Seeking out Washtenaw County's homeless for census leads workers to bridges, woods, parking lots
Amy Biolchini | AnnArbor.com
Silvennoinen’s calls fell on a set of tents tucked underneath a bridge, next to a set of railroad tracks and next to a busy corridor on the north side of Ann Arbor.
She was met with silence and the sound of cars crossing the bridge overhead.
About 10:30 a.m. Tuesday the tents were empty, but fresh footprints on a snowy well-worn path to the roadway indicated signs of life.
The tents are about 100 feet from the roadway. All are out of sight from the rushing traffic nearby.
Several hundred yards to the west is a similar sight: Four tents sit under a nearby bridge; also empty. Their inhabitants had likely left early in the morning to go into town, Silvennoinen said.
Every year the county conducts a census of individuals in the shelter system, Steiner said. Every two years the census includes homeless individuals not in the shelter system, as is the case this year.
In 2011, the census identified 714 individuals who were living in a shelter or place not meant for human habitation; 160 of those were children and 15 were unaccompanied youth.
Contrary to popular belief, about 92 percent of those polled in the census are Washtenaw County residents, said Julie Steiner, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance.The data will be used to determine the characteristics of those that are homeless in the county, and if services are tailored to correctly address the situation.
The census also provides workers with a way to engage with some newly-homeless people and connect them to services.
The census is conducted in January because homeless people are less transient in the cold months, said John Loring, director of adult mental illness services for Community Support and Treatment Services.
In smaller communities like Manchester and Dexter, Loring said homeless individuals tend to find places to stay with friends or family.
Though some homeless individuals frequent free meal offerings at area churches, other individuals choose not to make use of the service — and so the social workers had to go to them.
Silvennoinen’s team set out at 6 a.m. Tuesday and started with rest stops along major highways, park-and-ride lots and parking lots of big box stores.
They found several individuals sleeping in their cars at each location, she said.
Next they looked underneath bridges and overpasses, in wooded lots, outside of party stores, in public libraries and in parking structures.
It’s not difficult to find hidden spots where homeless people seek shelter, Silvennoinen said. Her car has a trunk full of sleeping bags, hats, scarves, gloves and coats to hand out if needed.
Many people who make their own shelter in the woods or in overpasses want to be alone and avoid the help of social service agencies, Steiner said. Some have mental health issues and substance abuse issues, she said.
Silvennoinen said she knows most of the people living outdoors, as her team makes routine visits to locations across the county where they know homeless people commonly are found.
Building trust between the social worker and homeless individuals is the most important part, Silvennoinen said.
For months she only was able to say “hello” to a homeless woman before the woman felt comfortable enough to engage in a conversation, Silvennoinen said.
The social workers are stringent in their policy to keep their interactions with homeless people consistent in order to create a stable relationship.
Trust is what gets people housed, Silvennoinen said.
The census asks homeless individuals to give, at the minimum, the first two letters of their first and last name, as well as their homeless status. The census also asks if they’re the head of the household, if they’re living with others, their gender, date of birth, length of homelessness and if they consider themselves to have a long-term disability.
Organizations assisting in the census include Ozone House, Shelter Association, Michigan Ability Partners, Home of New Vision, the Homeless Veterans Program of the VA Medical Center, the Ann Arbor Police Department and the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office.