Zero: 2016

This morning, I attended the Continuum of Care All Membership Meeting. The Continuum of Care (if you remember from a previous post) is the organization that coordinates all the community’s efforts to end homelessness. The members are various agencies and organizations around Washtenaw County. I am, admittedly, an interloper in this group. But, I got the invitation, I wasn’t teaching, and I decided to go. These meetings are a great place to get caught up on the large scale service and advocacy efforts happening around affordable housing and homelessness. So, here, I pass along to you, some of those updates.

Warming Centers

First, in case you’ve been thinking about how people who are currently homeless are surviving in this frigid weather, the Shelter Association in the City of Ann Arbor has expanded its warming centers, thanks to funding from the County and the City, and volunteers from MISSION and a number of local congregations. There are three additional shelters:

  • additional overnight rotating shelter for 50 men (hosted by churches)
  • daytime warming center (hosted by churches)
  • nighttime warming center (at Delonis)
Camp Serenity, photographed in November 2014, shortly before removal. Photo credit:

Camp Serenity, photographed in November 2014, shortly before removal. Photo credit: Ryan Stanton via MLive


Zero: 2016 and Point-in-Time Count

Second, Washtenaw County has joined the Zero: 2016 Campaign, a follow-on campaign to 100,000 Homes, sponsored by Community Solutions. Community Solutions actually helped 186 cities, counties, and states house 105,000 of the most vulnerable people. The Zero:2016 Campaign is focused on ending veteran and chronic homelessness–an attainable goal! The kickoff of Washtenaw County’s participation will take place at the biannual Point in Time Count on Wednesday, Jan. 28. The point in time count (required for HUD funding) attempts to count everyone in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and outlying communities who is homeless, whether they are sleeping outside or in a temporary shelter. Volunteers will cover the county to survey everyone who is homeless in our community and to create a by-name registry that prioritizes people for housing. If you’d like to help, you can find out more about the Point-in-Time Count at this link: Volunteers are needed not only to do the hard, cold work of surveying but also to sponsor food coupons, to sponsor refreshments for volunteers, to sponsor t-shirts, and to sponsor printing of survey forms.


Apparently, HAWC (Housing Access Washtenaw County) has come in for some criticism lately, based on the presentation at this meeting. Still, HAWC is the single point-of-entry that connects people who are experiencing housing problems with agencies that can help them. If you or someone you know is threatened with eviction, has trouble paying rent or utilities, or has lost their home, call HAWC first. Here’s the number: 734-961-1999.

Affordable Housing Needs Assessment

Washtenaw County worked with consultants to develop an Affordable Housing Needs Assessment. Brett Lenart presented this Assessment at the conclusion of the meeting. Briefly, the findings are (not surprisingly) that Ann Arbor is a town in which demand for housing outstrips supply, while Ypsilanti is a town where supply outstrips demand. Prices in Ann Arbor go up; prices in Ypsilanti go down. Moreover, housing stock in Ypsilanti is increasing turning over to rental rather than owner occupied, housing. The recommendation of the assessment is to increasing affordable and workforce housing in Ann Arbor, and to improve amenities in Ypsilanti, so as to increase demand for housing there by better educated, higher earning workers and families. Again, the takeaway: the solution to homelessness is more affordable housing. There’s plenty of advocacy to be done around that issue. More next time!


Top 10 Tips for Hosting a Grassroots Event

These are not, maybe, the top ten tips in the whole world, but they do reflect some of the things we learned in the process of planning and hosting the very successful (500 people!) Ann Arbor mayoral candidate forum on July 15 about affordable housing and homelessness. If you’re thinking about planning a big, grassroots event, these might help you! If you’re already an old hand at organizing such events, please share your tips in the comments!
Moderator asking candidates a question

Moderator Julie Steiner asks a question of Ann Arbor mayoral candidates at the July 15 forum.

