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Flashback: Homeless
for the holidays

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Chris Cummings

Chris Cummings

This article originally appeared in our December 2010 edition

The recession has put many local people in need of a place to live — and a huge strain on everyone who pitches in to help.

Story by Lynn Monson

Photos by Adam Jacobs

Wenona Forster thinks about Dec. 6 all day, every day.

Wenona Forster and her son Nathan

Wenona Forster and her son Nathan

She calls it her “out date” – the day she and her 9-year-old son, Nathan, will have to move out of the Staples Family Shelter run by the Salvation Army on Packard Road in Ann Arbor.

The Salvation Army allows homeless people to stay at the shelter for 90 days, providing them food, safety, spiritual nourishment and counseling as they try to find a job and solve the problems that forced them to the shelter. But after 90 days, plus a compassionate grace period if necessary, residents are expected to move on to more permanent housing.

The other two family homeless shelters in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area – Alpha House on Jackson Road west of Ann Arbor and SOS Community Services  in Ypsilanti – have the same requirement. Without an exit goal, some residents would view the shelters as permanent homes. The shelters have too few beds and too many people on their waiting lists to allow that.

The good news for Forster, as she discussed her “out date” one morning in November, is that she had just started a part-time job at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. She’d prefer a full-time job, but this one lets her save some money and likely qualify for rent assistance so she can get an apartment when she moves out of the shelter.

She has no car and pays to keep most of her possessions in a storage unit – clothing, furniture, everything that wouldn’t fit in her shelter room.

Domino effect

Forster left her home of nine years in Adrian after her jobs there – part-time in a nursing home and running a home daycare – fell apart. As the economy crashed and people lost their jobs, they could no longer afford – and no longer needed – daycare for their kids. “The single moms lost their jobs – and there went mine,” Forster said.

She spent a year and a half looking for work. A friend in Ann Arbor encouraged her to come here because there would be more jobs, and the friend offered a place to stay. Forster had no better luck in Ann Arbor, so she applied for the shelter waiting list in July.

“I have been to every nursing home possible here in Ann Arbor but no one’s doing any hiring just yet. They say, ‘I can give your application to the manager.’ Well, OK,” Forster says, frustrated by the repetitive nature of the conversations.

In August, she and her son, Nathan, moved into the shelter. A few weeks later, an older son, 20, moved in. He lives in a separate room. He’s found a part-time job and seems to be doing well as he heads toward his out date a bit later in December, his mother said.

Forster’s new job meshes fairly well with her parenting duties for Nathan. Every morning Nathan and two other kids at the Salvation Army shelter head off to school at nearby Mitchell Elementary and then Forster takes the bus to her new job. Her work starts a half hour after she drops off Nathan at school and she returns to the shelter an hour and a half after he gets there after school.

“It’s a job. It’s something I have to do to survive and take care of my (youngest) son,” she said of the new routine. “I have to make sure he has everything — a roof over his head.”

Buoyed by the new job, Forster has put in applications for two apartments and is investigating a criminal justice program at Washtenaw Community College. She went to an orientation earlier this month and applied for financial aid to pay for classes that start in January. She says it’s a good field with lots of jobs and would allow her to pursue positions that help children.

In the meantime, she says she would feel a lot better if she already had an apartment or knew that she would be signing a lease in time to move directly from the shelter to her new home before she has to leave the shelter.

“I try to keep my head high, keep my head up so I don’t fall on it, so I don’t get discouraged,” Forster said. “The staff here helps you keep from getting discouraged.”

Our neighbors

Jeff Matznick makes use of the services at the Delonis Center in Ann Arbor.

Jeff Matznick makes use of the services at the Delonis Center in Ann Arbor.

Washtenaw County is lucky. Its needy and homeless population can depend on an extensive system of professional social workers, administrators and facilities working in concert with legions of well-organized volunteers at dozens of private and faith-based organizations. It is an impressive network by any standard.

And yet there was the headline in The Detroit News last month:  “Ann Arbor struggles with homeless influx.”

