Earl, one of the many veteran tenants at Avalon Housing, outside of his unit.

Housing Built to Last

Avalon Housing helps to permanently end homelessness in Ann Arbor.

December 4, 2015

In 1992, a 400 square foot office in an old, semi-dilapidated building, inhabited mostly by struggling artists in the Ann Arbor area, became the location of a non-profit called Avalon Housing, which aimed to provide homes to the homeless.

Avalon was the result of a few employees at the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County spinning off with the goal of becoming a long-term solution to homelessness. The Shelter Association, now housed at the Delonis Center, explores many different methods of addressing and ending homelessness, but is primarily used for emergency housing, which is generally short-term.

Carole McCabe, the Executive Director of Avalon Housing since its founding, was originally hired by the Shelter Association to run a transitional housing program. This method gives people housing for a short amount of time, probably no more than two years, giving them time to find a steady source of income. In recent decades, however, transitional housing has been proven to be expensive and have unsuccessful results.

But Avalon was not founded on the principles of the transitional or emergency housing. The founders used their experiences at the shelter to learn what worked and what could be done better. Instead of emergency or transitional methods, Avalon was designed to provide Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). At its core, PSH is a combination of housing that is permanently affordable and supportive services that help to improve lives.

When Avalon began in 1992, PSH was mostly being used in big cities, such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco. It is much more common to find Permanent Supportive Housing in urban areas because it is easier to have room for a large building with many units that can all be affordable.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing, based in New York City, founded in 1991, became the model for Avalon Housing’s principles. Due to the difference between New York and Ann Arbor’s urban culture, however, Avalon had to adjust their plan and use what is called a “scattered site model”. Instead of having something like a 500 unit apartment building, Avalon has about 260 apartments or houses at over 20 locations in Ann Arbor.

“[Our locations] are all over,” McCabe said. “They’re in different neighborhoods, and they don’t have signs that say ‘Low Income People Here’. They’re just there.”

Despite using a different model for their housing, Avalon has been at the forefront of the push to make PSH the norm. In fact, they have participated in national conferences to demonstrate how well their method works.

“We’ve been doing what are now considered ‘best practices’ from the beginning,” McCabe said. “It has kind of been vindicating.”

Amanda Carlisle, the Executive Director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance (WHA), agreed, saying that PSH was the end result she wanted homeless people to reach, even if they might begin with getting access to someplace that uses emergency housing. Avalon Housing was one of the original 10 or 12 members of the alliance, which now involves about 30 nonprofit and government entities. These organizations serve a cumulative total of 4,400 people per year.

You can build community. You see change. You see people grow and become leaders, and you see their kids get way better and have way better lives.

The WHA’s mission is to end homelessness in Washtenaw County. According to Carlisle, their main roles are to implement the community’s blueprint to end homelessness, which was created in 2004. Their members also make sure that the homeless system functions efficiently and effectively.

The WHA has recently become involved in the national project, Zero: 2016, which has the goal of housing all veterans by the end of 2015 and all chronically homeless people by the end of 2016. The organizations involved in the WHA have all been making huge steps to work together to achieve this goal. For example, a building on Miller Road called Miller Manor has moved in 45 chronically homeless people since April, working with Avalon and other community partners.

Carlisle explained that Housing Access for Washtenaw County serves as a single entry point for the homeless in the county to get access to all of the organizations involved in the WHA. Along with leaders of these organizations, they have been able to make community-wide decisions on the best way to utilize housing spaces that becomes available.

“We are doing exceptionally well,” Carlisle said. “And by ‘we’ I mean the community of providers.”

The third aspect of the WHA’s work is community education and advocacy, which is certainly a necessary role when it comes to issues involving the homeless. The multitudes of stereotypes and myths surrounding the homeless and the poor can make this role particularly difficult.

“I think people are scared of what they don’t know,” McCabe said. “Our whole community associates ‘poor’ with crime and fear. Then you add the racism and the classism, and it’s really intense.”

What ends up becoming an issue, especially in a fairly liberal town like Ann Arbor, is a mindset known as Not in My Back Yard, or “NIMBY-ism”. Both Carlisle and McCabe said that NIMBY-ism is a prevalent issue in their organizations and how the community reacts to their presence. Many people they encounter claim to support the movement to end homelessness, but they don’t want the homeless to be housed close to them.

“It’s the idea that they don’t want affordable housing in their community because it’s going to lower their property values or it’s going to increase crime,” Carlisle said. “All of these assumptions that have been pretty much proven to not happen.”

Misconceptions and misunderstandings can become even stronger when focused on PSH.

“It’s really hard for people in the general public to understand why [the homeless] need services long term,” Carlisle said. “Unless you have a family member who needs that kind of support, it’s really hard to understand why people need it, and thus it makes it a challenge to understand why we should be doing supportive housing and why we should even be funding it.”