1. Connect with organizations that share your concerns. Find every one of them that overlap with you even a little bit and call, write, send info, etc. Directing it to a particular person is helpful. And so is following up, via email or phone. (Phone = very effective.)
2. Use social media. And old school media. We created a Facebook event and encouraged as many people and organizations as we could to share it with their friends and constituents. I used Twitter to get the word out, too, to my followers. But others, with more followers picked it up and so spread the word somewhat further. Also, don’t be afraid to use printed materials: we posted fliers around town, shared postcards with our congregants and encouraged them to give them to friends, shared fliers at (for example) the Religious Action for Affordable Housing annual meeting, etc.
3. Make it easy. We were careful to provide newsletter ready information to people–something that they could insert without having to write it themselves. We shared a printable flier, too, not only with organizations but with members of our congregations.
4. Share information with newspapers, radio stations, etc. News outlets aren’t really interested until a week before, if that early. I wouldn’t spend too much energy on them before that time. Send a press release if you want, but wait to make follow up emails (or better, phone calls) until the week before. And you may have to call again. 🙂
5. Use your connections. I certainly didn’t have all these connections myself, but people on the planning committee did. So when you identify organizations you want to get in touch with, see if someone you know has a personal connection to that organization they can build on. Other strong grassroots organizations (MISSION comes to mind here) can mobilize to turn out their members.
6. Know why you want people to come. We wanted to send a signal that housing and homelessness is an important issue to ann arbor voters. We also wanted people who care about this issue to be informed about the candidates.
7. Solicit input from your supporters. We asked organizations who were “sponsoring” the event to send us their questions. That way, we could ask questions that mattered to our audience and get better, more relevant information from the candidates. I think this also helped with buy-in.
8. Offer your supporters something valuable. We gave them the opportunity to share information about their orgs. at the “literature table.” Nonprofits appreciate the opportunity to share information with an audience that cares about their issues.
9. Decide whether you want the candidates to distribute literature there. This was our big rookie mistake, because it caused a mildly unpleasant confrontation with one candidate’s campaign manager. I’d say encourage everyone to bring info (and maybe something similar, like a trifold, or a one page info sheet) or tell everyone to leave the literature at home. This never occurred to us, but it’s a good issue to think about.
10. Be relentless. Your own commitment to the cause and to the event is contagious. Share on your own social media sites. Talk about it with friends and neighbors.
There is no doubt that this was a tremendous amount of effort on the part of many, many people. We learned a lot, and accomplished a lot. We look forward to seeing the fruits of our event in the next mayor’s term. And to planning the next one!
But enough about us. What are YOUR best tips for hosting a successful advocacy event?

Who do you think you are?

This question has risen to the surface of my mind intermittently since I started this blog and since we developed the idea of the mayoral candidate forum.

Who do you think you are, writing a blog, organizing a forum, asking questions, joining committees, etc.?

The pledge, signed by attendees and candidates.

The pledge, signed by attendees and candidates.

Who do you think you are, pledging to end homelessness in Ann Arbor by 2018?

The comments on MLive sure can bring you down.

Maybe I’m a wealthy do-gooder, eager to spend other people’s hard earned money to help people who are too lazy to get a job.

Maybe I’m a pie-in-the-sky idealist, imagining that there could ever be an end to involuntary homelessness.

Maybe I’m a lawless radical, advocating for tent communities, where people can get high and drunk all day long.

Who do you think you are?

I think I am a human being.

I think I can speak before I know everything. I think I can take a step even before the whole path is visible. I think I can risk being incorrect and misunderstood in order to become right and clear.

I think that each of us has to act on the stage where we find ourselves, to walk through the door that opens in front of us, to serve the ones with whom we are walking down the road.

I think we are less than human when we turn our backs, close our eyes, stop our ears. I think we are less than human when we think our neighbors have to earn the right to shelter, to water, to food, to clothing, to community and love.

Who do you think you are?


Criminalization of homelessness

cover of the NLCHP report No Safe Place

Last night, at the Ann Arbor mayoral candidates forum on issues of housing and homelessness, the candidates were asked the following question:

This past week brought us news of a terrible eviction of a small group of people experiencing homelessness with bulldozers. In addition, there are discussions going on about ways to make parks less “hospitable” to those without homes. As mayor, what will you do to ensure that Ann Arbor does not criminalize or stigmatize homelessness and treats our most vulnerable citizens with respect and compassion?

