In December 2019, four Washtenaw County agencies were awarded millage contracts to provide supportive housing programs for youth and adults with mental health and substance use concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic altered or slowed down some of those program launches, but most are now in place, helping people in Ypsilanti and throughout the county find stable and secure housing.
The grant funds are the result of a 2017 vote that established an eight-year Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage
in Washtenaw County, with about $5-6 million a year designated for county mental health programs. The four agencies that received funding were: the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County
, receiving $240,000 for a Housing Crisis Stabilization Program; Avalon Housing
, receiving $558,000 to add staff to its supportive housing service team that serves residents across 25 properties; the Ypsilanti Housing Commission
(YHC), receiving $132,500 to provide supportive housing services at the New Parkridge housing complex through the commission's Family Empowerment Program (FEP); and Ozone House
, receiving $360,000 to add beds to its Transitional Living Program. Supportive housing refers to housing that also incorporates services like job training, educational programs, transportation, or child care.
Daniel Kelly, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, says many people he talks to are "shocked" at the number of people experiencing homelessness in Washtenaw County.
Shelter Association of Washtenaw County executive director Daniel Kelly.
"We serve up to 1,500 individuals a year who are experiencing homelessness," he says.
Kelly says that if you add in people who are not living on the street but are couch-surfing or otherwise experiencing housing instability, that number is even bigger.
"And we're also seeing more people with really high levels of need, like medical needs or substance use," he says. "Four years ago, only 46% of our clients had a disability, and now it's 77%. During the pandemic, national data was showing that same trend."
Ozone House expands support for vulnerable youth
Ypsilanti-based Ozone House's millage funding not only allowed the organization to add four more beds to its transitional housing program, referred to as Miller House, but also to expand the ages of those it serves. Previously, the program only served youth up through age 21, but that's been expanded through age 24 now.
Heather Brown, Ozone House's director of youth and family services, says supportive housing prevents homelessness by providing case management, care coordination, and other services.
Ozone House Director of Youth and Family Services Heather Brown.
"At Miller House, young people are coming from homes that were not stable, and they might not have the skills or know what it means to live on their own," Brown says. "At Miller House, we spend a lot of time working with them on life skills needed to live independently."
Brown says transitional living staff and case managers help clients with everything from obtaining ID and documents to go to school or get a job to teaching them to cook and do their own laundry.
"Say someone wants to be a chef," Brown says. "We'll support them in finding positions where they can get these skills. We're helping people find their dreams."
A portion of the money clients earn goes toward paying rent, but the money is held in an account for the client and given to them when they're ready to leave the program, so they can use it to obtain independent housing.
Ozone House Associate Director Pam Cornell-Allen says she's glad that Ozone House moved into its current, larger facility
in 2020, because trying to comply with reduced capacity protocols during a pandemic would have been "a nightmare," she says.
"One of the many benefits with our new building is that all of the rooms are individual," she says.
Many of the bedrooms have enough space to house two young people, but they are currently being housed individually.
Cornell-Allen says she believes Ozone House received the millage funding for a good reason.
"There aren't a lot of other organizations that exclusively serve young people," she says. "That focus on young adults is part of what makes us unique. Ozone House is a fairly small organization, but we offer a continuum of services."
Family Empowerment Program seeks to remove barriers to success
The FEP, a program of the YHC, received money both to provide support services at the New Parkridge housing community on Ypsi's Southside, and for staff to be trained and receive a new certification.
FEP Director Mark Hammond says he and staff sought out the Dimensions of Quality Certification
from the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) after being tasked with building permanent supportive housing (PSH).
"The PSH model is new to the FEP, and leadership wanted to incorporate the program utilizing best practices," Hammond says via email. "CSH, a leader in the supportive housing realm, works closely with the FEP as part of their Strong Families Fund initiative, which funds social work services at [the YHC's] Sauk Trail Pointe, Hollow Creek, Towner, and scattered sites, so it made sense when tasked with implementing such a program to deepen the FEP's relationship with CSH."
Ozone House Associate Director Pam Cornell-Allen.
CSH staff led employees of FEP, as well as property managers and owners, through a series of virtual discussions over the past year, with a focus on team roles, service delivery, community partnerships, and more. Hammond says the goal is to get the FEP using best practices from tenant selection to policies and procedures.
"The FEP completed a self-assessment, which was scored by CSH, highlighting strengths and growth opportunities, all of which were used to inform a Supportive Housing Certification Readiness Work Plan, which the FEP is in the midst of currently implementing," Hammond says.
After implementing the plan for some time, CSH will conduct a site visit to review and score the program, with an adequate score leading to certification, Hammond says.
"Millage funds allow us to provide services to the residents of New Parkridge, in addition to funding our training and certification," Hammond says. "Our case management services are holistic, in that they are designed to address any and all needs an individual or family may have."
That could range from essential transportation to counseling to financial education to help navigating the local justice system.
Hammond notes that FEP partners with "countless local agencies, businesses, organizations, and programs to ensure that resident needs are met as we cooperatively identify and remove barriers while enhancing quality of life."
Hammond says there are many resources in the area related to housing, but there is limited affordable housing, much less supportive housing.
"We believe housing is a right and that everyone deserves quality, affordable housing. However, merely providing housing is often not enough to ensure that a family thrives," Hammond says. "That's where supportive services come in. The FEP has developed a social services program whose purpose is to substantially improve the educational, health, and economic outcomes for 900-plus individuals currently living in YHC communities. We see this disparity and need
on the ground every day."
Avalon Housing seeks to build community even in a pandemic
Avalon Housing Executive Director Aubrey Patiño says the millage money helped Avalon "fill the gap" for people who need supportive housing, but for whom a funding stream hasn't been identified. She's excited that her organization recently moved 34 chronically-homeless individuals into one of its newer developments
, Hickory Way, with plans for a second phase that will house 36 more, including 12 veterans.
She says the pandemic's main effect on her organization and its supportive housing services was scaling back on group events for tenants.
"This summer, we started to take advantage of safe outdoor events when possible, and it was great," Patiño says. "It felt wonderful to see people connecting again. We all have a need to be in community with one another, and we know that increasing engagement among residents has a direct impact on their health and wellbeing."
Shelter Association launches housing stabilization program after delay
Kelly's organization had to delay the housing stabilization program it had planned to implement with its millage funds.
Avalon Housing Executive Director Aubrey Patiño.
"Our launch date was going to be April 2020, but then the pandemic hit. We have a collaboration with Packard Health
, and they told us, 'This virus is coming, and you're going to have to change everything you do.' So we put our stabilization program on hold," Kelly says. "I'm happy to say it is launched now, with some pandemic-related adjustments."
The Delonis Center, the homeless shelter run by the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, is located in Ann Arbor but draws many people who originally lived in Ypsilanti. Kelly says his organization hopes to do more for Ypsi residents.
"We have a partnership with the city of Ypsilanti and the [Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority], and we're doing a day shelter at the Freighthouse in Depot Town," Kelly says. "For people on the margins, who may still be getting back on their feet, they can find community, have a meal, [find] fellowship, and access programming and support this winter."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.