Editor’s note: The names of some individuals have been changed to protect their anonymity, denoted with an asterisk.
“Rain is no respecter of persons
the snow doesn't give a soft white
damn Whom it touches.”
– e.e. Cummings
Mary*, who for soon-to-be obvious reasons asked that I not use her real name, sits cross-legged on a sheet of cardboard in between two large brick buildings in downtown Ann Arbor. Her face is sandpapery from the wind, with a burgundy smear beneath each eye. Today, it's so cold each breath feels like altoids chased with ice water. She’s swaddled in many layers of coats and blankets. In one hand she holds a plastic coffee cup half-empty with bills. In the other, a sign that reads, in block letters, “PREGNANT AND HOMELESS.”
“I left my home, my family and my teaching job,” she tells me. “My husband is very abusive.”
Mary took a bus to Ann Arbor a few months ago from another Michigan city, she says, after a particularly brutal episode left her with broken facial bones and a broken sense of safety. She’s lived on the streets ever since.
“I spent three days in the hospital. He beat the hell out of me — he’s been doing it for six and half years, but this time it was really bad. He spent one night in jail, because he’s a cop,” she says. “It’s pathetic that I’m safer out here in the middle of the Michigan winter than back with him.”
Food isn’t an issue — her sign seems to inspire generosity in passersby, who bring her sandwiches and cups of soup. Most nights, she can panhandle enough to get a cheap motel room, or crash, for a small fee, with an acquaintance. But one or two nights a week, she and a few of her friends crawl into sleeping bags and huddle together behind a church. She’s on the waitlist at a battered women’s shelter, because she doesn’t want to sleep in the same shelter as “strange” men.
“I won’t have a baby on the streets, so hopefully I can figure things out,” she says.
Pending some atmospheric disaster, Ann Arbor will always be cold in the winter. Some winters are so brutal that, such in 2014, the University cancels classes. Others, like the current one, are like autumns with a dusting of snow. But at night, when the thermometers plummet, when fingers begin to resemble frozen shrimp, and when the wind slaps you across the face, the cold transitions from uncomfortable to unsafe.
Pending some societal miracle, Ann Arbor will always have a homeless population. The more visible individuals, the ones panhandling or selling newspapers on downtown streets, often go unnoticed as fire hydrants. Others you’ll never see. Suffice to say, being homeless is never easy. But in the winter, the struggles are intensified. There’s the struggle to stay warm, of course. But there’s also the struggle of local resources to provide for individuals in need, the struggle of individuals to balance self-sufficiency and self-preservation, and their combined struggle against social and economic forces that can feel as cold and oblivious as the air outside.
If you’re going to discuss homelessness in Ann Arbor, you have to begin with the Delonis Center, a local homeless shelter. An official-looking building, it stands on the corner of Huron and South Ashley right across the street from LIVE nightclub. I met with Ellen Schulmeister, the executive director of the Delonis Center, to get a better sense of the problems of the homeless in the winter. She began by correcting my terminology.
“It’s ‘being homeless in the winter,’ not ‘the problems of the homeless in the winter,’ ” she explained. “It’s an experience in your life. It’s not who you are.”
The distinction between the two terms reveals the contrasting ways in which we talk about homelessness. In his book "Making Room: The Economics of Homelessness," economist Brendan O’Flaherty describes the evolution of American discourse on homelessness. In Britain, he notes, “homeless” has historically been a residency classification — for whatever period one is without a home, one is homeless. In the United States, on the other hand, “homeless” typically describes a certain scruffy lifestyle — panhandling, transience, reliance on charity — regardless of residency. The United States government switched to a British definition in 1984, but, as O’Flaherty notes, “most Americans feel comfortable about labeling someone homeless without having to know where they slept last night.”
In 2014, the number of individuals classified as “literally homeless” — sleeping in the streets or in shelters — was estimated to be 49,895, according to Michigan's Campaign to End Homelessness. The total number of individuals, which included “those living with friends or family due to a housing crisis and (who) are facing immediate eviction with no other resources,” was estimated at 97,642. Racial discrepancies are stark — African Americans make up 14 percent of the total population of Michigan, but are 52 percent of the homeless population.
Delonis is the largest shelter in Washtenaw County, and sees the most individuals — 1,459 according to their latest annual report. It’s a shelter with services, providing medical and economic support and stable residency, as opposed to a mission-style shelter, which offers night-to-night rooms. It only services single adults — two other local shelters, Alpha House and Ozone House serve families and children respectively. Delonis has room for 75 residents, but during the winter it operates as a warming center for those without a place to sleep at night.
“In the summertime, being homeless is difficult at best,” Schulmeister said. “In the wintertime, it’s life-threatening.”