The question itself got a big round of applause, and a few “Right on”s and “Yeah”s from the audience. Then, Stephen Kunselman answered it, acknowledging that the eviction–and homelessness itself–is an emotional issue. But that, at the same time, “the rule of law is also very important and whether or not we want to ensure that all parties follow the law is something that we as a body have to address. As mayor, I’m not about the point the fingers and say “go and take care of that” to the police department. I think everyone knows that the city works under, given our strained resources, under complaints. When somebody is camping out on MDOT property the city has no authority to say it’s okay to do so. When people are camping out on city parks, we can’t just look the other way as well. . . . With the compassion we want to have, we still want to have the rule of law.”

Sabra Briere noted that while it is each council member’s job to uphold the law, it’s also not to stop developing laws, but rather “to change the rules, it’s to find solutions, it’s to address things, not just say ‘these are the rules.'”

Christopher Taylor has no knowledge of any sort of policy change in the parks that makes them less hospitable to people who are homeless. “The parks should be open to the homeless and the housed.”

For Petersen, the removal of the camps from MDOT land last week raises an important question about “what is the city’s obligation to people who prefer not or who for whatever reason don’t want to live by the rules of the Delonis Center or other kinds of structures or arrangements. And I think that the city does have a obligation to these people. . . . We need to provide them a reasonable set of options and help them to choose. . . . I want to remind all of us that the solution in the long term will take some creativity.”

The candidates clearly have a range of views about criminalization of homelessness, from the importance of upholding existing laws to the creation of new city ordinances that would permit creative solutions to the problem of homelessness. A recent publication by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, entitled “No Safe Place,” addresses the issue of criminalization of homelessness, a terrible double-bind for people experiencing homelessness because in many cities, including Ann Arbor, there is no shelter space available and camping on public or private land is illegal. Moreover, some basic survival activities of daily living, such as sitting down or sleeping, are also criminalized in many cities. As the report’s authors note, criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way to deal with homelessness.

You can read the entry from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty blog and download the report in PDF as well. Reading even the five-page executive summary is enlightening and provides some examples of positive solutions to homelessness that save money and are more effective.

Debate Prep

Well, it’s not exactly a debate, but if you’re planning to attend the mayoral candidate forum on Tuesday evening, July 15, you may want to review some of the key issues around housing and homelessness in our area.

In very recent news, on Thursday morning, a group of campers were removed from MDOT land. You can read about that removal in the following article:

Washtenaw County has recently completed a study about finding a sustainable funding stream for affordable housing. This will have big implications for whether or not we can end homelessness within our county. You can read more about the presentation of the study to the county commissioners here:

And you can learn more about the next steps the county will take by following the link below:

If you want to learn more about homelessness issues in Washtenaw County, this snapshot of homelessness in Washtenaw County provided by the Continuum of Care, may be helpful. The Continuum of Care coordinates Washtenaw County efforts to end homelessness. They have semi-annual meetings to which the public is invited, so if you get really jazzed about this issue, you can find out more at that meeting.

And while you’re trying to decipher any materials about housing and homelessness, this sheet of acronyms will come in handy!

I’ve found the National Alliance to End Homelessness website a tremendous resource for answering common questions about homelessness on a national level.

The following organizations in our area are working toward solutions for homelessness in various ways. You might like to poke around their websites.

Avalon Housing

Groundcover News 

Interfaith Hospitality Network at Alpha House


Ozone House

The Shelter Association

Washtenaw Housing Alliance


As I noted in a previous post, ending homelessness is an enormous task, and maybe an impossible one. It’s good to be informed about what’s going on in our community, so that we can understand how best to create and leverage resources to address the pressing social justice question of homelessness.

If you have additional news articles or other resources you think are worth reading before the forum on Tuesday, please add them in the comments!

Announcing: Ann Arbor Mayoral Candidate Forum

Image is flier advertising the mayoral candidate forum on July 15


For more than six weeks, a committee of people from St. Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church and Temple Beth Emeth, two religious congregations that share a building at 2309 Packard Road in Ann Arbor, have been working to put together a public forum where Ann Arbor’s mayoral candidates can talk about issues surrounding affordable housing and homelessness in our city.

