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$3 Million Homeless Shelter Opposed

$3 Million Homeless Shelter Opposed image $3 Million Homeless Shelter Opposed image
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As a homeless advocate and current member of the Shelter Association Board of Directors, I should be delighted that the local government is finally willing to spend some real money to combat homelessness. But I'm not. The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners recently approved spending $3.1 million on the construction of a new, 120-bed shelter at the corner of Ellsworth and Stone School Roads. The plan for this shelter was among the set of recommendations issued by a 1 6-member Task Force on Homelessness. The Task Force, a body charged with finding solutions to the homelessness problem in Washtenaw County, was convened in November of 1996 by Robert Guenzel, Washtenaw County Administrator; Neal Berlin, Ann ArborCity Administrator; and Edward Koryzno, Ypsilanti City Manager. Over 100 community members were recruited to serve on subcommittees and to make recommendations to the Task Force regarding matters of Administration, Mission Clarity, Facilities, Funding, and Supportive Services. Out of the hundreds of hours of research and discussion came hundreds of recommendations. Two of those recommendations have already been acted upon. The administrative subcommittee advised that a Management Intervention Group replace the Board of the Shelter Association due to the perceived ineptitude and financial mismanagement on the part of the Board. The Shelter Board was not replaced entirely, but is operating jointly with the conveners of the Task Force and their representatives. The Task Force also recommended - and the County Commissioners approved - building a new homeless shelter on Ellsworth Road. The Task Force believes this new shelter will succeed where the old shelter system fails because it will be modeled on a shelter in South Bend, Indiana, that emphasizes intense intervention, high expectations and strong community support. And although each Task Force subcommitteeindependently came up with strong tions for permanent affordable housing, these fíndings have thus far been ignored. It never ceases to amae me how people with apparent intelligence and social consciences can get it so wrong. The Ellsworth Road shelter should not be built because it will not make one iota of a dent in the homeless problem, the current shelter system can be fixed for a fraction of the cost, and moving the shelter to the outskirts of town is designed to plácate downtown merchants at the expense of the needs of the homeless population. Selling a Pipe Dream People are homeless because they lack a home. We often forget that very simple and obvious point. The only thing that is different between a homeless person and one who is not, is resources. People who have money or have family supporting them are simply able to maintain their problems privately. Talk to any social worker and they will teil you that the causes of homelessness are physical abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, lack of job skills, etc. Providing services to address these problems is good. But people with homes also utilize social services, just with different names: psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, credit counselors, job counselors, marriage counselors, fïnancial planners, accountants, professors. If mental illness, physical abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and lack of education and job skills were the causes of homelessness then there would be 200 million homeless people in the United States. Money doesn't prevent dysfunction, it just prevents homelessness. If money is the problem, then it seems like jobs are the solution. Yet in 1996, 60% of the Huron Street night shelter residents were already employed in traditional jobs; many others were employed in socially unacceptable jobs such as panhandling, can collecting, prostitution, and drug selling. Michigan has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and one of its lowest rates in recent history. Heil, the stock market is busting at the seams. The economy is rocking. It all boils down to a shortage of living wages. A living wage is also a very simple concept - it means a wage that allows you to live in a home with basic necessities such as food, clothing, and toilet paper. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calculated the Fair' Market Rent (FMR) for a one-bedroom apartment in Washtenaw County to be $533. The FMR does not have anything to do with actual available rental prices, it is just a measure of what the rental prices should be for a median-income person in agiven community . HUD also recommends that only 30% of one's income should be spent on housing. Using this criterion, a single person would need to make $10.25hour in order to af ford a $533 one-bedroom apartment. Now imagine if that person has children? The funny thing is that many of the people for whom I have tremendous respect in the social service industry, including the Shelter Association, recognize all of the above and still spend the bulk of their agencies' resources selling a pipe-dream to their clients: "Wanda, I have a great job for you that you are highly qualified for. You will be making $5.50 an hour as a nurse's aide. Your work will be dirty and difficult, and you will be treated like shit. Your kids will be in day care and you will rarely see them (it's very important for women to have paid daycare in order for them to work). You will come home irritable and exhausted and will probably take it out on your kids. You will not get paid vacations or health benefits through your employer (though you will qualify for Medicaid after filling out the proper paperwork). Butyou will have a job and it will boost your esteem, because just think abóut it, you will be a productive member of society. And