When I was a little kid, the idea of homelessness plagued me. I just could not understand why some people had to stand outside in the blistering Chicago winter while I got to live in a warm apartment with my parents. In my eight-year-old head, it just didn’t make any sense.
I was too young, of course, to internalize the socioeconomic reality of this country or the harsh tradeoffs of a capitalist system. I did not yet know the problems of affordable housing, minimum wage, employment opportunity and all the other roadblocks to the American Dream. All I understood was that these people didn’t have a place to sleep.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a startling 37 million Americans currently live in poverty, and the average family is a dangerous three paychecks away from homelessness. These are shameful statistics from one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Right here in Washtenaw County, 2,756 people will experience homelessness each year, with 41 people becoming homeless in any given week.
For me, Ann Arbor is where I go to school, where I have my first apartment, where I go to football games and write for the paper. I have a home here, and I have a home in Chicago where I’ll go for the holidays. But for too many people, Ann Arbor does not mean home or opportunity – it means a lack of affordable housing, a tough job market and a really, really cold winter.
The familiar faces we see around campus are often not representative of Ann Arbor’s larger homeless population. There are many people we never see, living just a few blocks away from campus at the Robert J. Delonis Center. Each night the Delonis Center can accommodate 50 people in its regular shelter and another 25 in a rotating shelter. During the winter months, an additional 50 can fit inside its “warming center” – a room with chairs and blankets but no beds. Shelter director Ruth Shabazz says the shelter is nearly full to capacity every night.
I know as well as any University student that it’s difficult to make time to volunteer amidst the never-ending demands of schoolwork. But as the perilous Michigan winter sets in, maybe we should all make a New Year’s resolution to find the time. The University community has not only the responsibility but also the manpower to really make a difference in Ann Arbor’s fight against homelessness.
No matter what your interests or how much time you are willing to commit, there are hundreds of ways to get involved. Many students aren’t even aware that places to volunteer exist right in their own backyard – steps away from the academic buildings, bars and restaurants we all so regularly frequent.
The Delonis Center is a good place to start. A truly incredible facility, the shelter provides basics like warm showers, laundry and a place to sleep – while also offering job counseling, substance abuse treatment and on-site medical care. Volunteers go through a short four-hour training session, and then can sign up for shifts almost anytime of the day.
There is also the Ozone House – a crisis support and housing agency for youth who have run away, become homeless or found themselves in unsafe or unstable situations. Volunteers can help out around the house or work the crisis hotline after a two-week intensive training program. The next volunteer training date is right around the corner on Jan. 9 – perfect timing for anyone who wants to make good on that New Year’s resolution.
Or if you think you’re better off working with kids, SOS Community Services runs the Time 4 Tots program – a daycare center that provides a safe, nurturing environment for homeless children from infancy through preschool while their parents are searching for housing or employment or getting treatment for substance abuse.
These are just a few of the many organizations that need student volunteers. If you want a complete list, just go on www.volunteer-connection.org and you’ll find a directory of all community service opportunities in Ann Arbor. The possibilities are endless.
As for day-to-day interaction with people living in poverty, it’s easy to become desensitized when walking to and from Angell Hall. When I visited the Delonis center earlier this week, I asked volunteer coordinator Jennifer Crippin what she does when panhandlers ask for money: “Whether you give a dollar or not,” she said, “passing along information about the shelter in your neighborhood is important.” It’s a personal choice whether or not to give, but pointing a person in the right direction (in this case, toward the Delonis Center) could make a world of difference.
Time, however, can be a more valuable currency than money. Interaction fosters understanding, and in working closely with the homeless community we can begin to breakdown stereotypes surrounding homelessness in Ann Arbor. As most will find in their first few hours of volunteering, these people are not stereotypes or statistics. Shelter director Ruth Shabazz said it well: “The challenge in life is to get beyond stereotypes and get to know people as people.”
Maybe we should put that on our New Year’s resolution list too – right above volunteering time in Ann Arbor next semester.
Dibo can be reached at email@example.com.