Though Washtenaw County is considered by
many to be one of the most affluent regions in the state, the
county, like so many others, remains troubled by the problem of
homelessness. The approach of many communities has been to ignore
the problem, to provide basic shelter and support, or a combination
of the two.

The Washtenaw Housing Alliance — an umbrella organization
comprised of 10 smaller nonprofit organizations — reports on
its website that an estimated 2,756 Washtenaw residents are or will
become homeless over the next year. In response, the organization
has put together a proposal titled “A Home for Everyone: A
Blueprint to End Homelessness in Washtenaw County.” If
implemented, it should help address over the long-term several
critical issues at the root of homelessness.

The plan, put together by the WHA, Washtenaw County and the
cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, focuses on a long-term, 10-year
timetable. During this period, the proposal plans to address
several critical issues, all of which plague the Ann Arbor area in
particular.

The first is a lack of low-income housing. Though the city
boasts a brand new homeless shelter and plenty of privately owned
housing, very little of that housing is accessible to those with
lower incomes. The proposal plans to address this problem by
increasing the local use of Federal Section 8 Vouchers. According
to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Section 8
Vouchers can help individuals and families get access to
affordable, privately owned housing by subsidizing a portion of
their monthly rent with government funding. Providing the homeless
with proper dwellings, outside the confines of the homeless
shelter, is a crucial step.

The WHA is also correct in pointing out the necessity of proper
coordination between governments and centralization of support
services and homelessness prevention funding. Indeed, federal
programs are often laced with numerous requirements and conditions,
leading to complicated implementation and bureaucratic red-tape
that can make them ineffective. For example, the proposal’s
attempt to frame the plan proposes the centralization of support
services for those at risk of losing their homes. By framing the
problem of homelessness as a city-and county-wide issue is a
welcome change in approach, and should help to encourage
cooperation across political boundaries.

Lastly, the proposal emphasizes prevention rather than treatment
of homelessness. The WHA makes a strong case that the problems of
poverty and homelessness become more difficult to treat after they
have taken hold. It follows that Washtenaw County should, as the
proposal recommends, invest in keeping at-risk citizens in their
current homes and out of the shelters.

Overall, this blueprint is a thoughtful and realistic mechanism
for dealing with homelessness in Washtenaw County. Though Ann Arbor
and much of the surrounding area are traditionally progressive and
engaged and concerned about the homeless, the WHA’s shifting
of the debate from shelter to rehabilitation represents a laudable
policy change in addressing the long-term aspects of
homelessness.

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