The story listed panhandling complaints from Ann Arbor police and cited praise for local food, medical and shelter services from a few homeless men who lived in tents or shelters in the city. The story suggested that Ann Arbor’s excellent network of services draws a steady stream of people from outside Washtenaw County, thus causing budget problems for the city and county.

Three weeks later, workers on the front lines of the homeless effort were still huffing about the piece.

Poor families in Detroit are not flocking to Ann Arbor, said Ellen Schulmeister, CEO of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, in an opinion piece on a local news website. Schulmeister’s group runs the Delonis homeless shelter in downtown Ann Arbor.

The main problem is local people who’ve suddenly found themselves without a roof over their heads thanks to the worst downturn since the Great Depression, she said.

Schulmeister says individuals who come to Ann Arbor to panhandle and seek services are a small percentage of the people who use the network.

Some local agencies, including two of the three main family shelters, have long had a policy of providing services to only those who live in the county or have relatives here since funds and shelter beds never keep up with demand. Other groups – often faith-based programs – take on all comers. Needy is needy, they say, so come on in.

It’s about jobs

The primary culprit in the rise of homelessness is loss of jobs.

Like the rest of the country, Wash-tenaw County homeless agencies say their burden won’t ease until more jobs are created. They had waiting lists before the economy went sour. Local homeless shelters say the difference now is that families almost always stay the maximum time limit as job counselors struggle to help unskilled workers find even the most basic jobs.

In September, Ann Arbor registered an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent, while Michigan was at 13 percent and the national rate was 9.6 percent. Ann Arbor’s better numbers are heartening until you check back to early 2000 and see that the city registered in at the stunningly low rate of 1.9 percent.

Mortgage foreclosures, one of the strong indicators of the dire economic times, are on a pace in Washtenaw County to break the four-year high set in 2008, according to the county treasurer’s office. Through the first 10 months of this year, the county recorded 1,256 foreclosures. If November and December maintain the average, the county will likely set a five-year high, surpassing the previous worst year, 2008, when there were 1,439 foreclosures. Five years ago, in 2006, the number was 703.

Not everyone who loses their home to foreclosure becomes homeless; many have family and friends who help. But it’s another indicator that the economy is stumbling rather than picking up steam. Combine the trend of more people losing their homes with a so-so job market of mostly minimum-wage jobs, and the local social services network doesn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel in 2011.

The greater demand means waiting lists are longer at the shelters and agencies, jobs are harder to find, food pantries run through supplies faster and affordable housing is in greater demand. The City Council and the County Commission face tough decisions about how to allocate revenue that’s shrinking in part because property values – thus tax receipts – have slipped so seriously.

Poverty’s a cycle

Tony, a former homeless man, has become a familiar figure at the corner of Main and Liberty in downtown Ann Arbor in the last couple of months. He sells copies of Groundcover, a new monthly newspaper focusing on local homeless issues. Homeless vendors earn 75 cents of each $1 sale.

Tony, a former homeless man, has become a familiar figure at the corner of Main and Liberty in downtown Ann Arbor in the last couple of months. He sells copies of Groundcover, a new monthly newspaper focusing on local homeless issues. Homeless vendors earn 75 cents of each $1 sale.

Julie Steiner is executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Washtenaw County, which operates the Alpha House shelter for homeless families. She said many families endure poverty for generations. But when the economy dives and jobs vanish, those families can quickly drop from poverty into homelessness.

Alpha House has 25 beds and six family bedrooms. A single mom and three kids is a typical arrival.

Steiner says that up until about five years ago, low-income families living on the edge could limp along with help from local agencies and a better job market. She estimates that about half the families that came to Alpha House five years ago had a job, maybe not a great job but one that helped the family meet most of its needs. And if they lost one job, usually they could find another. They might have to seek community help for a while, but usually they could pull themselves back up far enough to live on their own.

After the economy dived, less than 1 percent of the people who come to Alpha House today have a job and many young adults in the family have never had a job, Steiner said.

Four years ago, the average stay at Alpha House was 52 days. Two years ago, it reached the 90-day limit and has stayed that way. “They couldn’t find the income to afford the housing,” Steiner said, so they have to keep staying at the shelter.

