Construction begins on new homeless shelter

BY MEGAN HAYES
Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 19, 2002

Construction began last Monday on Ann Arbor's biggest homeless shelter, which will cost an estimated $6.7 million. The shelter, set to open in November 2003 at 320 W. Huron, will replace the three existing shelters in the area and is part of the county's new approach in helping the homeless.

Shelter Association of Washtenaw County Executive Director Ellen Schulmeister said the county serves about 1,200 to 1,500 single adults every year. The new shelter, termed by Schulmeister as a "downtown center," will concentrate on getting those people into easily maintainable housing.

"Our focus is helping people establish or increase income, save money and find housing," Schulmeister said. She said the shelter will accomplish this by providing intensive case management and job training, though clients are only allowed to stay for a maximum 90-day period.

"They have 90 days to make tremendous leaps in their life," Schulmeister said.

Washtenaw County Community Development Director Mark Roby said the idea behind the shelter is not just to supply people with a place to sleep but also to offer supportive services. In addition to beds, the shelter includes a community kitchen, a training center and clinic space where clients can get psychiatric and medical help.

"It's not just a place to stay," Roby said, adding that the goal is to "provide services to increase the likelihood that they won't be homeless again."

Lorri Sipes, a project architect in SmithGroup Architectural Firm, has been working on the issue of homelessness for over six years. She said the project has been a community focus and consequently has been under the public eye as the county continues to take steps to complete the project.

"This has been the most challenging project of my 25-year career, and also the most rewarding," she said. She said she believes the project has been difficult because people are very concerned and outspoken about the issue of homelessness.

"This has been scrutinzed by the entire community," Sipes said, adding that there has been a huge amount of community support in the form of fundraising and private donations.

Sipes said that because the new building will take a different approach to helping the area's homeless population, she believes it will have a greater impact than current shelters.

"The long term solution to homelessness is housing," Schulmeister said. "You don't end homelessness with a shelter."

Schulmeister said that although community support has been strong, there is still opposition to the shelter. There is "fear about who we serve and what their introduction to the community will bring," Schulmeister said.

Schulmeister said she realizes that getting people out of homelessness is a long term goal. "It's going to be a long process. How long its going to take we don't know," she said.