The Shelter Association of Washtenaw County hosted more than 200 donors at Barton Hills Country Club for the ninth annual “Almost Home” fundraiser on Monday. SAWC is celebrating 35 years of advocacy and aid.
SAWC Executive Director Dan Kelly said this year’s benefit reached a record number of attendees and sponsors. According to Kelly, preliminary numbers show SAWC raised close to $195,000 at the event.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., was the event’s keynote speaker. Dingell said she knew or recognized many of the attendees and spoke about how the fight against homelessness has always been a component of her platform. She has been a routine attendee at SAWC’s benefit.
“I remember when I came to this first dinner … I was so impressed by the people that were here working to help people experiencing homelessness,” Dingell said.
Dingell said there are more than 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in Washtenaw County and many do not recognize these people in everyday interaction. Dingell said children, veterans and the elderly were just a few of the affected groups who have taken her by surprise.
“We’re talking about working men and women that are doing their best to just get by, and they are one little crisis away from losing their home,” Dingell said.
Elizabeth Graziano, president of the SAWC board of directors, emphasized Dingell’s point by offering an anecdote of her brother who recently passed away. Graziano said her brother was struggling with homelessness when he suffered an injury and became paralyzed in his neck. Graziano said following his care, the hospital discharged him to a shelter that was not prepared to meet his needs. Though Graziano’s brother survived that incident, his health concerns coupled with his homelessness ultimately contributed to his passing.
Graziano explained how shelters could be equipped to meet the needs of people recently discharged from the hospital but who are still in need of care and recovery — a program known as recuperative care.
“We’ve seen a big rise in the last four years in percentage of folks who are disabled … It’s an incredible change,” Kelly said. “People are coming in with a higher acuity — some real severe medical needs. They’re being discharged from the hospital more and more often.”
SAWC Director of Development Sarah Papsal announced the association hopes to launch new recuperative care programs in cooperation with Michigan Medicine and St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor by this summer. Papsal said SAWC was already halfway to reaching their fundraising goal.
“We’re doing some fundraising efforts tonight to promote (the recuperative care initiative) so that hospital discharge staff are not faced with that moral dilemma of, ‘I have no address for this patient that still needs a place to rest, still needs a place to heal. Where am I going to send them?’” Papsal said.
Papsal also acknowledged how homelessness cannot be completely resolved by just fundraising.
“It’s very difficult to take someone who has not had housing in a long time, dump them into housing immediately, and expect them to stay in it,” Papsal said. “You have to give them the life skills to sustain it … I don’t think homelessness is ever something that is going to go away. That’s why I love our mission statement: ‘Ending homelessness one person at a time.’”
Dingell and Kelly both said they hope to see more affordable housing options in Ann Arbor and around Washtenaw County. This comes after the Ann Arbor Affordable Housing Commission waitlist received over 4,000 applications for only 600 vouchers, and Ward 5 precinct delegates of Washtenaw County hosted a town hall to discuss affordable housing and zoning in the city.
“We want to continue to support developing affordable housing long-term, because if we continue to lose units, we’ll find ourselves in a situation where people we serve won’t have as many places to go, not just in Ann Arbor, but across the county,” Kelly said.
Dingell said all people should be provided the dignity of shelter. She received enthusiastic applause upon her proclamation that “we’re not giving people a handout; we’re giving people a hand up.”
“Home is more than just a place to sleep,” Dingell said. “It’s stability. It’s a place where you know you’re safe and you’re secure.”