City presses University admin to meet and discuss using dorms as shelter for homeless population

Wednesday, December 30, 2020 - 5:47pm

The city of Ann Arbor looks to partner with U-M to house Ann Arbor's homeless population.

The city of Ann Arbor looks to partner with U-M to house Ann Arbor's homeless population. Buy this photo
Jeremy Weine/Daily

Ann Arbor city officials hope to partner with the University of Michigan to provide emergency sheltering options in University residence halls for the city’s homeless population, a proposal the University has not committed to enacting. 

When COVID-19 cases were high over the summer, Ann Arbor shelters quickly reached capacity due to an increase in the city’s homeless population, forcing them to turn away homeless individuals. To combat this space limitation, the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County at the Robert J. Delonis Center partnered with local hotels to safely house people experiencing housing insecurity. 

City Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, recognized the cost of renting hotel rooms and proposed the idea of using vacant University residence halls as housing for the homeless population. Nelson first brought her proposal to a September City Council meeting — which passed 10-1 — in the event that the University would send on-campus students home for the winter semester. 

Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, supported Nelson’s resolution at the September meeting, noting that the city’s attempts to discuss the use of public property is well within their right.

“I'll just say a general statement to remind everybody that this is a state university that, shocking as it may be for people hearing this, that land and those buildings belong to the state, and therefore they belong to all of us,” Hayner said. “And so we are well within our rights to ask for a conversation about the use, the ongoing use, alternative use or whatever else from this public land that exists here in our community.”

On Nov. 6, the University released its plans for the winter 2021 semester, which included reducing the vast majority of its undergraduate housing density by limiting on-campus dorms only to those with demonstrated need.

“A lot of people in this town were very pessimistic about the in-person semester and we were just sort of waiting for it to all fall apart,” Nelson told The Daily. “It occurred to me this housing is likely to become available on campus.” 

City Council called for a meeting between council representatives and the University’s Board of Regents before Nov. 1, but the Board declined to meet, according to Nelson.

“I would like the university to take seriously the kind of anxiety that our community is feeling,” Nelson said. “I appreciate that the university makes decisions, and students are just traveling home to parents…...  And I would like the university to step back and think a little more broadly, even if they've sent all their students home. This community could be suffering in a real way, and they are sitting on a pretty serious resource.”

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said that this is not an issue the Board is tasked to consider.

“In response to the City Council request to meet with the administration and regents, the university responded to indicate that this was not a matter for the regents to consider, but one for the administration to manage,” Fitzgerald wrote. 

Fitzgerald told The Daily in a follow-up phone interview that the University and SAWC discussed in early December the possibility of using campus facilities as a temporary warming shelter. 

“The University has been in contact with the county officials at the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which actually operates the shelters in the city,” Fitzgerald said. “The University has been in touch with those officials to try to see, to better understand what their needs are, and if there's a way that the University might be helpful.” 

SAWC did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its conversations with the University.

In October, SAWC reached out to the Ann Arbor community asking for help in providing a warming shelter for the winter months starting Nov. 1. SAWC needed a place that met certain criteria, including a 75,000 square feet space that could hold at least 75 people socially distanced, on-site showers, WiFi access and locked storage units.

Washtenaw Camp Outreach, a mutual aid community outreach group, works to assist and support homeless and housing insecure populations. In late November, the organization released a statement calling on the University to “act upon this partnership immediately to utilize these spaces.”

Kenneth Greggory, an Ann Arbor resident experiencing homelessness, spoke to The Daily about his struggles finding safe housing during the pandemic. According to Greggory, the Delonis Center does not shelter people outside of the hours of 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., leaving many people out in the streets in the cold.

“I wish (the University) would open their doors. People are having a hard time out here,” Greggory said. “It would be more convenient for the community and students. It is a university town. We have a whole lot of homeless people, and we could have someplace to go, someplace warm, someplace where we could sleep and get people back on their feet. It may reduce a whole lot of crime too.”

Nelson met with the University’s Central Student Government on Dec. 1 to discuss her proposal. At the same meeting, CSG and LSA Student Government passed a resolution to advocate for a meeting between public health representatives, City Council and the University administration about housing.

LSA junior Zackariah Farah is a CSG elected representative. He told The Daily that talking with the University is more about finding a solution between the SAWC, the Washtenaw County Health Department and the University, not necessarily using the University’s residence halls for housing.

“The president and administration talk about what kind of people they want us to be, not only to the University but to our community at large,” Farah said. “We need to meet our responsibilities, not only just on campus but when it comes to the larger community. The University of Michigan is not a closed system. If things are bad in Ann Arbor, they're bad for the University.” 

Nelson’s proposal is similar to those of Sonoma State University in California and Suffolk University in Massachusetts, both of which provided student housing to shelter the homeless populations in their respective communities during the first wave of COVID-19.

“The point of me bringing a public resolution or a resolution to council was to just point out to the community that we can talk about it,” Nelson said. “This is not pie in the sky. I’ve googled around and researched and realized this actually can be done.” 

Nelson said the University has a responsibility to help and support the community, especially since students living on- and off-campus rely on Ann Arbor’s housing market.

“The University is very well aware of how they support our local economy,” Nelson said. “The flip side of that is when the University is doing really, really well and expanding their student enrollment, whenever they add 1,000 students and they don't add 1,000 beds of housing, they're also putting pressure on our housing market.”

Thomas Tyosh, an Ann Arbor resident, told The Daily he has experienced homelessness for over 30 years. Tyosh said the high cost of living in Ann Arbor is a problem that needs to be addressed. 

“I checked out one of the lofts and the guy told me it was 1,200 a month. I said ‘What, forget about it,’” Tyosh said. “That's not affordable housing. I bet most students can't even pay that.” 

Affordable housing options have long been an issue for Ann Arbor, particularly for low-income students and local residents. Over the years, the City Council has released plans to increase new high-rise developments in hopes of generating more affordable housing, though many have questioned just how affordable these new developments truly are.  

Greggory and Tyosh both said they don’t think the University has a direct responsibility to take care of people experiencing homelessness, but the administration should recognize that the University is a main reason the Ann Arbor housing market is so expensive.

Nelson added that housing the city’s homeless and housing insecure population in University spaces would bridge the gap between students and community members.

“It's really easy to live on campus and be a little less aware of what's happening around,” Nelson said. “And this would be true for the regents and administration as well. I think everybody has to make an effort to step out of their bubble and think about the bigger world.”

Nelson and Farah are continuing to push for a meeting with the University to discuss potential solutions.

“I think this is a great opportunity to show that we care about our community and that we are willing to meet these challenges as the leaders and best,” Farah said. “I think that we owe it to the most vulnerable people in our community to have at the very least a conversation about some of the solutions that the University of Michigan can help fulfill.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that a resolution proposed by Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, at a September City Council meeting passed with a 7-4 vote. The resolution in question actually passed 10-1 with University employee and Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, opposing. 

 


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