To get a better idea of the dangers of winter homelessness, I spoke on the phone with Dr. James O’Connell, president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, who’s been caring for people experiencing homelessness in Boston since 1985. To my surprise, he said it’s the comparatively mild weather that can prove the deadliest, because individuals assume that they can tough it out.
“When the temperature starts dropping at night early in the winter, people are particularly vulnerable, because it’s still cold enough to get severely hypothermic and frostbitten,” he said.
In fact, the worst case of hypothermia Dr. O’Connell ever saw was on an October night in Boston when the temperature was about 30 degrees. The patient was found with a core body temperature of 72 degrees, and had to be put on cardiopulmonary bypass. The threshold body temperature for hypothermia is 95 degrees.
Most states have “danger to self” laws, which allow the police to take someone to the hospital if they believe that person poses an imminent threat to their safety. Michigan’s law decrees that “If a peace officer observes an individual conducting himself or herself in a manner that causes the peace officer to reasonably believe that the individual is a person requiring treatment … the peace officer may take the individual into protective custody and transport the individual … for examination … or for mental health intervention services.”
These laws operate in an ethical gray area, where the police are forced to balance the civilian’s right to autonomy and the state interest in preserving life, particularly when individuals are sleeping outside in freezing weather. Dr. O’Connell had mixed feelings about these laws.
“The bar is often set so high that we often err on respecting someone’s autonomy and possibly allowing them to die,” he said.
The imminent threats of hypothermia and frostbite — which can be exacerbated by the numbing effects of drugs and alcohol — are coupled with the long-term effects of exposure. Weakened immune systems are susceptible to flus and pneumonia, which are more common in the winter, and easy to catch if sleeping in a crowded shelter. According to Dr. O’Connell, the leading cause of death among those living and sleeping on the street is not hypothermia but cancer, followed by heart and lung disease, all brought on by harsh lifestyle and deadly without stable medical care. As for being pregnant while living on the street, Dr. O’Connell said it was “dangerous and to be avoided at all costs, during any season.”
Clearly, medical problems are an effect of homelessness. But the causes of homelessness are, contrary to popular belief, primarily economic. To be sure, Delonis sees many clients with debilitating physical and mental illnesses, addictions and unsafe familial environments. But at the risk of sounding obvious, the main problem when experiencing homelessness is that you don’t have a home, and the main reason people don’t have a home is that they can’t afford one.
Homelessness has not always been a position of economic despair. Peter H. Rossi, in his book "Down and Out in America,” explains the shifts in the economics of homelessness in America. In between the Civil War and World War II, the homeless were primarily migrant laborers who moved from city to city seeking seasonal, unskilled labor. Theses laborers were so prevalent that by the late 19th century, most major cities had a Skid Row, a specialized neighborhood that provided cheap housing and amenities for the workers. Permanent residents had little affection for the migrants — Skid Rows were also designed to keep them out of sight, and “transient workers were characterized as tramps, hoboes and bums and were often warned to leave town when there was no demand for their labor,” Rossi writes. But they were still a major labor force.
By the 1940s, technological advancements in industry, agriculture and construction had eliminated the need for massive amounts of cheap, temporary labor. The homeless population became less of a workforce and more of what Karl Marx called a lumpenproletariat — an unorganized, unemployable class that exists on the fringes of society.
In the absence of temporary paid labor, many individuals experiencing homelessness are stuck in a vicious cycle. Without a steady income, you can lose your residence, and with a bad line of credit it’s difficult to find a new dwelling. Without a permanent residence, it’s difficult to find and hold a job. In light of this, Delonis assigns all residents a case manager, and together they work toward three primary goals: establishing a steady income, finding housing and saving money to pay for a security deposit and a first month’s rent. They estimate that 50 percent of clients find permanent housing within the year.
Ann Arbor is clearly not a place one would want to be without a home during the winter. But it’s also one of the most difficult places to find affordable housing in the state. In the latest ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) assessment by the United Ways Foundation, Washtenaw County received the lowest rating for housing affordability, and 58 percent of rentable properties in Ann Arbor cost more than 30 percent minimum wage a month. The Atlantic recently named Ann Arbor the 8th most segregated city in the country. This gradual bloodletting of affordability, as MLive reported in 2014, is most likely due to increases in renting by both families and young professionals.
It’s the bittersweet irony of an affluent community like Ann Arbor — it simultaneously prices out low-income residents and has the resources to provide shelter and services for those experiencing homelessness.
So what’s it like to be without a home in Ann Arbor during the winter? I went to the Groundcover News office in the basement of Bethlehem United Church of Christ on South Fourth Avenue to find out. Groundcover is the homeless newspaper of Ann Arbor, which functions both as a community news source and a source of employment for individuals experiencing homelessness. I sat with the publisher, Susan Beckett, and three of the vendors, who candidly spoke about their past and present travails.
