By Jack Turman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 6, 2014
With a relatively light agenda, Thursday’s lame-duck City Council session featured discussion on affordable housing and the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development’s report on providing shelter for those in need during this winter.
Following last winter’s extreme weather, the office formed a response workgroup to better respond to the challenges faced by the homeless during extreme winter weather. This workgroup, which began meeting over the summer, listened to the city’s concerns and formulated ways to improve services and shelter offerings.
Mary Jo Callan, director of the Office of Community and Economic Development, and Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, went before the Council to propose four recommendations to improve shelter services, carrying an estimated cost of $178,000.
Callan said this set of recommendations includes expanding overnight warming centers to three churches on a rotating basis, expanding a daytime warming center at the Delonis Center, expanding services at the Ann Arbor District Library and increasing funding for hotel and motel stays through Community Support and Treatment Services.
While presenting the report, Callan emphasized the importance of overnight and daytime warming centers. She also said Bethlehem United Church of Christ and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church are two of the three churches that have agreed to host overnight warming centers.
Last year, she said the Delonis Center constantly struggled with overcrowding.
“There were nights when they had 89 people in a space designed for 50,” Callan said. “That’s too many.”
After attending a meeting with Councilmembers Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) and Mayor-elect Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3), Mayor John Hieftje (D) said he learned 40 percent of the people cared for at the shelter were not from Washtenaw County.
He said that while no one was turned away from the shelter, the resulting overcrowding took a toll on the staff.
“The staff at the shelter was strained to the very breaking point and they managed to pull that off,” Hieftje said.
With discussion of homelessness, Callan stressed that these recommendations aren’t a permanent solution to homelessness and affordable housing.
“This is not a recommendation for how to solve homelessness this winter,” she said. “It is a set of recommendations that really looks at some immediate safety solutions.”
In regard to affordable housing, Hieftje clarified that the city cannot mandate affordable housing. Instead, he said it is a complex process that requires collaboration with nonprofits and the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, among other stakeholders.
“We have to work with the availability of tax-credit financing,” Hieftje said. “We have to work with people who might be willing to build that.”
Callan said this issue of homelessness correlates with affordable housing, an issue that has been discussed numerous times at Council meetings.
“Until we have enough of affordable housing and appropriate substance use and mental health treatment, we’re going to have folks who are homeless,” Callan said. “It’s a huge challenge for policymakers.”