We’ve made connections with many people who work in local organizations that help people who are experiencing homelessness, including The Shelter Association, Ozone House, and MISSIONA2. We’ve also met people who work to create affordable housing, such as the staff at Avalon Housing. We’ve networked with a number of local Jewish and Christian congregations as well. I feel incredibly privileged to have gotten to know so many people who work so hard to create opportunities for those experiencing homelessness to become housed.

And July 15 will be the day when we all come together to hear our local mayoral candidates–Sabra Briere, Stephen Kunselman, Sally Hart Petersen, and Christopher Taylor–talk about how they plan to address these pressing issues. The evening will run something like this:

  • First, each candidate will have five minutes to discuss their plans for developing affordable housing and addressing the problem of homelessness.
  • Then, each candidate will answer, in turn, one question developed by a local organization or congregation, or group of organizations. The other candidates will be given the opportunity to respond to the same question.
  • Finally, candidates will answer questions from the audience.
  • A reception will conclude the evening.

This can be the beginning of a grass roots movement to pressure our local officials to work seriously to address the problem of homelessness in our community. I hope you’ll be able to join us!

In the meantime, what question would YOU like to ask the mayoral candidates? Use the comments to weigh in!


Guest post: Jane Ann Jibson

Thanks to Jane Ann for giving me permission to share this brief memoir from her blog, Jones Drive. You may enjoy following her blog, too!

The Saints of Hobo Island

I was very young when the parade of men began on Jones Drive.  They usually appeared around 6:00, what should have been my dinnertime.  One I particularly recall was a man who called his wife to say he’d be home late.  That was as my mother mixed his cocktail in the kitchen.  It was during a particularly loathsome visit by a man doused in too much aftershave that I decided to go wandering.Broadway is a hill that is not so daunting these days, but in my youth it seemed to touch the clouds.  At its base was Crandall’s Drug Store, the Broadway Market, Cloverleaf Dairy and Mr. O’s gas station.  If you ventured just a little bit further, there was the very scary electric company.  A boy fried in there once.  I didn’t know him.  That’s neither here nor there.
So, I wandered this far and found a path down to the river on the other side of the bridge from the railroad station which is now a hoity-toity restaurant with outrageous prices.  I liked it better as a railroad station.  I digress.  There was a jungle, just like the one Tarzan lived in (or so I thought).  Like Nirvana, midst the trees, was a cluster of gentlemen who were cooking fish and laughing.  One of them, Bob, cut our grass quite often and ate dinner in payment.  He welcomed me and I felt like here was a place I could hide.I hear a lot of folks speak of Ann Arbor’s homeless these days as if they are a blight.  I heard they will create some unsightly hotel in that spot soon with overpriced retail spots and places for the arrogant intelligentsia to sip organic teas and discuss social issues of which they know nothing.
It is the men of Hobo Island who saved my life from beatings and even from suicide.  It was a shortcut between Main Street and Broadway that became a stopping point on my way home from Forsythe in later years to listen to the blues played on frayed and battered guitars, listen to stories of life riding the trains, stories of lost love and tragedies of war.These men were Saints to me.  Sometimes mentally ill, physically ill, they only mirror the rest of our society with one exception.  They have enormous hearts.  How many teens did Shakey Jake turn around from a bad path?  Hundreds, thousands.  In any case, many more than the person eating caviar at the Gandy Dancer.

Ann Arbor City Council Votes for Affordable Housing

On Monday, June 2, the Ann Arbor City Council, after nearly an hour of debate, passed a resolution postponed from its April 7 meeting to allocate 50% of the proceeds from any future sale of the Library Lane Lot to the Affordable Housing Fund.

Council Member Sally Hart Petersen (Ward 2) confers with Thomas Partidge before the June 2 council meeting. (Photo Credit: James Downward)

Council Member Sally Hart Petersen (Ward 2) confers with Thomas Partidge before the June 2 council meeting.