A home, especially during the winter, isn’t merely a place to stay warm. It offers security and stability. It’s a place to store and cook food, access the Internet, maintain a mailing address and have intimate relationships. There is a popular perception that if someone is homeless, they must only have the clothes on their back and a few coins in a Styrofoam cup. But as I learned during the research for this piece, the rises and falls of homelessness are less the bungee-jumps of the American imagination, and more a series of tedious, yet traumatizing, stumbles. Take, for example, the dilemma of losing one’s home and still having possessions that need to be protected.
“You just can’t part with them,” Louis, a somber-looking man, told me. “I keep my stuff with me at all times, keep my bags with me at all times, even when I sleep.”
Lit, a vivacious woman who is Groundcover’s most successful vendor, explained how she is forced to rent out a storage space for her possessions, including her bulky winter boots and coats. But she’s missed several payments and cannot retrieve her warm clothes until she settles her debts. The management is being relatively generous, she explains — with another storage space, she lost a whole cache of family photos and papers when she missed payment on storage and her unit was auctioned off.
“I’ve worn the same bra for a year and a half now. I have all these nice ones in storage with the right cup and padding. It’s just a fact of life — without the right padding, I feel like the nipple lady,” she said with an easy laugh.
But those storage problems don’t compare to a night during last years crushing winter. Lit was sleeping in her car when the heater broke and she was left with only a sleeping bag and the car’s thin walls for warmth. Already ill, she began having trouble breathing as sub-zero temperatures set in.
“I thought I was going to die,” she told me. “I thought I was going to freeze to death.”
She managed to get to the hospital, where they told her it was just a bad cold and prescribed medicine. After that, she began scrimping to pay for a motel at night.
The most banal aspects of everyday health and hygiene suddenly become difficult without a home, especially in the winter. Most businesses require that someone be a customer in order to use the bathroom. Even if one is near the woods, food stamps cannot be used to purchase toilet paper, not to mention tampons.
“For most of the winter, I wore incontinence pads,” Lit explains. Unable to go to the bathroom outside or at night, she would try and hold it in until 5:30 in the morning, when she could go to the YMCA to use the toilet and take a shower. But with membership prices at $50 a month, it was difficult to make the payments without an income. Louis can’t afford the YMCA, and he often washes himself in the church bathroom, using hand soap and the sink.
Qualifying for food stamps is no guarantee though. Able-bodied adults must work or be in a work program at least 20 hours a week to receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, but finding that much work is difficult for anyone without a home. Even if one works, a single adult’s net income can’t exceed $981 a month, a sum that is quickly gobbled up by the ancillary costs of storage, motel rooms, gas and car insurance.
“I just wish the government would recognize that there are expenses associated with being homeless,” Lit said.
Food is, generally speaking, less of a concern than housing and hygiene. Local shelters often serve meals, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church has a breakfast program. Lit has made friends with the kitchen staff of a Main Street restaurant, who give her leftovers. Sometimes, passersby will just give the vendors food. But as Theresa*, an elderly vendor with a honey-thick southern accent, explained, relying on others for food always has unintended consequences. Driving around to different shelters and churches for meals costs precious gas money. Without a fridge or cupboards, she has to eat at a restaurant when no free meals are available. And when people are nice enough to buy her food, she’s sometimes unable to eat it because of dietary restrictions.
Theresa used to work in a plastics factory, but she fell and eventually lost her job because of the resulting disability. She was rejected for worker’s compensation, and lost her home.
“My doctor tells me I’ve got to keep myself warm during the winter, especially the joints I injured,” she said. “Sometimes the pain is so horrible that I’ll just be crying.”
After stories like this, I was left wondering why anyone wouldn’t head to a shelter during the winter. When I brought it up with Schulmeister from the Delonis Center, she sighed, as if she’d heard the question before. She explained that it was ultimately up to individuals to seek help, and some of them just don’t like the idea of committing to any type of program.
“It’s hard, because it’s institutional, and many people don’t like that, but our goals are short-term,” she said. “We are accommodating, but sometimes people don’t read us as accommodating.”
Louis, from Groundcover, won’t go to Delonis out of spite — he received a trespass, or one-year ban, eight years ago for having a loud verbal altercation with his girlfriend in the doorway, and said he has no interest in reapplying for residency. The Delonis Center doesn't comment on individual cases but noted anyone can request to have their ban lifted. He’ll go there for meals, but only because those are served by an outside organization.
Others I met were just unaware or misinformed about Delonis. Daniel, a tall man with a wiry gray beard, became homeless a year ago when he left his apartment after it was repeatedly broken into.
“I’ve been finding myself lately just crawling up someplace and going to sleep,” he told me one frigid afternoon in between puffs on a cigarette. His favorite place is a heating vent in a parking garage that is big enough for him to lay down on at night. Other nights, he’ll just walk around all night to stay warm. When I asked him why he wouldn’t go to Delonis, he shrugged and said, “I’ve heard it’s crowded there.”
