Temperatures plunge, putting those without stable housing at risk

Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 2:23pm

Students organizations, shelters and congregations are working to help the homeless population of Ann Arbor.

Students organizations, shelters and congregations are working to help the homeless population of Ann Arbor. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

With record-breaking low temperatures sweeping the state of Michigan and wind chill temperatures of approximately negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, Michigander have been warned of frostbite on exposed skin within 10 minutes of standing outside. In Washtenaw County, there are about 300 homeless persons at any given time each year. Students organizations, shelters and congregations are working to aid the homeless population of Ann Arbor.

Lit Kurtz, a vendor at Groundcover News, a nonprofit that sells newspapers to help low income people, praised the shelters for opening warming centers to help people get out of the cold, but said more still needed to be done.

“I don’t think we go far enough and these sort of conversations shouldn’t have to take place because it should be a given that everyone has a warm place to be by now,” Kurtz said. “It’s far from an ideal situation. I believe that it shouldn’t be an emergency to make the shelter and the warming centers extend their hours. It should just be normal practice.”

Kurtz, who previously dealt with housing instability herself, noted the challenges those in vulnerable situations face year-round.  

“It’s not just times like this that people have to deal with the cold weather,” Kurtz said. “This of course is extreme and it brings attention and a little more focus to what people without adequate housing have to encounter, but it’s a challenge throughout the year to stay warm... I think people need to understand that the agencies can’t do it all, that people, individuals need to interact with anyone they feel might be in danger and not be afraid to ask them if they’re ok, if they’re safe because safety is not guaranteed, especially during the extreme situation that we’re in right now.”

On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency and released a press release stating the concern she has for the upcoming temperatures.

“Such widespread, extreme conditions have not occurred in Michigan for many years and it is imperative that we are proactive with record-low temperatures being predicted by the National Weather Service,” Whitmer wrote. “Wind chills are predicted as low as 50 degrees below zero in many places, such as metro Detroit, which is especially unaccustomed to these temps.”

In Washtenaw County, there have been efforts by cities, local homeless shelter communities and students to aid the homeless population during this time of extreme cold. Kurtz said even after the extreme temperatures subsided, obstacles would remain for people affected by housing insecurity.

“I think it’s a shame that it takes a pure emergency situation such as this to have the shelter and the warming center extend their hours," Kurtz said. “A safe indoor space should be available all seasons, all hours to anyone who lacks stability and there are times during the winter when the severe weather goes away and people are still going to be exposed to incredibly not only uncomfortable but unsafe temperatures.”

Daniel Kelly, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, said their center is taking additional precautions to host more people during the cold nights and days this coming week.

“With record low temperatures, we are trying to accommodate as many bodies as we can. We have a residential shelter program that houses 50 beds, and our warming centers house 118 individuals,” Kelly said. “We are converting our on-site community kitchen to more beds at the Delonis Center and are aiding operation of rotating shelters at faith-based congregations.”

Kelly also mentioned the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County have been crucial partners in expanding their outreach efforts for this particular week.

“Tomorrow we have additional off-site and overnight warming spaces at Ann Arbor Public Schools,” Kelly said. “Just for the next couple of nights, we’ll be able to house more folks in their gym. We set up those types of precautions especially for extreme weather situations such as these.”

Kelly explained that many homeless individuals don’t feel comfortable coming to shelters, but that the Shelter Association is working in partnership with Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, an organization that sustains relationships with and provides mental health services to the homeless population in Washtenaw County. They are tasked with guiding and encouraging those on the street to seek shelter and helping them find transportation.

The Robert J. Delonis Center, a homeless shelter in Ann Arbor, has developed a transportation option in response to an unsheltered emergency after 5 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends. This additional winter response is for homeless individuals who lack transportation to the overnight warming center the Delonis Center.

Students on campus are also helping the local homeless population in light of this week’s weather. Public Health senior Hussain Ali, co-president of Michigan Movement, has been gathering supplies and donating warm clothing items and food with a group of 15 other students to various homeless shelters around Ann Arbor on Tuesday. On Wednesday, five students who have access to cars will be driving around Ann Arbor and offering rides to shelter to the homeless on the street.

“Michigan Movement’s main mission is to provide aid and relief to people experiencing homelessness in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. This week, our major concern is getting anyone who doesn’t have shelter in an area of heat for the day and/or night,” Ali said.

Other students on campus are sharing emergency helplines to call if someone on the street is in need of housing. LSA senior Catherine Szkop saw that friends were sharing numbers for various shelters on their Instagram stories and so she decided to share the Ann Arbor helpline.

“I got the Ann Arbor number just by looking on Google and the Detroit numbers ─ someone else had on their story so I just screenshotted it and posted it on mine,” Szkop said. “I think sharing information through social media allows it to spread faster especially since more often than not, your friends check it multiple times a day. It’s more efficient and more likely to reach a wider audience to put a number for a warming center on my Instagram story than another method.”

Ali said in addition to calling the helpline for someone on the street, people should also let them know where to find warming shelters.

“The first step if someone is outside is to call the Delonis Center or let them know that there is food and shelter there. The major importance is that everyone is safe from the bitter cold during the night and day,” Ali said.

Kurtz called on people to reach out to one another and address the problem of housing instability.

“There’s just a lack of understanding that everybody needs to play a role in helping people, making sure that everyone is safe,” Kurtz said.

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