This is a hopeful sign for affordable housing in Ann Arbor. As Mayor John Heiftje put it in his introduction to the discussion, because so little federal funding is available, nothing substantial can get done without a “pot of money” from local sources.

The debate centered around several issues:

  1. timing: is this the right time to make such a commitment, without knowing what the city budget will look like in the future or how much sale of the lot will generate?
  2. playing politics: is this just an empty political gesture, to “appease” voters?
  3. criteria: no formal criteria have been established for expenditures from the Affordable Housing Fund; some council members feel strongly that the fund should be used for capital (rather than recurring or operating) expenses
  4. rush to sell: one council member noted that allocating proceeds in this way could result in precipitous sale of the lot

An attempt to amend the resolution, to allocate 25% of the proceeds to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission and 25% to the Affordable Housing Fund, was defeated, on the grounds that 1) council can allocate money to the AAHC whenever it chooses, including from the Affordable Housing Fund, and 2) the AACH can, and should, seek funding from council when it needs it rather than receive funding without demonstrating need.

It seems to me that all of the issues raised–except, perhaps, timing–are valid. The fund should have spending criteria. Under pressure to provide affordable housing, council may rush to accept a proposal that is less than ideal. A resolution that doesn’t commit anyone to concrete actions could just be an empty political gesture.

But I prefer to think that a gesture made in the abstract is a gesture made on principle–outside of the practical and political pressures of a particular situation. To say that we’ll set aside any windfall for affordable housing is to make a promise based in values, kind of like deciding to pledge a tenth of your income to God’s work or to put $100 of every paycheck in the bank. It’s better to make these decisions when you’re not feeling the allure of an expensive vacation–or an expensive car repair. If you make the decision in advance, you’ll be more likely to keep it, come what may.

Rest assured, those supporters of affordable housing who attended last night’s meeting will continue monitor our city council’s use of the Affordable Housing Fund, to be sure they follow through.

Rachid and Wendy Hatem with PJ St. Clare--Elephants 4 Affordable Housing--at the post-meeting celebration

Rachid and Wendy Hatem with PJ St. Clare at the post-meeting celebration

If you’d like to read more about last night’s meeting, here are two articles:

MLive article on Library Lane Lot

Ann Arbor Chronicle Live Updates on June 2 City Council Meeting

Ann Arbor Chronicle Previews June 2 City Council Meeting Agenda

Obviously, for most of us, the city’s footing drain disconnection program is pretty compelling. (I figure anything having to do with sewers has immediate relevancy.)

But, in case you’ve got housing on your mind, and the Library Lane lot sale, here are some relevant excerpts from a recent article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle, as well as a link to the whole agenda preview: footing drains and all. A phone call or email to your council members today or tomorrow, letting them know of the support we intend to show to affordable housing and encouraging them to drive the resolution to a vote, would be well timed.

from the Chronicle:

“Another city-owned asset on the agenda is the Library Lane underground parking garage. The council has already directed the city administrator to engage a real estate broker to test the market for the development rights for the surface of the garage. The resolution on the June 2 agenda, which was postponed at the council’s April 7 meeting, would set a policy to deposit 50% of the net proceeds from the sale of the development rights into the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

“The item was postponed at the council’s April 7, 2014 meeting. The vote was 6-5 to postpone, with dissent from Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Margie Teall (Ward 4), Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5), and mayor John Hieftje.”

Ending Homelessness: Continuum of Care

Hang around people who work on affordable housing and homelessness long enough and sooner or later you’ll run into this term: Continuum of Care.

And if you’re a George Orwell fan, you’ll assume that this term is just another example of bureaucratic obfuscation.

Sometimes, though, behind the meaningless language there is meaningful information. And so it is with Continuum of Care. If you want to understand how housing is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, you need to understand CoC. And if you understand CoC, even a little bit, you’ll better understand how the whole housing assistance system is supposed to work in our county.