It’s understandable why some individuals are resistant to seeking help. Many have been betrayed by people they trusted: landlords, bosses, lawyers, family members. And for some, the supposed shame of accepting help outweighs the very real risks of the cold.
Delonis can’t house everyone — there just isn’t room. The main problem, Schulmeister explained, is that Delonis has to service a larger jurisdiction than it was designed for, while remaining funded mostly by the local government and donations. Many smaller, more rural communities in Michigan can’t support a shelter, and residents of them who become homeless are forced to migrate to larger cities to find help.
“If the state would help every jurisdiction — what they call ‘continuum of care’ — that would help the flow of people coming here or to other shelters, and also keep them near their friends, families and resources,” Schulmeister said.
Until then, Delonis must take on the role of both life-saver and life-helper. And during the winter, its biggest lifesaving effort is its warming center. Open every night from mid-November until early April, the warming center provides people a place to sleep and use the bathroom, as well as register with the center.
On the condition that I wouldn’t interview any of the clients, Delonis allowed me to observe the warming center last Friday night. When I arrived, the air outside was romaine-crisp, and a few clients had arrived early to help set up the cafeteria for sleeping. They laid out row after row of green mats on the tile floor, and gave each one a quick spritz of disinfectant. After they were done, the space resembled a preschool classroom at naptime.
Brad White, an army veteran and masters student in social work at EMU, was the manager on duty that night. Goateed and wearing a large blue hoodie, he seemed to possess almost bottomless patience. At precisely 8:30 p.m. he began the first task of the night — breathalyzing the clients. Delonis requires that anyone staying the night have less than a .1 BAC, which is flexible depending on how bad the weather is and how well he knows the client. If someone is too drunk or high to safely remain at Delonis, the staff calls them a cab and sends them to the Hamilton House Engagement Center, where they can detox.
“Last year, when the weather was really bad, we’d let people in any possible way we could becau —.”
Brad stopped talking and perked his head up at the sound of an approaching fire truck. With many clients in ill health or suffering from addictions, an emergency is never far away. It passed, and he resumed his duties. We sat together at a folding table, and the clients formed a jagged line. Their ages ranged from teenage to elderly, and all looked a bit haggard and weary, like soldiers waiting for resupply. Many clutched possessions tightly to their chests — pillows, boxes of pizza, plastic bags full of clothes.
Brad handled the breathalyzing with a brusque efficiency. Each client blew into the small device, signed up for a shower and gave Brad their information if they hadn’t visited the center before. In return, they received a freshly laundered blanket and a mat on the floor. Far more men visit than women, so the women’s mats occupy the last row closest to the door. If a woman like Mary feels uncomfortable around men, the center is willing to make additional accommodations.
Some were clearly used to the routine. One older man, sporting a trimmed white moustache and three wristwatches, snuggled up in his blanket and read "A Whole Universe from Nothing,” Lawrence Krauss’ book about the origins of the cosmos. Others seemed less comfortable, like the young man who chose a corner spot and filled out a valentine while gazing around the room.
“It’s like with a mental health facility,” Brad explained. “Even though it’s there to help the community, there’s still a stigma attached to going there.”
Across the room, a large man wearing a snapback loudly advertised that he had fried chicken and candy for sale.
“No hustling in here, man,” Brad warns him. Another man, wearing a Michigan jersey, heckled Brad for going to EMU.
Brad smiled. He has known some of these people for years, and will go months without seeing them, only to find them in the breathalyzer line again during a bad spell.
At ten o’clock, it was lights-out. Right before they’re turned off, a young Black man ambled up to the front desk to complain about another man who wouldn’t stop muttering obscenities and racial slurs under his breath.
“I’m sorry, man,” Brad said. “Only he’s allowed to do that. It’s not directed at you.” The man ruefully nodded and returned to the dark room. Brad turned to me and quietly explained that the man in question is delusional, and is just having an episode tonight.
Compromises like this are an everyday occurrence when working with individuals experiencing homelessness, and only get more frequent during the winter. The Delonis Center says its mission is “ending homelessness one person at a time,” which is really all they can do on their end. Homelessness isn’t a homogenous experience. It’s the consequences of large institutions inscribed on individuals. What’s to be done? Back in 1891, in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde argued that the entire economy had to be restructured. He wrote, “If a frost comes we shall not have a hundred thousand men out of work, tramping about the streets in a state of disgusting misery, or whining to their neighbours for alms, or crowding round the doors of loathsome shelters to try and secure a hunch of bread and a night's unclean lodging. Each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society, and if a frost comes no one will practically be anything the worse.”
Either way, the frost will always come.