“What changed for us was how much emphasis we had to put on job-seeking,” Steiner said. The staff works to help people find jobs, prepare for job interviews, follow-up, dress appropriately and put their best face forward during the hiring process.

The types of jobs available to unskilled workers have also changed.

“Getting a job at McDonald’s or Wendy’s is now nearly impossible because there are people with college degrees … people with a work history. The challenges of being low income, low education are great. (They say) why would you hire that person?” she asks.

“That’s what’s changed for the families.  Now it’s really hard to piece it together. We changed our focus to jobs, jobs, jobs,” Steiner said.

That’s the same story for most of the shelters and homeless organizations – more emphasis on jobs because a paycheck is the best form of housing insurance, the best ticket out of, and deterrence for, the homeless shelter.

Staples Family Center director Chris Levleit offers counseling and group sessions for residents in what amounts to a blend of moral support and hands-on training related to job- and apartment-hunting.

Judging by how the time limit for staying at the shelter has changed over time, Levleit knows things are different today.

“It used to be, ‘Find a job in two weeks,’ so it used to be that it was possible,” she says. “And now sometimes I have people here the whole (three-month time limit) and they still don’t get a job.

“(Recently) I’ve had very few people find full-time work while they were here. And if it’s part-time, it doesn’t pay enough to help with housing.”

So many factors are involved in a family’s success: job readiness, daycare, transportation, organizational and planning skills and its local, social network. One often overlooked but important skill, Levleit said, is the ability to budget and watch the family finances. “When a rich person doesn’t follow the budget, the chances are that the consequences aren’t so dire,” she says. “But for people who live paycheck to paycheck, being able to adhere to a well-thought-out budget is crucial.”

The homeless problem is “definitely deepening,” according to Major  John Williams, Washtenaw County coordinator for the Salvation Army.

“People are hanging onto their possessions and trying to live out of their vehicles or slide into a shelter, which is very limited (availability). The process is going worse than they expected. It’s slowly getting worse and worse instead of better.”

Losing a home hits children hard, particularly those under 15. Being homeless can cause serious emotional problems.

“Your very first Christmas in a shelter is devastating,” Williams says. “Even though everyone reaches out to help, and this is a very giving community, the emotional and psychological impacts are not being dealt with in a very good way.” Losing a home can break up a family, which only deepens the crisis.

Wholesale services

Michelle Leaphart, housing crisis supervisor at SOS Community Services in Ypsilanti

Michelle Leaphart, housing crisis supervisor at SOS Community Services in Ypsilanti

• For the year through September 2010, more than 400 people received services at the Staples shelter – the equivalent of 10,000 bed nights, as the administrators term it, along with 20,000 meals provided by about 50 volunteers.

• Countywide, the Salvation Army says it provided about 8,000 services last year, about the same as previous years, including a food pantry, soup kitchen and programs in Ypsilanti.

• Schulmeister, the shelter association CEO, said more than 30 organizations partner with the association, helping in various ways with a residential program that has 75 beds, up from 50 last year.

• The Delonis shelter served 432 people in fiscal 2010, about 100 more than the previous year. They anticipate serving an additional 100 this year.

• Delonis served 1,054 people in 2007 and 1,300 in 2008. The center’s non-residential program includes employment assistance, health care, referrals for clothing, transportation help, substance abuse evaluations, mental health assessments, meals and other community networking.

“We can’t control how people are falling into poverty,” Schulmeister said. “We can’t control how employers are laying off people. We can’t control funding sources. We can’t affect the building of affordable housing. We can’t affect politics.

“But we can control how we treat people here and the homeless. … We can get rid of stereotypes (about homeless people). We can pull together to get people re-housed, one person at a time. We can provide mental health, substance abuse services at the clinic. So basically (what we can control is) what we offer and how we treat people.”

‘They really care’

Bill has had a hard time finding work since losing his job as a truck driver.

Bill has had a hard time finding work since losing his job as a truck driver.

Bill (he asked that his last name not be used) lives at the Delonis Center, which houses adults only. He praised the regular visits by a Michigan Works job counselor and the in-house job-hunting help from case workers on staff. He needs it these days. He lost his job as a truck driver and wore out his welcome at a relative’s home.

