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Posted on Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Seeking out Washtenaw County's homeless for census leads workers to bridges, woods, parking lots

By Amy Biolchini


A homeless camp underneath a bridge Tuesday on the north side of Ann Arbor.

Amy Biolchini |

“Hello? Is anybody here?” called out Sara Silvennoinen, who works with the Project Outreach Team of Washtenaw County’s Community Support and Treatment Services.

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.

Silvennoinen was a part of a team of social service workers who combed Washtenaw County Tuesday to seek out homeless individuals for a census.

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.

How can I get into shelter?

Homeless families in Washtenaw County will be assessed for shelter by calling the Housing Access Line at 734-961-1999 Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

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.

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 3:31 p.m.

Why bother counting the homeless when no leader cares to deal with the homelessness issue? Non-profit food, shelter, education, and drug rehab are all good. But fail to address the driving problems. How about addressing overpopulation, causing a lack of jobs and unlivable income. A corrupted banking and local DDA system encouraging more un-affordable housing and taxes. Unnecessary war and its subsequent flood of military veteran disorders - making up the largest segment of homeless people, Overrun courts and law enforcement simply jailing away alcohol and drug problems. Simple pharmaceutical-based mental health treatment over truly comprehensive casework. It all starts with overpopulation and its greedy profiteers. That big white elephant now hiding under the Congressional dome in Washington and in Lansing and behind the masterpiece on Fifth and middle Huron.

Bob Needham

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 3:17 p.m.

Amy, do you know if there's any trend to the total number over the last few years?

Amy Biolchini

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 4:36 p.m.

Whoops, the first link got cut off. Here's a better one:

Amy Biolchini

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 4:33 p.m.

In Washtenaw County, homelessness among students grew 32 percent from 2010 to 2011. There's been a more targeted effort nationally to help unaccompanied youths under the age of 18. The number of single homeless adults in the county have dropped by 7 percent from 2009 to 2011. Danielle Arndt wrote some in-depth stories on the issue of student homelessness at the beginning of January:


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 2:57 p.m.

Did they go to Liberty Plaza?

Amy Biolchini

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 4:25 p.m.

Well the 9 p.m. sweep was the plan. The weather may have changed it slightly, but they were looking in areas where they knew homeless people typically seek shelter.


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 4:11 p.m.

Amy, It was pouring out at 9PM last night. What did they expect to find, exactly?

Amy Biolchini

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 3:43 p.m.

GoNavy, there was a team that went through downtown Ann Arbor areas about 9 p.m. Tuesday as a part of this census.


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 2:58 p.m.

I forgot to add that there are at least three that hang out in the doorway between CVS and the State Theater on State.

Amy Biolchini

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 2:48 p.m.

It's worth noting that Julie Steiner said the police know about the tents pictured and of several other common locations where homeless individuals sleep. Unless specific complaints are made, those individuals are typically not asked to leave by the police, Steiner said.

tom swift jr.

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 1:30 p.m.

Nice... give the state/county a few days and they will drive these folks out of there and erect a 12 foot fence. How about we just leave them alone, was there any point in printing a photo and giving cryptic directions to the site, the article would have been fine without that information (or the photo, we all know what a tent looks like, a graphic wasn't necessary).


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 7:09 p.m.

Yes, and you might stir up the so-called "neighbors" from across the freeway again.


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 1:35 p.m.

Why didn't they just give a map to the area so haters could go destroy the only thing this people have.


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 12:53 p.m.

Can you please clarify the information about 92% of the people being county residents? It seems to me that, if you find them sleeping in our county, they are by definition county residents. So 100 percent of them should be considered residents?

Amy Biolchini

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 2:45 p.m.

Halima, what Julie Steiner meant by that comment was that 92 percent of the people surveyed identified as being from Washtenaw County.

Frank Lee

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 2:02 p.m.

You are under the impression that people are deemed residents of whatever county they may fall asleep in? No, that is not how residency works.


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 12:44 p.m.

Looks like the M14 over pass on the A2 railway just north of DhuVarren. Is this in the city limits? There are also folks camping out in a section of Bluffs Park behind the old Huronview retirement home.


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 2:46 p.m.

it is the bridge/overpass by the hospital

Amy Biolchini

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 2:43 p.m.

It is within the city limits. I omitted the specific location at the request of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance.


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 1:32 p.m.

It is the Fuller Street Bridge, near the U of M Hospital.


Wed, Jan 30, 2013 : 1:19 p.m.

Nope that is not within the city limits but I'm pretty sure it's within Township limits.