We cannot continue to ignore homelessness in Ann Arbor

Monday, January 18, 2021 - 4:54am

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Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

In September, Ann Arbor City Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, presented the idea that the University of Michigan open vacant campus housing to Ann Arbor’s homeless population. Shelters in Ann Arbor lack the space to adequately accommodate people who are homeless, and at the same time, on-campus University housing will only house around 3,000 students for the winter 2021 semester, leaving plenty of empty rooms. 

Many in Ann Arbor support Nelson’s proposal, but others are skeptical. Comments in some University parent Facebook groups reflect frustration toward the situation: Why will the University accommodate the homeless in dorms for free when students, who were willing to pay full price, were not given the opportunity to live there? Though the frustration is warranted, it does not overshadow the argument for opening up University dorms. Using vacant on-campus residence halls to house the homeless promotes public health in Ann Arbor, balances the University’s contribution to the increase in Ann Arbor housing prices and reflects positively on the University’s commitment to the surrounding community. 

Providing the homeless population with stable housing options minimizes their risk of exposure to COVID-19, therefore acting to potentially minimize the risk for other community members in Ann Arbor. Those without shelter are at high-risk of contracting COVID-19, as they do not have the resources necessary to follow many CDC guidelines. They do not have a shelter in which to isolate or quarantine, and social distancing often is not an option. The homeless experience even greater risk in Ann Arbor, given the increase in population density during the academic year and frequent student gatherings that violate COVID-19 guidelines. 

In providing more housing stability, the University would give those without reliable shelters the necessary resources to adhere better to CDC guidelines, minimizing their own risk of contracting COVID-19 and, as a result, the whole of Ann Arbor’s risk. 

We cannot discuss homelessness in Ann Arbor, though, without discussing the University’s role in it. The University enrolls approximately 48,000 students, many of whom reside in off-campus housing. This large demand for housing in Ann Arbor results in an increase in housing prices, making it unaffordable for many Ann Arbor residents. Real estate in the community has appreciated by 67.85% since 2000, whereas real estate in the state of Michigan has appreciated by only 46.20% since 2000. While this increase in value has made housing expensive for many students, it has become even more difficult for local residents, forcing individuals to move out of the city or lose shelter altogether. Since the University’s presence can therefore be seen as a catalyst for homelessness, it makes sense for the institution to help solve the problem it helped create. 

Still, opponents to Nelson’s proposal believe the use of University dorms as housing for the homeless population to be unrealistic and are unsure of how the plan would be implemented. However, Suffolk University opened a residence hall to Boston’s homeless population in March 2020. With help from a local hotel and the Boston Public Health Commission, Suffolk was able to offer 172 rooms to those who needed shelter, and the few students left remaining in the dormitory were relocated. As a result, by providing isolated spaces to members of the homeless population, the spread of COVID-19 among the community was minimized. 

Similarly, Sonoma State University opened facilities to the Sonoma County homeless population in April 2020. In tandem with the county, the university provided residents with “food, health care and access to state and federal benefits.” The areas in which they lived were fenced off in order to allow residents to adequately shelter in place in accordance with the state’s guidelines. 

Opening on-campus housing at the University of Michigan to Ann Arbor’s homeless population is a necessity, especially given the pandemic and the cold winter temperatures. Doing so protects the most vulnerable communities while also addressing the University’s role in Ann Arbor’s real estate appreciation. As seen in examples set by Suffolk and Sonoma State, it is also a feasible solution to skyrocketing COVID-19 rates within the homeless population. Above all, by supporting the homeless population with the means available, the University expresses a sense of accountability and compassion for the community of Ann Arbor.

Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at imerm@umich.edu.


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