muir said she’s seen people rummaging through the dumpster behind her house. And while she said she’s had conversations with the people before, she’s never been bothered or hassled by them.

“I always find them to be polite and friendly,” Muir said. “They’ve never inconvenienced me in any way.”

Muir also said the people she’d seen on her street never came up to her house — she only interacted with them in passing.

Unlike Muir, LSA sophomore Quintin Meek said he had a panhandler climb the steps to his porch on North Division Street and ask for money and cans.

“He was friendly, but it was just odd,” Meek said. “Usually you just walk by them. You don’t have them coming up onto your porch.”

Meek said that the man wasn’t forceful, and he didn’t overstay his welcome.

“We didn’t have any money to give at the time, but we were more than happy to give him some company,” Meek said. “We were welcoming to him, and he knew when it was time to move on.”

The city has recently been working to solve the panhandling problem, creating a panhandling task force last September. The organization’s goal is to identify more cost-effective ways to enforce city ordinances against panhandling.

But according to Nord, there’s still more to be done to address the issues surrounding panhandling.

Nord said he believes educating the public about panhandling and helping students understand the problem when they arrive on campus are two of the most important elements for any program trying to resolve panhandling issues. Nord added that he encourages people to lend more than their money to addressing the issue.

“Instead of giving someone fifty cents a day,” he says. “Lend a few hours of your time. Then you can really see who the people are who are in need.”