Out in the cold: Ann Arbor community rallies for homeless shelter at U-M
About 30 community members gathered on the steps of Angell Hall Thursday evening to demand that the University of Michigan engage on solutions for the Ann Arbor unhoused community. City officials hope to partner with the University to provide shelter for those experiencing housing insecurity in residence halls that will go unused in the winter semester, but the University has not committed to the proposal.
In an interview with The Daily after the rally, University alum Jaz Brennan, one of the organizers of the protest, said she hoped the rally would place more pressure on the University to actively support members of the homeless community.
“(The rally) was about them not being able to ignore us anymore,” Brennan said. “I wanted to stand out on the steps of Angell Hall, which is a building that I used to sit on all the time when I was in school there, and really yell at them a little and get everyone to publicly yell at them, maybe shame them a little into assisting us.”
With the Delonis Center — the downtown building of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County — already understaffed and now losing employees, the community’s resources are strained, Brennan said. Adding to the problem, some unhoused people contract COVID-19 and need quarantine spaces, while others are hesitant to use shelters for fear of falling ill.
“We are at that breaking point where we need to find a different model — we need to find something else, or else we’re gonna have people on the street all day and all night long,” Brennan said.
Holding the rally on Dec. 31 also has its significance because this date marks the end of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s temporary pause on residential evictions. Coupled with space and resource limitations at local shelters, there is growing concern for an increased number of unhoused individuals in the coming year.
Organizers, members of the Ann Arbor unhoused community and Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, spoke at the protest.
Adam Lee Harris, an unhoused guest at the rotating shelter at the First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, spoke at the rally to share his story. In an interview with The Daily after the rally, Harris said he attended the rally to speak up for not only himself, but for others in the unhoused community as well.
“The struggle is real and going through the struggle, it tends to take a toll on you,” Harris said. “You have your ups and downs, but not just for myself. I had a chance to see others struggle, and it’s saddening. It made me even sadder for them, more (than) for myself.”
During the rally, Harris shared a poem he wrote titled “Life Built on a Broken Foundation,” which describes the struggle and sorrow that comes with living in a world where help is often out of reach.
“To have a chance to live is a right, it’s a human right,” Harris said. “It’s a human right to have somewhere warm to sleep, and just because you are less fortunate, doesn’t mean you are less human. And that’s the purpose of this.”
Xan Morgan, a staff member at the First Baptist Church, said she attended the rally with her husband and three kids in solidarity with the unhoused community and to advocate for the University to be a part of the solution.
Morgan explained how many places of worship open rotating shelters during the winter months, but that there are certain needs — particularly in the middle of a pandemic — like individual rooms and showers that congregational spaces like these aren’t able to provide.
“We as a faith community are mindful of our open and empty space, as we're not going to be worshipping in person until people are vaccinated, until we're post-pandemic, until vaccinations are regular and testing is easy to come by,” Morgan said in an interview with The Daily after the rally. “(We’re) mindful that we have empty space, and it meets a need, but it does not meet the need as well as U of M space could.”
In an interview with The Daily after the rally, Nelson said this event was about raising awareness for the city’s unhoused community and emphasizing the resources the University can provide to meet the needs of those most vulnerable.
“It was a very moving event because we really did talk about what it means to not have shelter and what it means to be exposed to the elements,” Nelson said. “We’re standing in front of Angel Hall, which is completely empty and this massive space of shelter that would be perfect to warm up in, but we're all standing in the cold.”
At a September City Council meeting, Nelson sponsored a resolution asking the Board of Regents to meet with the Council in hopes of discussing options to provide emergency shelter for the city’s unhoused population, but the University had declined the meeting.
In a previous interview with The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said 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.”
As the sun set and temperatures dipped below freezing, Brennan asked attendees to take off different articles of their winter clothing for a taste of the physical demands of being unsheltered in the winter.
“If you don’t have the right kind of gloves or if you don’t have gloves at all, your fingers are burning to an unreal extent,” Brennan said. “If you don’t have the proper footwear, you’re walking around in gym shoes when it’s 20 degrees outside, your feet are in terrible pain.”
Former Councilmember Jack Eaton, who supported the Council measure and attended the rally, said the exercise was a good reminder of what people who lack shelter can face “every day, all day long.”
Nelson added that issues like these are easy to forget, especially when many housed people are no longer venturing outside of their residential bubbles during COVID-19. By attending the rally, however, Nelson said she hoped spreading awareness of the situation would prompt a greater response from the University.
“It’s easy to live in Ann Arbor, and see ourselves as a relatively affluent community, and particularly in these times when a lot of us are working from home and maybe we aren’t stepping even outside of our homes and neighborhoods as often as we were before to see challenges downtown and to see the needs in like other parts of the city,” Nelson said.
Around 5,000 people in Washtenaw County — more than 1% of the population — are experiencing homelessness, according to the SAWC. Eaton said while the emptier residence halls this winter offers a unique opportunity, community leaders will need to come up with longer-term solutions to making housing more affordable to truly solve homelessness in the community.
“We aren’t providing these people with actual housing,” Eaton said. “We’re just providing them with shelter so they don’t die. That’s pretty minimal, so we have to continue to look at ways both to provide emergency shelter, but then to be able to transition those needs into what you can actually call housing … There may come a time when we don’t have any homelessness, but it’s not in the foreseeable future.”
Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, who was also in attendance at the rally, noted how faith-based communities and independent organizations have stepped up to house people experiencing housing insecurity.
“We’re told that the issue is being addressed, but when we have churches that are stepping up and providing shelter, then we know there's an unmet need out there,” Griswold said.
Opening shelter for the homeless community, Griswold added, would be an opportunity for the University to make a positive impact on the city.
“I feel like this is an opportunity for them because the University of Michigan has a very bad reputation right now as a result of COVID and opening the school, and many in the community feel they were a bit insensitive,” Griswold said.
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