Meet the Continuum of Care

I learned a lot about the Continuum of Care when I attended its semi-annual membership meeting at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital on Thursday, May 29, 2014. At that meeting, Mary Jo Callan, Director of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED); Andrea Plevek, Human Services Manager from OCED; and Amanda Carlisle, Director, Washtenaw Housing Alliance, presented an overview of the CoC purpose, structure, and function, and took input from the membership about priorities and projects.

Here, briefly, is some background:

Continuum of Care was developed by Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s. It requires the bringing together of those experiencing homelessness, those who work with those experiencing homelessness, policy makers and resource controllers so that the whole community makes a commitment to ending homelessness. (For instance, at the meeting on May 29, representatives from various agencies, such as the Shelter Association and Avalon Housing, were in the same room with representatives from the sheriff’s office, the chief of Ann Arbor police, the mayor of Ann Arbor, people who are currently or formerly unhoused, and members of the faith community.)

In order to receive funding from HUD, counties must create a Continuum of Care AND create a 10 year plan to end homelessness. (You can read more about Washtenaw County’s ten year plan here.) Mary Jo Callan stressed the point that HUD funding is only a sliver of the pie for funding to address affordable housing and homelessness in our county. Nevertheless, we need it.

What CoC Does

The current objectives of the Washtenaw County CoC are to

  • increase programming to end chronic homelessness
  • increase housing stability
  • increase income of program participants
  • increase number of participants receiving mainstream benefits
  • use rapid rehousing to reduce family homelessness

Although there is a membership meeting where this big picture stuff gets discussed, the real coordination among agencies and programs happens on the board of the CoC and also on the committees. Wendy Hatem, chair of the board of Religious Action for Affordable Housing (RAAH), serves on the board of the Continuum of Care, as a representative from the faith community. There are three standing committees: the Funding Review Team, the Data Leadership and Performance Measurement Team, the HAWC (Housing Access for Washtenaw County) Oversight and Evaluation Team. Ad hoc committees can also be formed as needed. In addition, there’s a data collection system, called the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), that every CoC service provider is required to use. All of this is supposed to improve coordination among agencies–and better outcomes for those experiencing homelessness.

Although the work of coordination gets done on the board and in committees, the broad membership raises important issues to discuss and address. During the part of the program devoted to collecting feedback for CoC planning, Callan, Plevek, and Carlisle took questions and comments from the audience. Here are a few of them, paraphrased:

  • How are the funds received from HUD targeted and are the allocations and decisions about allocations public information?
  • Some people are working but homeless. They need a place of their own. How can we expand the supply of affordable housing in the county?
  • What percentage of HUD funding is used for homelessness services, rather than to address affordable housing?
  • Is the current emphasis on transitional housing or on permanent housing?
  • How could we increase Ypsilanti’s representation on the CoC membership and board?
  • What’s the board going to do about landlord engagement?

Affordable Housing Matters . . .

One thing that became clear to me during this meeting is how significant an issue affordable housing is in Ann Arbor and how many disincentives there are to its creation. Homelessness is one problem, but to address it we must deal with the broader problem of affordable housing and the fact that even a simple, decent place to live can be out of the price range of someone earning minimum wage, or more.

An article on the WonkBlog at the Washington Post drives this point home. According to data collected by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there’s no county in America where a person can afford a decent, one-bedroom apartment on minimum wage. (Some counties in Arkansas come close.) In Washtenaw County, you have to make more than $15/hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment. That’s about the same as Cook County, Illinois, but way less than, say, Marin County, California, where the one-bedroom housing wage is nearly $30/hour.

And So Do Services for People Experiencing Homelessness

So, it’s perfectly understandable that a lot of focus goes toward affordable housing, since the only way to end homelessness is with a house. Yet, services for people experiencing homelessness also deserve attention. In a conversation with two of my fellow attendees–one currently experiencing homelessness, one formerly homeless–it became clear that all the attention on Rapid Rehousing and Housing First doesn’t sit well with everyone. Temporary or emergency shelters have their place–and they deserve funding, too, because not everyone is ready or able to move into stable housing. Even as we work to fund and develop more affordable housing, we should remember those who find it impossible to remain stably housed on their own.

If you’d like to read more about Washtenaw County Continuum of Care, please follow this link: CoC Washtenaw County