Avalon Housing: The organization ending homelessness in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County
An inside look at who it serves and why its model works
ANN ARBOR – Avalon Housing was established in 1992 by employees at a homeless shelter who observed a consistent trend of housed individuals landing back in the shelter.
They felt something had to change, and Avalon was born. Avalon provides affordable housing without preconditions for individuals in even the most dire situations, but along with that, it also offers supportive services. This, according to executive director Aubrey Patiño, is the secret to its success.
"We are really strategic about tailoring this resource to the people who absolutely need it the most," Patiño explained. "So everyone that we serve is chronically homeless, which means they’ve had multiple episodes of homelessness, or they’ve been homeless for at least a year or more, and have a disabling condition. So a really high, complex-needs population who’ve experienced a tremendous amount of trauma that relates to this experience of homelessness."
The average annual income of an Avalon resident is $11,000, and many of its clients work full-time. Those who work pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, made possible by rent subsidy, and for those who do not or cannot work, rent is fully subsidized.
"When our son was just six months old, we got in touch with Avalon Housing. An Avalon property manager helped us find an apartment. This was a turning point for us. Avalon saw a light in us; they saw the drive we had, that we wanted something more." - Cynthia, Avalon resident for six years
Cynthia, Avalon resident, now earning a bachelor's degree in business (Photo: Avalon Housing)
Patiño explained that although there is a moral case for supportive housing, there is also a case to be made for the financial effect homelessness has on society and on systems like shelters, hospitals or jails.
"All of those things are still costing our systems a tremendous amount of money," Patiño said. "When you house them, all of those high-touch ways in which they’re interfacing with all of these different systems really dissipates and there’s a stabilization that occurs. And even though this is an expensive intervention, it’s a lot more cost-effective than the alternative shelter or jail."
Avalon Housing currently has 288 units scattered across 24 different sites. The majority of them are in downtown Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and most recently Chelsea, as well.
It was surprising to learn that many of the properties are located downtown, since rent prices in that area are known to be high. But being in the city center, close to amenities and integrating into society, is a requirement by Avalon.
“One thing that is core to our model is this integration piece," she said. "We don’t mark our properties, that’s very intentional. We want them to be fully integrated into the community. I would suggest that they’re often the nicest looking property on the block -- that’s very intentional. We take good care of our properties and want them to be integrated into the fabric of what every other home looks like in that neighborhood. And we’re very intentional from a real estate development strategy to try to have folks have access to things like a bus line, a grocery store, a good school. Those things matter."
Map of Avalon Housing properties in and around Ann Arbor (Photo: Avalon Housing)
She explained that development in the downtown area is difficult and poses many challenges. First of all, there is a lack of vacant land that is close to the aforementioned amenities. Second, cost is a challenge, and Avalon funds each project differently, but always tries to leverage low-income housing tax credits. Third, some Ann Arbor residents are against any new development in the downtown area.
Ann Arbor as a community
As progressive as Ann Arbor seems, Patiño said she's seen a different side to the town since working for Avalon.
"Considering the perception that we are as liberal and progressive as we are, there’s a lot of NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard)," she explained. "For any new development that takes place, the meeting is packed to the gills with people saying, ‘Not here, not for this reason, not now, not me.’ What does it mean to really have this person as your neighbor? And is that something you are really open to, not just in rhetoric? There’s deep segregation in this community. As this income segregation increases, that is felt by our folks in a very profound way.
"On the other hand, we have many incredible neighbors who have totally meaningful, loving, supportive relationships with our tenants," Patiño continued. "They’ve stepped up, supported us, showed up at meetings to say, ‘Avalon’s a good neighbor.’ Those folks exist, too. Sometimes I feel the voices of the other outweighs us, and that’s difficult.
"Much of what we’ve accomplished simply wouldn’t have transpired in the absence of a lot of political activism. I do think that there are strong and rich roots in Ann Arbor in this regard that have very much benefited Avalon’s inception and ongoing community support of what we do in our mission," she said.
“This is a community that people are grounded in openness to learn about this and to hear about this, but there are still misconceptions," Marcia Luke-van Dijk, communications and development director, said. "I am still surprised in Ann Arbor that people have a perception that homelessness is a choice. It’s not a choice. Sometimes, people are constrained by the requirements of the shelter that might not let them in if they are not sober in that moment. Until they get a place to live and someone is helping them connect to those resources, it won’t get resolved.
"People have to get exposed to this. The only way people can sometimes cope with this, even in this community, is to distance themselves and not see themselves in that other person. And when you’re exposed to the people that we serve and you learn to see them as neighbors, it becomes easier to look at this and say, ‘I can’t not see it and feel moved to do something about this,'" she said.
At this point in time, Avalon houses 760 individuals, and of them, 200 are children. "Point in time" is a term commonly used by those who work with the homeless. It refers to counts of individuals who are homeless at any given moment, and for the first time in years, the point in time count in several major U.S. cities went up this year.
"The reality is, if you want to end homelessness, housing ends homelessness," Patiño said. "And so what we call that is ‘Housing First,’ and ‘Housing First’ is a national strategy. It’s an evidence-based intervention and it really is the belief that in fact, you need basic needs met before you can address quality of life issues, and housing is not a reward for clinical success."
Hundreds of origami cranes hang outside Avalon's offices, representing the number of individuals during a point in time count (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
In fact, many Avalon residents have shown signs of full recovery thanks to consistent supportive services. Many of them were sleeping on the streets and hadn't been using a shelter. Many of the residents Avalon moved into Ann Arbor Housing Commission's Miller Manor project had been sleeping outside.
"We do not screen people out, we are as low-barrier as we can be, with the belief that you really can’t be risk-aversive and expect to end homelessness, and a lot of what is perceived risk around this population is not real," she said.
So how does Avalon find individuals who aren't in a shelter?
They have a dedicated homeless outreach team who seeks out people in need living on the streets or sleeping in the woods. They assess these individuals and try to bring them the help they need. This makes Avalon unique; they don't sit in a building waiting for individuals to seek them, they seek individuals and try to bring them out of difficult living situations.
Avalon has seen huge support from local businesses and organizations throughout its 25 years.
"This year, Zingerman’s was our main sponsor at Home for Good (Avalon's largest annual fundraising event)," Luke-van Dijk said. "They have helped us in kind and with donations throughout the years, but this year was our big 25th anniversary, so they were our presenting sponsor. We have a number of local organizations, local banks, different companies and construction companies that have worked with us that are sponsors of this event, and all that money goes to supportive services and to the people that we serve."
Avalon is also in need of volunteers year-round, especially in their youth development program.
"We’re serving about 200 children," Patiño said. "And we run full after-school programs at our community centers on site in addition to a summer program for youth. We also have a youth leadership program, which is tied to our food programing. We have organic gardens throughout our properties, we call it ‘Edible Avalon,’ and our youth grow this produce and they sell it at the Farmers Market, (and by doing so) they’re also providing mentorship to other youth in the community. So all of that youth programming, we need volunteers for."
Avalon resident Cynthia and her family (Photo: Avalon Housing)
There are many misconceptions surrounding homelessness.
"Ultimately, homelessness is an affordable housing issue," Patiño said. "It’s not a character defect issue. It has been painted as one. And I think that it is how people allow themselves to accept the fact that our brothers and sisters are literally sleeping on the streets in Michigan in the middle of winter. That is not a reality that any of us should be accepting of or be desensitized to."
To learn more about Avalon Housing, visit their website.
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