County Board Discusses Homelessness

After about 90 minutes of discussion on an item not originally on its April 2, 2014 agenda, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners took steps to address short-term and long-term needs of the homeless.

The board voted to direct county administrator Verna McDaniel to work with community partners to address immediate needs of the homeless. [In general, McDaniel has budgetary discretion to spend up to $50,000 on professional services contracts, and up to $100,000 for any proposed goods, services, new construction or renovation.] The resolution also directs the administration to develop a plan by May 7 for updating the county’s Blueprint to End Homelessness, which was adopted in 2004 but appears to be dormant. The process of updating that plan is to be completed by Oct. 1, 2014.

The agenda item on homelessness was added after about a half dozen advocates for the homeless – including several people who’ve been staying at the Delonis Center homeless shelter in Ann Arbor – raised concerns that the shelter’s overnight winter warming center will be closing on April 6. The warming center is typically open from mid-November through March. It’s located in the shelter’s dining room, and is set up for a maximum of 65 people. Because this winter has been particularly harsh, the warming center has accommodated more than 70 people at times.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) suggested allocating $40,000 to the shelter to keep the warming center open another month. Other commissioners had concerns about throwing money at the shelter without any input from shelter staff, and without knowing specifically how the money would be used. Because the item hadn’t been on the agenda, representatives from the shelter staff weren’t at the meeting.

The county owns the Delonis Center building, but does not operate the shelter. Operations are handled by the nonprofit Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, led by executive director Ellen Schulmeister. Schulmeister had briefed commissioners about services for the homeless at their Feb. 6, 2014 working session. Her briefing had come in response to advocacy from several homeless advocates at the board’s Jan. 22, 2014 meeting, when commissioners had also discussed the need to do more.

The county budget included $51,230 for the Delonis Center in 2013 and that amount was increased to $160,000 this year as part of the regular budget approval process late last year. The county funding is set to increase again to $200,000 in 2015 and remain at that level through 2017. The Shelter Association’s annual budget is $2.583 million.

Some commissioners thought there should be a strategic plan in place before any additional funding is given – and they seemed to assume that such a plan doesn’t already exist. Mary Jo Callan, director of the county’s office of community & economic development, noted that the city of Ann Arbor and several other entities are working on this issue, in partnership with the Shelter Association.

The vote on the resolution was 6-2, over dissent from Republicans Dan Smith (District 2) and Alicia Ping (District 3), who both objected to the process. Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was absent.

Dan Smith called it “completely and entirely inappropriate” to be making policy and budgetary decisions on the fly, in response to a few people who showed up to speak during public commentary. He supported updating the Blueprint to End Homelessness, but thought it was a discussion that should take place at a working session before taking action at a regular board meeting. Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) responded by saying that commissioners are elected to work for the people. When people come to the board, it’s important to address their concerns in a serious manner, he said.

Because of the length of the meeting, some men who are staying at the shelter missed the 9:30 p.m. curfew. Typically, anyone showing up after that time isn’t allowed inside. Greg Dill, the county’s director of infrastructure management, contacted the shelter staff and made arrangements for the men to be accommodated.

Update: McDaniel has allocated $35,000 to the Delonis Center, which has agreed to keep the warming center open through April 30. The funding will come from the county’s unearmarked reserves.

This brief was filed from the boardroom of the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. A more detailed report will follow: [link]