by the way, if you do nöt take the job then you are refusing to cooperate and help yourself and you're outta here." Minimum Wages & Affordable Housing Living wages are necessary to prevent homelessness and they are also attainable. Corporations are making record profits. Courtesy of the Ann Arbor News, August 17, 1997: "From June 1995 to June 1 996, job cuts were made by 49% of major U.S. companies, according to a survey by the American Management Association. That's despite a growing economy and corporate profits expected to top $760 billion this year." It's interesting to note that, whereas the county has approved money to build the new shelter, they do not intend to finance its operation. They contend that the business community must step forward with the funds to run the shelter. The irony, for most employers, is that it would be more cost-efficient to pay their workers a living wage than it would be to help finance a shelter where their underpaid workers may end up. Let's assume we can't pass a law mandating that all businesses in Washtenaw County pay a minimum hourly wage of $10.25. How else are people going to afford a home? Affordable housing. According to Avalon Housing, a local non-profit agency devoted to providing affordable housing and support services for low-income people, a one-bedroom apartment costs approximately $50,000 to acquire and rehabilitate. ín its five years of existence, Avalon has procured tax dollars, private funds, and individual donations to build or purchase 92 units of permanent affordable housing. Residents' rents range from $285-$317 for a one-bedroom apartment. Avalon Housing takes a comprehensive approach to homelessness. They provide affordable housing first and work to make services available when necessary. Sometimes social workers become so focused on clients' behavior - teaching them life skills and dealing with their crises - that they run out of energy or visión to advocate for living wages and affordable housing. This shortsighted view of things also sterns from an intense competition between social service agencies to survive. Part of the funding process is that an agency must justify its program and convince foundations that their program deserves to be funded. This necessitates a whole-hearted commitment on the part of the agency to its program, because its implementation lives or dies on its fundability. The reality is that the vast majority of funding from both government entities and private foundations is for behavior modification programs not shelter or housing. And agencies get sucked into a fundraising nightmare that gives them programs but nowhere for their clients to go when the program is over. The con veners of the Task Force and many of its members seem to have picked up on the notion that the problems with the Shelter Association and the problems with the homeless can be fixed by teaching different behaviors. You pull some money together, throw up a building, and drop in the best support services money can buy and voilá, problem solved. It reminds me of an assembly line: ship the homeless out of sight, remold them, and then let them try to re-enter society. Dollars & Scnsc It is estimated that the 120-bed Ellsworth Road shelter will cost $3. 1 million dollars to build and $ 1 million a year to run. County Administrator Robert Guenzel says that he wants the new shelter to be a model for the rest of the country. Ann Arbor is like that. We can't be satisfied with being good. We always have to be the best. We have the Rolls Royce of bus systems, the best library in the United States, and we aren't just an expensive community to live in, we are the most expensive in the Midwest. If the Ellsworth Road shelter is built with all the recommended support services, it will be much more costly than the current shelter system. And if the Ellsworth Road shelter is indeed going to be on a par with the South Bend shelter to which it has been likened, operating costs are sure to exceed the estimated $ 1 million Granted the system is underfunded and may slightly skew these numbers, but the present shelter system offers by far the most bang for the buck when it comes to measuring cost per bed nights on an annual basis. The South Bend shelter, with 101 beds and a yearly operating expense of $ 1 .9 million, works out to $52.25 per bed each night. The proposed Ellsworth Road shelter, with 120 beds and projected expenses of $ 1 million a year, comes in at $23. 1 4 a night per bed. Whereas the Shelter Association currently pro vides 144 beds with $743,435 in expenses, or a $14.34 cost per bed night. Perhaps the county thinks we can provide Cadillac services at Audi prices as opposed to the current Shelter' s reliable-but-quaint Chevette. (SEE NEXT PAGE) The Ellsworth Road shelter should not be built because it will not make one iota of a dent in the homeless problem, the current shelter system can be fixed for a fraction of the cost, and moving the shelter to the outskirts of town is designed to plácate downtown merchants at the expense of the needs of the homeless population. ELLSWQRTH ROAD SHELTER (FROM PREVIOUS PAGE) A Tempest in a Teacup If the Shelter is so cost effective, what's the uproar? The Shelter Association was started as a grassroots organization in the basement of St. Andrew's Church 15 years ago. Concerned parishioners saw hungry people in the street and neither the private sector nor the government sector was taking the lead in providing services. From that humble beginning, the Shelter Association has grown to include two overnight shelters, two transitional houses, a day shelter with support services, a rotating church shelter, a free medical clinic and a free meal program. The number of homeless people seeking services from the shelter has quintupled since its inception and the Shelter Association's budget has struggled to keep up. If you only read the Ann Arbor News, you have probably concluded that the Shelter Association