Everywhere to go but home

BY JESSICA VOSGERCHIAN
Associate Magazine Editor
Published January 9, 2008

On arctic winter mornings, there's little more to do than pull your warmer clothes tight around your body and hit the sidewalks, doing what you can to bear the wind and wetness. During your day's trek, you might find respite from the elements by dipping into a local library. But instead of going home to a cozy dorm room or apartment after the sun sets and the libraries close, you search out a stretch of floor or pavement with something of a roof. Make due-it's cold and you're homeless.

Clif Reeder
Clif Reeder
Clif Reeder
Clif Reeder
Photos by Benji Dell/Daily

Homelessness is an ubiquitous presence on the fringes of the University experience. Freshmen don't make it past November without seeing a figure cloaked in a large, old coat that has lodged itself in a building entrance to combat the effects of the day's chill. On any given day, several reports are recorded in the Department of Public Safety's incident log regarding sleeping "unknown unaffiliates" being removed from University buildings after hours. And no students have escaped patting down their pockets near the Diag after being asked if they could "spare a little change, my good friend?"

But what most students don't realize is that what they see and hear concerning Washtenaw County's homeless population is the tip of the iceberg, and a largely unrepresentative tip at that.

Spare a little change for the. housed?

What may seem like the most visible example of homelessness near campus - panhandling on student-heavy thoroughfares - is more often done by people who have homes.

"Panhandlers aren't typically homeless," said Jared Collins, development director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. "They say they are but they're not. Because of the University, it's a very lucrative place to panhandle."

The Michigan Daily reported previously that campus's most renowned panhandler, a man named Ronnie who greets passersby as his "good friends," has a home and panhandles around campus between taking care of his ill mother to raise money for a fashionable faux fur coat. Shakey Jake Woods, a campus-renowned street musician who died in September, lived in subsidized housing.

A man named Sam, who refused to give his last name to avoid embarrassing his family, regularly panhandles outside Borders to contribute to the money needed to fund of his daughter's home in which he lives.

When asked, Sam said he was homeless, but when invited to an interview over sandwiches, he told the truth about his housing situation and said he'd rather continue collecting money.

"I just ate," he said. "I'm trying to make me a few dollars. I'm using that to subsidize because I ain't got no income."

Sam said the 30 dollars or so a day he makes goes toward feeding his granddaughter.

Many times, money given to downtown panhandlers keeps a person housed or a family fed, but the majority of the county's homeless population doesn't ask for donations to make a living. They are usually people who were recently housed and maintained jobs, and are trying to get out of the rut of homelessness, whether long or short, that unexpectedly befell them.

Counting A2's homeless

Around the University, the real signifier of homelessness is the frequency of calls reporting trespassers in closed University buildings late at night. DPS recorded 325 calls reporting trespassing last year.

DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown said the majority of these calls are about homeless people who try to escape the weather by sleeping in University buildings. But, she said, these trespassers are more likely to be found in parking structures rather than academic buildings and are often repeat offenders.

"If 20 people are encountered after midnight, I don't think it's 20 individuals," Brown said. "It's a smaller group of people encountered several times."

Besides the faces and incidents that students most often associate with homeless people, the general homeless population of Ann Arbor doesn't involve itself on campus.

"The homeless population is almost invisible," Collins said. "The ones that you see are the smallest percentage of that population."

About 10 percent of people living under the poverty level will experience homelessness at one point in a year, Collins said. In Washtenaw County, that translated to about 3,884 people. Out of that population, 1,200 receive help from the Shelter Association in the Robert J. Delonis Center on Huron Street, the only shelter in the county that provides regular shelter to chronically homeless adults. Other organizations that provide sheltering services are designed for families or women who have been victims of domestic abuse. The population it serves is 75 percent male, on average aged in their mid-forties and in half of cases having endured one or more incidences of addiction, mental illness or physical disability, according to the shelter's demographic statistics from 2006.

The Shelter Association's clientele is the most difficult population to house, Collins said. Whereas senior citizens and families with children garner support from more organizations and individual philanthropists, single homeless adults are often left out in the cold. There's a stigma surrounding middle-aged men experiencing homelessness that doesn't apply to mothers with children or the elderly. People ask: Why don't they get jobs? The follow-up question that slips the minds of many is: What jobs?

Fewer jobs, more homeless

To doomsayers, Michigan is an economically anemic state that could soon be crushed under the weight of a looming nationwide recession. To the excessively optimistic, budget cuts and lay-offs are still all too common, and tightened family budgets too snug. But while people of every economic standing in the state feel consequences - say, for example, cuts to higher education funding - one population teeters between making ends meet at home and trying to survive on the streets, and one financial bump can be the difference.

