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A glimpse inside the center fighting to end homelessness in Ann Arbor

The Delonis Center opened in 2004 to help those in need in Washtenaw County

Mattresses ready to be used in the winter warming center (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – The Shelter Association of Washtenaw County at the Delonis Center opened in 2004 at 312 W. Huron St. and has been a driving force in ending homelessness in Washtenaw County ever since.

It was named after the late Robert J. Delonis, chairman of Great Lakes National Bank (now TCF Bank), who became the first business leader in the area to tirelessly tackle the issue of homelessness. His son, Martin, continues to sit on the board today.

Until recently, Ellen Schulmeister served as the executive director of the center for nearly 20 years, and under her leadership, the shelter became a household name for serving and helping the homeless.

Dan Kelly, the new executive director of the Delonis Center, started the post in July. He comes with 10 years of experience working in the South Oakland Shelter in metro Detroit, performing various roles. 

When he moved to Ann Arbor, he was surprised to see just how involved each local agency is in ending homelessness. He described his first meeting, in which the former mayor of Ann Arbor and the police chiefs of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor were all present and talking about ending homelessness.

"That was the thing that surprised me, is how engaged the area was and how you have all these different sectors coming together and communicating," he said.

Logistics

Every year, the Delonis Center serves around 1,500 people. In Washtenaw County alone, up to 5,000 people experience homelessness annually.

"It’s hard to think that homelessness is a large issue in the area, but it really is," he said. 

"We go out every year and do a ‘point-in-time’ count. We count people in the streets, people in the shelters, and then you get an aggregate number, and that hovers around 300 people that night. So, on any given night, up to 300 people are homeless."

The Delonis shelter only serves single adults and is the epicenter of services for single adults in all of Washtenaw County. It's an emergency shelter with 50 beds on site, and there's no time limit on how long clients can stay. 

However, this creates a backup in the system, meaning there is always a waiting list because the shelter is always full.

"Our goal is to get people out into permanent housing as quickly as possible so that we can get somebody else who’s waiting to get into that bed," Kelly said. "(The waiting list) fluctuates between 30-60 people. It does go away in the winter months because we open our doors for anyone just to keep people warm and to get them into housing, and that gives us an additional 113 winter beds."

The clients at the shelter are mostly men in their mid-40s, although there have also been people as young as 18 up to 75 years old.

"We have seen an uptick in women, though, and I think that partly it’s because, unfortunately, due to some funding cuts, Ellen had to close 27 beds on the second floor. We used to be a year-round 77-bed shelter: 15 for women, 35 for men, and then 27 beds on the second floor," Kelly said.

Last year, the center placed 232 people into permanent homes, a number that tends to increase each year.

Winter warming center

Now, in the winter months, the center expands its warming center to the second floor as a space for women. Until now, women and men slept together in the cafeteria during the winter.

Last year, the center served 400 people during the winter months.

“I looked at the numbers, and last year in the warming center, 23% of people were from outside Washtenaw County," Kelly said. "It is a significant percent, so I don’t want to downplay it, but it’s not a majority, and our perspective as an organization is we’re going to serve you no matter what. We’re not going to turn you away because you’re not from this area. It is a little bit of a misconception."

Kelly hopes to track the population better this year and to learn not just which cities they are coming from, but who is sending them. 

The winter months, with an increase in population, also see an increase in issues like substance abuse.

"Last year, we did have some challenges surrounding the opioid crisis. It seems to be just continuing," Kelly said. "We had nine clients overdose last year in the warming shelter. We did eight Narcan saves and one person didn’t make it. We have all of our staff trained on Narcan, which is the medicine that can help people come out of the overdose."

Kelly said he expects to see an increase in opioid cases this winter.

Effort to re-open beds

“One thing that I’ve done since I started on July 1st – we are talking to the community about every effort to re-open those 27 beds and re-utilize that space in some way ... there is such a need. We are engaging with all the partners and all the agencies to get that re-opened," Kelly said.

In fact, a resident launched a petition to re-open the beds using the funds allocated to January's deer cull. The description reads: "Ann Arbor has the money. We don’t need to pay any extra in taxes. We just need to get our priorities straight."

A personal account

Laura has been homeless since 2006 and has been living at the Delonis Center for two years. After her husband passed away, she became a victim of domestic violence in another relationship and sustained a serious injury to her spine. She said she had to quit her job, and since she didn't have medical insurance, she couldn't afford to get the care she needed.

"I was in Kalamazoo and someone told me, 'You need to go to Ann Arbor to the shelter -- they'll help you there,'" she said. Looking for a fresh start, she came to the Delonis Center. 

"Shelters, to me, are like God’s guardian angels because they’re so much help. You come in here and they say, 'Don’t worry, we’re here to help you,'" Laura said.

"People come here from the streets, you see them one day and after being in this program, they’re cleaning up and doing things with their life that are positive, and in the end, you’re probably going to get housed." 

She explained that the women at Delonis are homeless for a variety of reasons, the main factors being domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health issues. Many of the women are veterans, or minors coming out of the prison system.

The center has 10 case workers on staff who are assigned clients. Laura says she is especially thankful for hers, who showed up for her when a housing situation went bad. "When I had to move out of my apartment, she was there to help me move," Laura said. "Sometimes, the case manager might be your only resource that you have for any help. She brought a truck and everything all by herself. They do go beyond to help people."

She said homelessness can happen to anyone. "There are so many different reasons (it can happen). I know I don’t look homeless, which is fine with me. But there’s a lot of people that, once they come in here and clean up, and they don’t look homeless." 

That is a personal motto of Dan Kelly's: Homelessness doesn't have a face. 

“Homelessness often is this iceberg. You only see the subset of the population, but really, there’s all these people that you don’t see because they don’t look like somebody who’s homeless,” he explained.

Job placement

"We have a partnership with Michigan Works, which is a state-funded jobs placement agency. They have somebody come in here, we link people to them and then they do that work. We have a job club that we do, and that’s more about getting people encouraged and having a support group," he explained.

"Our second floor is now a service center, and there are very generic offices, and you’ll see people meeting with people in the community. The VA comes in here and meets with clients, Michigan Works, Department of Health and Human Services, Avalon Housing, etc."

His goal is to create permanent desks for these organizations so that they will be more easily accessible for Delonis's clients.

In addition to regular visits from organizations, the non-profit Packard Health has a health clinic on-site so clients can get regular medical care.

Funding

The center is funded by federal, state, county and city sources, but through fundraising, it raises $1 million every year. Several local foundations also make contributions through Washtenaw Coordinated Funders.

It costs more than $2 million to run the shelter annually, so donations make up half of the funds.

Volunteering at Delonis

On the volunteering side, Food Gatherers, Ann Arbor's local food rescue organization, runs the Community Kitchen at Delonis. On any given day Kelly said two of their staff are there, while the rest are volunteers helping to prepare and serve the shelter's three daily meals.

Other volunteers try to bring a little fun to the shelter. 

"We’ve got a yoga class coming in here. We’ve got this really cool collaborative called Art Break Studio. They come in and do paintings and watercolors … you come in and people are just having fun and painting and enjoying themselves," he said.

"Because the need is so great, we could use volunteers of any backgrounds. If you can give your time, talents, treasures in any type of way, we can use you.”

Learn more about volunteering at the Delonis Center here.

In the winter months, the center is always in need of clothing donations including winter coats, gloves, hats, warm socks and boots. They only accept new items. See the wish list of items needed.

To make a monetary donation to the center, click here.

To learn more about the Delonis Center, visit its website.

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