is managed by a bunch of knuckleheaded wonders squandering away funds on country club passes. Shelter Association board members have been accused of everything from lack of oversight into the Shelter's financial and day-to-day operations to being dysfunctional and misappropriating funds. In the fall of 1996, the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County requested $75,000 in emergency funding from Washtenaw County and $65,000 in emergency funding from the City of Ann Arbor. Although both the county and the city did allocate the money to the Shelter, County Administrator Robert Guenzel told the Ann Arbor News that he had serious concerns about giving away such large sums and wasn't sure it was the best use of the county' s money. Therefore, he convened the Task Force on Homelessness to find a "real" solution to homelessness. To the county, $75,000 is like peeing in the ocean - no one knows it's there except the crab you peed on. Washtenaw County 's annual budget is over $150 million. In 1996, the county spent more on the Humane Society 's animal shelter than on the Shelter Association's human shelters. Lack of adequate resources has been at the root of the Shelter Association'sdifficultiesforyears. Anyone who visits the shelter will find cramped quarters, old equipment, overworked and underpaid staff and not a scrap of fat. When limited resources meant turning someone away, the Shelter always erred on the side of squeezing in one more person. Instead of focusing its efforts on providing a highquality environment for a select number of people, the Shelter spread itself thin for the maximum number of people. Their efforts were commendable and certainly helped thousands of people over the years. However, the Shelter Board readily admits that it has been underfunded and has not been providing an optimal environment. It is also true that the Shelter Association needs and welcomes the support of all the Task Force experts. The current Shelter Association Board and administrative staff have made a tremendous effort to bring the Shelter' s operations under tighter control. To the surprise of many , the recently completed 1 996 audit shows that the Shelter operated in the black (brought in more money than they spent) for the first time in many years. The auditors did not find any instances of monies that were misspent, mismanaged or missing. The auditor did find instances of internal financial control problems that affected the agency's ability to bill funding agencies in a timely manner and to effïciently use their resources to apply for new grants and monitor old grants. They did not find any instances of lapsed funding due to a lack of billing. The auditor stated that the cause of the problems were: complexity of grant billings, inadequate accounting software, lack of training and procedure documentation, and executi ve turnover. When the con veners of the Task Force requested that the entire Shelter Board resign (with the implied threat that funding would be cut off), the Board refused. Board members did agree to share management responsibilities with the County, City of Ann Arbor, City of Ypsilanti, and the Washtenaw United Way under the auspices of the MOC (Management Oversight Committee). The MOC is currently providing technical assistance to the Shelter and is purchasing sorelyneeded computer equipment and software to automate the billing and accounting systems. However, the MOC's involvement with the Shelter has not had a direct impact on stabilizing the Association'sresourcesyet.Infact, the Shelter's administrative oversight and fundraising abilities have been seriously hampered by the Task Force and the MOC. The Shelter Association has been without three key administrative positions - Director, Fund Development Director and Program Coördinator - because the conveners of the Task Force directed the Board not to replace them until the Shelter Association's administration had been restructured. In addition, bad publicity has hindered fundraising efforts. Contributions by individuals is down by $35,000 compared to this time last year. Do As I Say, Not As I Do ... Although the MOC is officially co-managing the Shelter, the county government is puiling the strings. If the county is going to take the lead in creating a new shelter that is fiscally responsible, perhaps we should open their books first. Washtenaw County' s 1996 audit revealed that two of its departments had serious budget déficits. According to the Ann Arbor News on May 8, 1997, the Community Mental Health (CMH) department had expenditures over revenue to the tune of $ 1 .2 million and the Employment Training and Community Services Agency had a $609,529 operating deficit. Four out of five of the county's representatives on the MOC are from CMH and Finance. It's also noteworthy that the county's CMH department's budget for 1997 is $36,591,391. The Task Force found that 20% of the homeless have a major mental disorder. Either CMH is not doing its job or the $42,000 CMH allocated to the Shelter to deal with the homeless mentally ill is not only woef'ully inadequate, but insulting. The county itself had to revise its entire financial system in 1994. The county Treasurer's Office came under fire for a bookkeeping mess that ended up costing the Treasurer her job and the county $430,000 in auditor's fees to fix. The problem cited by the auditors, Deloitte and Touche, in the Ann Arbor News of Dec. 15, 1994, was "current internal control procedures which are not sufficient to support county computerized operations." Also, county-wide financial control systems were found to be "severely compromised." The solution was a new automated system and improved operational processes. The Shelter Association's financial problems are not unique and, considering the millions of dollars that the county is apparently willing to cough up now, they could be easily alleviated. I would propose that instead of building a new shelter, the