Only 437 of the 6,051 homeless people in Washtenaw County and its nine surrounding counties were labeled chronically homeless in a June 2006 state report, chronic homelessness being the term given to people who have experienced a much-extended or cyclical pattern of homelessness. The other fraction - which included 1,532 adults with children and 2,322 single adults - were people who had lived in homes most of their lives. Nearly all of the population lived below the poverty level, while many had been reduced to homelessness for the first time because of an unexpected fiscal quandary - health emergency, loss of employment or the inability to afford vital psychiatric drugs - leaving them short of housing funds.

Collins recounted the case of a man who had came to the shelter after he was fired from his job operating a forklift and could no longer afford his rent. Before then, the man had maintained a good employment record and had never been homeless. But he also had a heart condition and no health insurance and was unable to afford it on top of housing costs. Eventually, his condition worsened to the point where it affected his work - he lost his job, then he lost his home.

Keeping clean isn't enough

Of course, not everyone encountered by the Shelter Association and other relief organizations is free of the obstacles that impede people from getting back on their feet. In a 2005 study by University researchers, 287 of 469 Washtenaw County homeless people admitted to having been homeless before. 45 percent of those respondents cited substance abuse as a cause of their homelessness in the past.

But 37 percent also cited mental illness as a cause, which is partly owed to statewide health care problems both past and present. While having to choose between groceries and rent puts many families at risk for homelessness, making a similar choice over vital medication can be more strenuous - there are no food banks for psychiatric drugs. In the 1990s, the state saw growth in its homeless population after the state government moved to shut down psychiatric wards across the state, doing little more than letting the facilities' patients go their own ways.

"A large percentage of the homeless population wasn't homeless 10 years ago, they were in psychiatric hospitals," Collins said. "The places were horrible and inhumane, but they were better than putting people on the street."

Mental illness and substance abuse often manifests most severely after the fact of homelessness. In cases where they were present before, the two conditions wouldn't have led to homelessness in most other people's lives, Collins said.

"I do point out: Tom Cruise has all of those issues and he's not homeless," Collins said. "The fundamental issue is poverty."

But regardless of the causes of homelessness, once you fall from housing grace it's much harder to rejoin society than quitting the bottle or taking the right medication.

If the first step for a healthy, able-bodied person to escape homelessness is to get a job, how is that person to receive a phone call to set up an interview? But it's optimistic to think the hiring process would get that far for many minimum wage jobs. In a state where positions are being cut at every level of the economy, competition exists for any type of work, and the younger candidate with a clean slate wins out over the middle-aged man looking for another chance.

Even in the event that a homeless person finds a job, he or she would be hard pressed to find the landlord who leases affordable housing and won't bar the door because of spotty renting and credit histories. If those landlords are to be found, they're likely based in another city, where commuting to jobs in Ann Arbor, the economic hub of the county, can be difficult without a car and late shift hours are after bus schedule times.

Tiers of service in shelters

To combat these obstacles in Washtenaw County, going to a relief organization is the first step. In the Shelter Association's system, there are three tiers of services provided to people at different points of the program. The first level is the emergency shelter program, which provides anyone with access to lunch and dinner in the shelter's cafeteria as well as refuge on nights when the temperature drops below 20 degrees. On those nights, the shelter sends people to several local churches that provide emergency beds once their capacity is full. But no one, as long as he or she isn't drunk or noticeably high, is turned away, Collins said. On bad nights, people in this lower tier won't get a bed at the shelter, are lucky to get a chair and most often make due with a stretch of floor - beds and chairs are filled by people in the program's higher levels.

The two advanced levels, the winter program and the night shelter program, involve people who have made a commitment to the program to get clean and work with faculty to find housing and employment. The night shelter program, the highest level of the system, provides participants with beds and lockers, as well as case managers who work with other organizations to locate affordable housing and available jobs. Once set up with a job, the 150 night shelter residents have about 90 days to complete the program with enough savings to move into subsidized permanent housing where they will be expected to pay 30 percent of rent costs. The program doesn't permit loitering at the final stage -there is a waiting list of several people ready to move on from the winter program, Collins said.

