The University of Michigan’s School of Social Work hosted a talk on the current state of homelessness in Washtenaw County and the efforts social workers and organizations undertake to combat it Thursday evening.

The event, organized by the Community Action and Social Change Student Board and presented to an audience of about 20 students, included speaker Ashley Blake, a community building lead with Avalon Housing, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization that both manages and develops affordable housing units in the county.

According to Blake, there are currently 342 known homeless individuals in Washtenaw County, 301 of whom are unsheltered. Blake said 138 of those individuals reported having a serious mental illness and 70 reported problems with substance abuse, both of which are issues heavily associated with causing homelessness.

“People with mental illness are disproportionately affected by homelessness, so it is estimated that 26 percent of homeless adults staying in a shelter live with a serious mental illness,” Blake said. “Part of why this number is so high is because folks with mental illness, especially severe persistent mental illness, even if they are able to get into housing, they usually require or would like some additional support, and there’s not a whole lot of permanent support in housing out there.”

Avalon Housing currently owns and operates 21 properties in Ann Arbor that serve both single adults as well as families. According to Blake, housing units on these properties currently house more than 400 individuals. She emphasized that the nonprofit operates more as a support service rather than a landlord.

“There are a lot of public housing agencies nationally that are either starting to move themselves in offering permanent supportive housing or are partnering with groups like Avalon who are already doing it,” she said. “What all the research and studies show is that permanent supportive housing is what’s most effective in terms of keeping people safely housed.”

Blake also highlighted efforts individuals can make to become more informed about homelessness, attending City Council meetings to hear council and community members present their positions on the issue. She noted public hearings in the past have highlight mixed attitudes of citizens about proposals and developments related to affordable housing.

“What we see is sort of a mix of folks coming out,” she said. “We will see some folks who show up and say, ‘I’m so in support of there being affordable housing in Ann Arbor.’ Then we get folks coming out saying, ‘Not in my backyard. I don’t want folks who need affordable housing living by me; I don’t want folks with mental illness living near me.’ ”

In an interview with the Daily after the event, Blake elaborated, saying residents who oppose affordable housing project developments in their neighborhoods often support the idea in general.

She noted that, historically, City Council has been highly supportive of Avalon’s and similar organizations’ work.

LSA junior Carly Noah, a member of the CASC Student Board who organized the talk, said coming from a small, rural town, her first experiences with homelessness during her freshman year exposed her to issues of wealth disparities that are more prevalent in urban environments.

“It was during the winter, and I saw people wearing Canada Goose coats, and I thought there are so many people who are homeless, so I was really bothered by the discrepancy between the two,” she said.

In her remarks, Blake also highlighted the gaps in wealth that exist in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, noting that while the county is relatively wealthy, there are a number of individuals who are of lower socioeconomic status.

“We have a lot of privilege in this county, we have a lot of privilege associated with the ‘U,’ and I don’t think a lot of people realize just how much inequality there is in Ann Arbor currently,” she said.

LSA freshman Paul Chamberlain said after the event that at the start, he didn’t understand the full scope of the issue and the work of advocacy organizations like Avalon.

“I felt like I wasn’t really aware of the extent of the problem, and I was encouraged by what people are doing to meet the problem,” he said.


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