Short and stocky, Bill is clean-shaven except for a tidy mustache. His short hair is neatly trimmed and he wears a pressed green shirt with an open collar. Although it is mid-afternoon and stuffy inside on an unseasonably warm November day, Bill looks fresh, as though he just finished his morning shower and is ready to head to work at some thriving Ann Arbor business.  Instead, he’ll be killing time in the day room at a homeless shelter in between appointments with caseworkers determined to get him back into the work force.

Bill says he’s 49, grew up in Redford and comes from a good family. He once owned his own painting company, then got into truck driving. He rented a room in Pittsfield Township and worked for a trucking company out of Indianapolis. He loved it, traveling all over the country and into Canada, taking loads to far away places and once delivering cargo to a cave large enough for trucks to drive in. One day in March 2008, in Texarkana, Texas, he rolled the truck he was driving. It was on an S-curve in busy traffic and he wasn’t moving more than 5 mph, he says. The truck went over onto its side in slow motion. He laments that he told too much to the trucking company investigators – basically that he had no idea how it happened. The company fired him.

Details of the accident, along with a speeding ticket from longer ago, are now listed on his standardized  trucking report known as the DAC. Any reputable trucking company checks the DAC of its job applicants. A rolled truck incident scares off employers, who have access to plenty of drivers with clean records. Bill tried finding new work with  trucking companies, with no success, though he still keeps a long list with contact numbers. He’s been told that trucking companies don’t look back further than three years on the DAC reports, so after next March he should have more luck applying for those sorts of jobs.

After he lost the trucking job, he moved in with a relative and drove an Ann Arbor cab for a year. “I loved it. I met great people,” he says. “Ann Arbor is a tip city. I once got a $27 tip.” But it was an up and down job. While some days he made more than enough to pay the daily rental fee to the cab company, plus mileage and gas, on other days he would work 12 hours with precious few fares and still have to pay the fee. Then the cab owner raised the fees. So Bill quit to look for a better job.

He had been living with a relative for a year and a half, but both agreed it was time for Bill to move on. That meant living out of his car, parking at night in Meijer or Wal-Mart parking lots. He did that for a couple of weeks.

“In this town you can live in a tent, under a bush, on a porch, or come here (to the shelter),” he said. “You have a lot more opportunities if you stay here – working on the computer filling out (job) apps, working with Michigan Works (job counselors).”

Through the shelter, he got a job referral two months ago to drive an asphalt truck for an out-of-state construction company working near Port Huron. He was picked up in Ann Arbor, went to the work site and was paid by the day, along with overnight lodging. But then it seemed the company didn’t have enough work, which meant no pay and no way to get home. He asked for $20 so he could return to Ann Arbor. As he was leaving, someone told him the company had enticed other homeless workers with the same scam.

He remains upbeat. The shelter has referred him to a limousine company. To prepare Bill for his interview, caseworkers gave him a cash card to buy dress clothes. “(The shelter staffers) really try to get you back to work,” he said. “They really care about it – more than anything. Except maybe the food.”

What you can do

The organization that operates the third major family shelter program in the county, SOS Community Services in Ypsilanti, is moving into a lead role as the point of contact agency that will coordinate services with other local agencies. The change comes as the state of Michigan tries to streamline how the public gets services.

The agency has a crisis division that offers food, housing services and shelter to low income people who have a financial setback.

Family shelter is provided through the SOS Housing Crisis Center, limited to Washtenaw County residents. SOS shelters about 60 families each year, including 100 children.

The SOS mission is to lift people up from poverty in the richest country in the world. “If you live in poverty, all you see is poverty,” Faye Askew-King, executive director of SOS Community Services, said. “So if you don’t have someone who is broadening your horizons … We represent the motivation and the encouragement that they can do it.

“I don’t think people realize how vulnerable it makes you feel when you cannot provide food and shelter … people don’t understand the systematic issues at work,” Askew-King said.

What should we understand about the daily efforts to help the needy and homeless in Washtenaw County? “Change happens one person at a time. Think about what you can do and do that consistently.”

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