county could better serve the homeless community by increasing its current allotment of $25O,OOOyear for 30 local nonprofit agencies to $1 million. In fact, one of the Task Force 's recommendations was to "utilize current local services more effecti vely through cooperation, collaborati ve efforts and evaluation of all provider roles in a continuüm of services." A number of Task Force subcommittee participants have said that this effort has had the remarkable effect of bringing a myriad of social service providers together to work on a common goal and they hope this carries over into a collaborative effort in the daily services they all provide. A number of Task Force participants also feit that the Ellsworth Road Shelter plan was rushed through. The conveners insisted that there was a need to have a concrete success early in the process. Always lurking in the background was the county's upcoming capital outlay budget that was scheduled for a vote in,June of 1997 (this budget is set only once every 3 years). As the most visible convener, the county staked its credibility on a concrete action resulting from the enormous effort put into the Task Force. The county's planning department offered the Ellsworth Road site as the only viable piece of county-owned land they would be willing to give up for the purpose of building a shelter. The construction of a large shelter at the Ellsworth Road site was quickly decided upon without a thorough plan on operations, as recommended by the subcommittees. Loc a tí on, Location, & Location! In addition, the facilities subcommittee looked at several options and clearly stated that smaller shelters of 50 people were optimal. Various suggestions were made including renovating the Huron and Felch shelters (costing far less than $1 million) and finding a new site in downtown Ypsilanti. Like all real estáte transactions, the three most important considerations regarding a homeless shelter are location, location, and location. Any solution that does not place the bulk of the shelter beds in downtown locations, particularly downtown Ann Arbor, adds a tremendous burden to the homeless in terms of access to transportation. And transportation is the key in getting access to jobs, food, health care, education, substance abuse treatment, and mental health treatment. The current support services for the homeless are spread out all over the county. Most people who are homeless are also carless. If the destination is not within walking distance, then the AATA is the cheapest option. The bus routes on the AATA map are arranged like a crooked wheel with the spokes jutting out from a single pivot point - downtown Ann Arbor. The sy stem was designed to take a person to one destination at a time. When you start at the pivot point you can take a single spoke to your destination. The trouble starts when you do not start at the pivot point - you have to go to the pivot point and then transfer to another spoke to get to your destination. For those of you who have a car, imagine what it would be like if every time you wanted to go somewhere you had to drive to downtown Ann Arbor first, get a ticket punched, and then wait for a signal to head to your destination. Exilcd From Main Street? Regardless of how the homeless fare when the dust settles, there will be at least one group who will think that the $3 million is well spent - downtown Ann Arbor merchants. The merchants have been complaining for years about aggressive panhandlers. They claim that the shelter is the magnet that draws them downtown. The tremendous irony is that very few shelter residents panhandle. The regulars, if you will, do not even live at the shelter. A word that is often used in conjunction with panhandling is the word assault - as in "I feit assaulted." The pólice report that the homeless rarely commit violent crimes and are much more often the victims of violent crimes. A 1 995 Ann Arbor News article reported that a homeless woman's possessions were removed by city workers from a sidewalk in front of a vacant store. "Susan Pollay, executive director of the State Street Area Association, praised the removal," the article read. "I'm really glad for our merchants," she told the News. "The mess may have looked especially unattractive to people in town briefly for football games and other fall events ... There are a lot people around who are new, who are not townies. It's a time to feel proud about our town." What will all those dranken, littering, obnoxious out-of-towners think when they drive in for a good ol' football game and see an old lady with boxes on the sidewalk, or a disheveled guy drinking in the park or urinating in a bush? As far as I can teil they'll blend right in. I've never seen so many open liquor violations, so much litter and public urination as I've seen on a football Saturday. The real solution to homelessness is for people to have the resources to own or rent their own home. In the meantime, people who lack those resources need someone to provide shelter. Like everyone else, homeless people have their share of problems adjusting to this world. They need social services that will help them cope and survive. The Shelter Association is doing an admirable job of providing those services on a lean budget. At the same time, it does need and deserve greater financial support. However, local government and service providers would be doing a disservice to the homeless population by building a $3 million shelter with a $l-$2 millionyear budget when with just a portion of that money they could adequately fund existing services in a comprehensive manner. The remaining funds could then be spent on a real solution to homelessness - affordable housing. If you only read the Ann Arbor News, you have probably concluded that the Shelter Association is managed by a bunch of knuckle-headed wonders squandering away funds on country club passes.


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