As we watch the snow from inside our homes curled up next to the fireplace or hurry to get from one class to the next, it’s easy to forget the people suffering from homelessness right in our own backyards. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, people can die from hypothermia when the temperature is as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Michigan winters get much lower than this, and last winter had the lowest recorded temperatures since 1977-78.

A year ago, as people scrambled to find somewhere warm to stay because of the harsh winter conditions, the shelters in Ann Arbor struggled to accommodate them.

I had the opportunity to interview Ellen Schulmeister, the executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, who described how severe the shelter conditions were.

According to Schulmeister, “Last winter was really bad and we had a 40 percent increase in the number of people that we saw coming into our winter programs.”

“That was a huge increase for us to absorb and we really didn’t have the space in here. For the first time in the 11 years that we have been here we were putting people on all of our floors,” she said.

The Ann Arbor City Council has taken steps to fix some of these problems, like investing money into the Delonis Center, a Washtenaw County homeless center, as well as supporting other daytime warming shelters. Schulmeister commented on how the Delonis center helps.

“It’s going to help us provide more comfortable space for the people that come in so we’ll have an overflow for night time at a different location,” Schulmeister explained. “We will also have extra day places where people can actually be during the daytime.” She also said that although they usually focus their energy on finding affordable housing, during the winter the focus is to find “life-saving shelter.”

The Ann Arbor City Council also recently approved a resolution stating that police would only remove people from camping on public or private property if they received complaints. The resolution claims “it is not the practice of the City of Ann Arbor to proactively seek out homeless camps for removal, nor to broadly deploy strategies to render areas used as campsites unusable.” Some councilmembers, including Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4), believe that this resolution ignores some of the greater issues facing the homeless, like the need for affordable housing and other services.

It’s possible that the reason they do not want to actively seek people living in these encampments is because they fear there are too many homeless people to absorb in the current homeless shelters. This may lead to greater problems, but it also means that the Ann Arbor City Council needs to focus on addressing these issues as well as trying to get people out of homelessness and thinking of better long-term solutions.

People who suffer from homelessness face a stigma, which creates another obstacle. Often people see a homeless person asking for money and assume they’re just going to use it on alcohol or that the reason they are homeless is because they are lazy. This makes them hesitant to help, without realizing that the consequence of this stigma is that it could lead to death, especially during these harsh winter conditions.

In regards to why helping the homeless is important, Schulmeister said, “I understand when people don’t want to spend a lot of money, but there comes a time where someone’s actual life is at risk, and this is one of those times and that’s the best reason to help at least during this time.”

Helping those suffering from homelessness may not necessarily mean one concrete solution. The shelters are in need of volunteers and help, especially in the winter. The shelters are in need of volunteers and help, especially in the winter. There are also ways to help by providing monetary donations to the shelters themselves, but if people prefer that the money goes directly to the homeless, the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County also takes gift cards that go directly to buying new items for the homeless.

In the long term, getting people off the streets and into affordable housing is ideal, but the transition out of homelessness is very difficult. If given help to get through the winter, at least they will have a chance at survival.

Rabab Jafri can be reached at rfjafri@umich.edu.

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