The hierarchal structure of the shelter's relief program can be frustrating for the people it's meant to help, though. Earnest Norfleet, a 42-year-old man from Detroit, said he came to Ann Arbor to find a way to get his G.E.D. and get back on his feet, but now wants to return to Detroit after three years of little progress. While he just finished a rehabilitation program in Grand Rapids to get clean, he's yet to reach the higher levels of service and is running out of patience with the program.

"It doesn't seem like it's working right now, so I must move on," he said.

Norfleet said he thought the Shelter Association's approach takes too long, and that he resented the lack of indoor refuge during the day when he has nothing to do but walk the streets lined with stores that won't hire him - something, he said, he wouldn't have to do in Detroit.

"Their whole perspective is different," he said. "It's not ghetto. It's more commercial."

Norfleet has been homeless on and off since he was 23. He became homeless again six years ago, losing an apartment he had attained through a Detroit housing program after he had returned to old addictions and lost his job. But before any of that, he had dropped out of high school in the 10th grade because of growing responsibility to take care of his siblings and unresolved emotional trauma from having been physically and sexually abused by an older man.

"I was always mad about it," Norfleet said. "Then I started acting out."

Collins said many people who only patronize the basic services of the shelter have to gradually build trust in the organization before they can take steps toward the program's completion. People who've been rejected by the system all their lives are wary of stepping into another one.

A bold plan, a bleak future

Washtenaw County has different plans for people who have had difficulty climbing out of homelessness. In 2004, the county began an ambitious initiative called the Blueprint to End Homelessness that ambitiously plans to eradicate homelessness in the area by 2014.

The plan aims to strengthen communication between the county's homeless assistance organizations which has led to the specialization of responsibility for all centers. This specialization includes the evolution of more concrete roles such as fundraiser, housing development and health care organizations. The plan is also creating a database of shared records that help track a homeless person's interaction with different programs in the network.

The shift to viewing the county's separate organizations as a network for an unified movement coincides with a changing approach to homelessness management, said Chuck Keefer, director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, a coalition of 26 county agencies that collaborated on the Blueprint plan.

Keefer said leaders of the agencies have stopped looking into expanding shelter programs in order to provide more beds, and have started focusing wholly on preventing and correcting homelessness by creating subsidized housing projects and outreach initiatives to assist low-income people before they lose their homes.

"The emphasis of the housing infrastructure has really shifted from management of the crisis of homelessness to solving the problem of homelessness," he said. "With every shelter we build we haven't done anything at all to end homelessness."

The agencies have made progress with their plan, creating about 200 apartments this year, and the blueprint has spread to other counties. In 2006, a state initiative mandated that every area adopt a similar program, and now most counties have 10-year programs of their own.

Keefer said the shift is an economically smart departure from how most cities have handled homelessness in the past, citing statistics reporting that keeping people in subsidized housing is a third as expensive per day as keeping them in jail and half as expensive as keeping them in temporary shelters.

In some sense, creating affordable housing in times of economic struggle is undoing what happened during times of fiscal liveliness. The gentrification of many cities' downtowns removed older, low-rent apartments to make way for chain restaurants and specialty shops. Involuntary homelessness was not as widespread a few decades ago as it is today, Keefer said.

"Historically it hasn't always been this social problem we call homelessness," he said.

But despite an apparent an increase in homeless relief across the state, consequences of economic pitfalls of the last few years will likely make the 10-year deadline impossible to meet, and could even test the shelter system's ultimate capacity.

Organizations that provide food have recently seen a large spike in their number of clients, said Eileen Spring, executive director of Food Gatherers, a Washtenaw County agency that collects edible food from groceries after sell-by dates to distribute to needy people. She said Food Gatherers ran out of food for the first time this summer.

"Food banks throughout Michigan have experienced significant increase in demand - the last two years, especially," Spring said. "We are designed as a supplementary program, not to provide bread and butter type of services - and we're definitely providing bread and butter type of services."

Collins said the boost might consist of people who were laid off a long time ago and are coming to the end of their unemployment pay and savings. Administrators of local relief organizations said that an increase in demand for food forewarns that the economic straits of many may soon lead to homelessness.

Of course, lines at soup kitchens that stretch around the block remain unlikely. The influx of people into the homeless population that some experts anticipate wouldn't be so large that the average person would notice. But, as the state's history with homelessness has shown, that's part of the problem. When homelessness remains a vague, misunderstood taboo, people slip through the cracks who would never seem to fit the popular profile of a homeless person. And while the last decade has given way to a significant change in homelessness relief, homelessness prevention agencies in Washtenaw County and statewide will have to fight to maintain the movement's momentum when state and local funding wars begin to ignore a barely visible class.