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Michigan Homeless: A Rising Tide Of Despair


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For the life of me I do not understand why this problem cannot be fixed in this country. This isn't brain surgery or sending a man to the moon its putting a roof over a persons head.






Ann Arbor — This progressive city, long known for embracing the poor and destitute, is learning that its support has a price.


For several years, homeless from around the state have descended upon the city because of a largesse that ranges from social services to the generosity of U-M students toward panhandlers, said city police, social service agencies and transients.


The number of homeless in Washtenaw County jumped from 4,212 in 2008 to 4,618 last year, according to the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. A quarter of them are from outside the county, said the association.


The influx contributed to a panhandling problem that grew so severe this summer that the police chief labeled it the "No. 1 crime," and the City Council assembled a task force to study it.


"We have people from all over," said Police Chief Barnett Jones. "We're on the cusp of being a victim of our generosity."


To discourage outsiders from coming to Ann Arbor, the city's 75-bed homeless shelter instituted a residency requirement earlier this year. That is, a person's last stable home must be located in the county.


But still they come, people like Don Schwartz, 55, a Detroit native who suffers from assorted mental afflictions.


He came to Ann Arbor because of the easy access to food, shelter and medical services. He bounces between a homeless shelter and the street.


"This is where I intend to stay," he said.


A daily breakfast at St. Andrew's Church is like a convention for the poor, he said.


Homeless who knew each other from other cities become reacquainted at the breakfast, he said. They trade information about the best places in Ann Arbor to get secondhand clothes or a temporary job.


Schwartz was at a homeless shelter last week listening to another transient discuss the city's extensive social services when the man said he was worried that knowledge of the services would attract throngs of poor people.


"We shouldn't be broadcasting this to all the Detroit area," said Brad Gabriel.


"They already know," said Schwartz.



Signs of influx


Among the signs of outsiders descending upon Ann Arbor are several homeless camps that have sprung up the past few years.


The largest, Camp Take Notice, where dozens of people sleep in tents in a patch of woods west of town, was started by a man who had lived in a similar camp in Seattle.


Another sign of the influx was the people police began encountering downtown, said Lt. Angela Adams.


Officers had long been familiar with the homeless from seeing the same faces day after day. In the past few years, however, new people began appearing, Adams said.


Questioning by police found the new people hailed from Detroit, Flint, Jackson and Grand Rapids, officers said.


"A lot are from southeast Michigan," Adams said.


Some of the homeless became emboldened after the city eliminated downtown police patrols for budgetary reasons, area merchants said.


In the spring, the homeless began aggressively asking people for handouts, blocking their path, following them, sometimes grabbing them, the merchants said. They violated a panhandling ordinance by approaching people in outdoor restaurants, movie lines and near ATMs.


Merchants and customers began complaining. Police don't keep track of the number of complaints, but said it was the biggest source of downtown calls they received during the summer.


"It's a pain," said Caroline Peters, 36, a Saline resident who frequently shops in Ann Arbor. "It makes you not want to come here anymore."


In response to the complaints, the City Council reconvened a task force to address the issue.


An earlier task force, which followed similar problems in 2001, led to the panhandling ordinance and several social services that helped the homeless.


The city also began a program to lobby U-M students, a notorious soft touch, against giving money to panhandlers. If the students wanted to help, they were encouraged to donate to organizations that treated the homeless for their medical or psychological needs.



A shocking declaration


During a recent council meeting that discussed the homeless problem, the police chief made a declaration that shocked some residents.


When he was an officer in another police department in the 1970s, it would regularly send people who had no home or resources to Ann Arbor, he said. The officers knew that Ann Arbor had more ample social services than their town did.


This week he told a reporter he knew several communities near his old city that did the same thing.


"I'm not the first officer to say we sought help in that community," he said.


He declined to identify his former city, but his job biography on the Ann Arbor city website shows that he worked for the Inkster Police Department.


A spokesman for Inkster said it no longer sends its indigent to Ann Arbor.


Ann Arbor's reputation for helping the poor stems from social services that eclipse what is offered elsewhere.


It's one of just a few cities in the state that continues to fund social services from its general fund. The city and county contribute $2.3 million a year.


Area social service agencies also receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and from other sources as well.


Because of the horrid economy that has roiled government budgets across the state, Ann Arbor city staff has recommended for the past three years that the social service money be cut from the city budget.


And for three years the City Council has said no.


Instead, its members have chopped into such things as police and fire services.


Councilwoman Sabra Briere said it was important to help the poor now more than ever.


"I would not like to think of us as Mr. Plentiful and Lady Bountiful," she said. "A lot of people here actually care about keeping the ladder down to help people than pulling it up from behind them."



'This place was a blessing'


The homeless who have come to Ann Arbor say it's nothing like other cities they've lived in.


They marvel at the Delonis Center, which, besides offering a place to sleep, provides a health clinic with doctors and case workers who help them find work and medical services.


Gabriel, 45, who has lived all over the United States, rattled off a list of services he receives at Delonis or other parts of the city.


An alcoholic who suffers from depression, he came to Ann Arbor four years ago after being in prison for a drunken-driving conviction. "This place was a blessing," he said about Delonis.


Another homeless man, Tim Johnson, 45, was a former handyman from Belleville.


Living on the streets of Ann Arbor for the past year, he said people who stayed at homeless shelters in Detroit were shocked by what they found in Ann Arbor.


Residents' possessions were stolen all the time in Detroit, they said. The Ann Arbor shelter was safer, cleaner and better organized, they said.


"I give it an A-plus," Johnson said.


Gabriel liked one other thing about Ann Arbor. It's easy for him to blend into the community.


Because of the casual dress of students, he laughed, it's hard to tell the difference between a student and a homeless person.

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Are you saying you dont understand why people are homeless or why there arent more cities like Ann Arbor?

Fixing the homeless situation. Why is this such a problem to fix. If the feds can spend a trillion dollars or more on two failed wars or a trillion dollars or more on a failed war on drugs. Why then won't they spend a trillion dollars putting a roof over peoples heads. I'm not stupid enough to know that not all people want to be helped but we know there are tens of thousands who do.

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I work a few hours a week at a Salvation Army rehab center teaching GED. A lot of the guys there are just there because they are homeless, not because of addiction problems.


There's lots of reasons that people wind up homeless but what amazes me is how difficult it is to escape that plight. No address means no anything most times.


The problem will get worse after next month's elections. Services, already underfunded, will be eliminated because of the priorities of the newcomers. They have what they need. To hell with anyone else.


This will be a problem in this country for a long long time. Yea, we could easily correct it. It's just that we don't seem to want to.

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Fixing the homeless situation. Why is this such a problem to fix. If the feds can spend a trillion dollars or more on two failed wars or a trillion dollars or more on a failed war on drugs. Why then won't they spend a trillion dollars putting a roof over peoples heads. I'm not stupid enough to know that not all people want to be helped but we know there are tens of thousands who do.


Its not trillions on failed wars its trillions on securing oil for our wonderful country, the war on drugs isnt failed its working. Look how many people are in prision. <-----Fed. Opinion lmao...


Yea i hear ya but its easier for the gov to spend money on things that make it look like its helping tax payers as opposed to helping "lazy people with no jobs" not my opinion but the opinion of many tax payers im sure. Though I cant say I would be all for spending millions on homeless when the us is already in so much debt and there will always be homeless people.


Not to be combative but your opinion sounds a little socialist. I wish nobody suffered too but....


I do feel there should be a system in place to help homeless people get on their feet that is functional

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