For the city’s homeless, staying warm has higher stakes as windchills dip well below zero.
Last week, a 39-year-old man was found dead in a tent near the Amtrak station on Depot Street, according to the Ann Arbor Police Department.
In an e-mail to Ann Arbor City Council members, Police Chief John Seto said the Washtenaw County medical examiner has not yet determined the cause of death.
“Although the medical examiner has not yet released a final determination for the cause of death, it does not appear at this time that exposure was the cause,” he wrote.
Police said the man did not have a house, and was living in a tent west of the long-term parking lot and north across the tracks in the woods near the river. Though police said there was a heating source in the tent, the heat was not turned on.
This incident sheds light on the challenges for Ann Arbor’s homeless population during the winter season.
In recent weeks, homelessness has sparked debate at several Council meetings.
There have been efforts to recall Councilmember Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) from his position in response to comments he made last year calling for the eviction of a homeless tent community near Burton Road.
Kunselman responded to these efforts at a review hearing in early January, explaining the need for a long-term approach to housing the homeless during cold weather.
“No one in the city of Ann Arbor, in the county of Washtenaw, should be left out in the cold or should be encouraged to live in the cold, to be given a tent and a sleeping bag and told to rough it and try to survive in the subzero, harsh Michigan winter,” he said.
Council has since revised legislation in response to the conversations. A resolution now states that, though humane displacement of homeless camps on both private and public property is an appropriate response to private property and resident complaints, “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.”
Amanda Carlisle, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, said the prevalence of tent communities in Ann Arbor is not a result of a lack of resources for the homeless, but rather a reflection of the homeless’ resistance to entering shelters.
“We’ve put a lot of resources actually into shelter and specifically warming centers so that we do have the capacity to house all the folks who are living unsheltered,” she said. “I think the story is more so whether or not folks are willing to and able to come in and out from the cold, and into shelter, specifically whether or not they have a mental illness, or a substance use issue, or something that might be preventing them from feeling like they can seek shelter.”
In response to last year’s severely cold temperatures, the Washtenaw Housing Alliance has made more resources available to Ann Arbor’s homeless population. Washtenaw County and the city are now funding an overnight warming center operated by the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County.
The warming center is held at three different Ann Arbor churches, with each church taking responsibility for one month during the months of January, February and March. A daytime warming center is also being operated in collaboration with the Shelter Association and MISSION A2, an Ann Arbor nonprofit organization that advocates for the homeless.
In response to the political debates over tent communities in Ann Arbor, Carlisle said she would rather focus on the need for more affordable housing within the city.
“If they were offered a place to stay inside, I think most of them would take that opportunity, but I just don’t think we have enough resources to be able to offer folks pretty barrier-free housing in our community,” Carlisle said.