A substantial example of NIMBY-ism in Washtenaw County is currently unfolding with a conflict involving 13 acres of publicly owned land on Platt Road in Pittsfield Township. Some members of the County Commissioners office and educational advocates from WHA have proposed that this land be used to build affordable housing. The neighborhood is, to say the least, not on board.

Carlisle explained that there have been agreements that certain percentages, possibly as much as 50 percent, of the proceeds that come from selling a few lots of land in Ann Arbor will be donated to an affordable housing “trust fund” of sorts. These types of agreements have been struck with the lot adjacent to the Downtown Library, known as the Library Lot, and the one across the street, previously the location of the YMCA, which is known as the Y Lot. These donations ends up offsetting the overall cost for affordable housing. It can be easy to get money for the cause. It is much more difficult, however, to get land to actually build anything on.

“[The Platt Road property] is a rare gem,” Carlisle said. “That’s why it’s so controversial. It’s 13 acres, it’s next to the County Farm Park, so it provides recreation, it’s on a bus line, there are shops, it’s close to jobs.”

While Avalon Housing isn’t directly involved in the Platt Road conflict, McCabe has attended four of the community meetings held to discuss potential affordable housing on the land.

“It’s really mind boggling and disheartening,” McCabe said, describing her feelings when attending these meetings along with tons of neighbors expressing just how much they did not want affordable housing to be built by their homes.

Despite having to deal with misconceptions from the community, Avalon Housing has stuck with their cause of Permanent Supportive Housing for 23 years, and they are showing no signs of stopping. McCabe explained some of the reasons that she believes PSH is the best method for ending homelessness. First, it is dramatically more cost effective than the alternative, which involves people cycling through shelters, jails, emergency rooms, or psychiatric hospitals, all of which cost substantially more money. Second, PSH makes huge differences and improvements to the lives of those that it serves.

“[PSH] just works,” McCabe said. “Every day, year after year, we’re more and more convinced in the success of people who have spent years on the street, dozens of years on the street, living outside or in a shelter. They move into Avalon and stay fully housed. And we have people now who have been tenants for 20 years.”

That fact is especially impressive because Avalon makes a point of taking on some of the most at-risk people, including those that might oftentimes not be housed by other organizations. Most of their tenants, McCabe said, have been living in generational poverty and have incomes that are less than $800 a month.

Government entities have certain rules for renting and eviction. For example, they will not rent to those who have a felony conviction from within a certain amount of years or they will evict people if they relapse after drug or alcohol treatment. Instead of having absolute rules like these Avalon can judge each person on a case-by-case basis.

“We try never to evict anybody,” McCabe said. “We do evict people, but very few considering who we’re housing, and it’s our last resort.” She added that sometimes people relapse or go off their meds, but rather than punishing them for that, the point of PSH is to offer them ongoing support to stop them from doing it again.

The ‘permanent’ and the ‘supportive’ sides of PSH need to be linked in order to reach its full potential in helping people’s lives. At Avalon, the supportive side has grown since 1992.

“Our mission [when we were founded] was to develop and manage Permanent Supportive Housing,” McCabe said. “[It was for] people who were homeless or at risk or becoming homeless and people who have mental or physical disabilities. Now much more of what we do is services, and that side of our work has grown.”

In a document from Avalon meant to educate the public, it said, “Services [at Avalon Housing] are individualized, flexible and vary in intensity as needed.” For example, tenants who have hoarding disorders have weekly inspections to make sure that they have not started hoarding again.

Just a few of the many other individualized supportive services provided by Avalon include 24/7 crisis response, health care advocacy and support, medication management, transportation to critical appointments and advocacy and support of child welfare issues. They also have youth and community programs, including on-site Community Resource Centers, after-school and summer youth programs, food pantries, Avalon Community Gardens and tenant leadership training.

For McCabe, the community that gets built through all of these programs is the best part of her work. Avalon directly serves about 420 people, and the organizing of tenants and promotion of leadership allows them all to connect in a way that can be very difficult when they are homeless and cut off from most of their family or friends.

Though Avalon has expanded in 2015 from 29 to 80 employees, McCabe still tries to establish personal relationships with the tenants because, to her, those relationships are too important to lose.

“When people get settled in housing, you can build relationships,” McCabe said. “You can build community. You see change. You see people grow and become leaders, and you see their kids get way better and have way better lives.” For Avalon, which serves mostly people living in generational poverty, this is one of the biggest accomplishments they could hope for, as well as one of the most powerful and meaningful ways of demonstrating why the Permanent Supportive Housing method is so effective.

Leave a Comment
About the Contributor
Photo of Hannah Rubenstein
Hannah Rubenstein, Print Editor-In-Chief
Hannah enjoys writing, arguing and freaking people out with her surprisingly long tongue. She does not subscribe to the government-propagated myth that sleep is necessary for the continuation of human existence. The most formative moment in her life was when she realized The Office (US), Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine were all written for or created by the same man; she now cares about that man, Michael Schur, more than most people in her life.

The Communicator • Copyright 2024 • FLEX WordPress Theme by SNOLog in

Comments (0)

All The Communicator Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *