Housing the Homeless

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, June 1996,
June 1996

Author: Grace Shackman

How Avalon Housing helps people out of the shelter and onto the road to a normal life.

In English legend, Avalon is the island paradise to which King Arthur was borne after his death. In Ann Arbor, Avalon is something almost equally miraculous: a non-profit organization that in just five years has developed eighty-one rooms and apartments for low-income people, most of whom were previously homeless.

Avalon Housing's hundred-plus residents may not think they are in heaven, but they are certainly much happier than they were on the streets or in temporary shelters. They are free to develop their skills, pursue career interests, and lead more normal lives. Because of Avalon, Larry Morris has time to read the Constitution and the Book of Mormon, Ron Yarrington to entertain friends in his home, "Sandra" to write and go back to school, and Ron Brumbaugh to play his guitar and go swimming at the Y.

Morris, forty, dressed in maroon sweats, sits on the front steps of an Avalon house on South Division and recalls his troubles over more than a decade in Ann Arbor. "I came from Detroit in 1984 to go to school, Washtenaw Community College to study liberal arts, but ended up at Ypsi State with schizophrenia. I had the symptoms before, but they were unidentified. When I got out I worked at restaurant jobs—Wendy's, Kroger's. I would lose apartments because of code violations. In between [apartments], I was in and out of the shelter."

Morris heard about Avalon at Full Circle, an Ypsilanti clubhouse for mental health consumers. He signed up, and after a year's wait, moved into his new apartment. With a place to live, Morris began to work, first as a volunteer at the VA Hospital, then in a paid job in the hospital's mail room as part of a transitional employment (TE) program sponsored by Trailblazers, the Ann Arbor clubhouse. He plans to work in several more TE placements and then hopes to return to college.

Like Morris, many Avalon residents have never before had permanent housing. Yet his is just one of Avalon's many success stories. The group's achievement is even more remarkable considering that Avalon is housing a population that has baffled housing experts around the county.

Avalon, which started as an offshoot of the Homeless Shelter of Washtenaw County, now houses people at eleven sites around Ann Arbor. Its staff of six works out of a three-room office at 404 West Washington, in front of the Performance Network. It is filled with odds and ends of furniture, bright posters, ringing telephones, and a hubbub of activity. The day I visit, tenant Ron Brumbaugh drops in and excitedly tells site manager Maggie Camacho that he has a new job doing maintenance at the Y. Camacho, formerly of Ozone House, is the staff member who works most directly with Avalon tenants, and her popularity, with a group accustomed to seeing landlords as the enemy, is legendary.

In the next room, Michael Appel, formerly of the U-M housing reform project and a member of the original Avalon board, arranges the complicated funding for future projects. His zeal prompts fellow staffers to ask him to slow down so that he won't acquire new property faster than they can manage it.

Executive director Carol McCabe leads me into her office in the back in a futile attempt to find a quiet spot. McCabe directed Avalon as part of the shelter until they separated. Her conversation is filled with words like "challenge" and "struggle," but there are rewards, too, in seeing the improvements Avalon can make in the lives of its tenants.

McCabe organized Avalon with the backing and advice of former shelter director Jean Summerfield. Summerfield, who now works in Chicago, says, "The best thing I did when I was in Ann Arbor was letting Carol do Avalon."

Avalon was born in 1991 when the city offered to give away a house on William Street that was in the path of a proposed parking structure behind Kline's. The house, occupied by squatters, had become a focal point for housing activists. "The town was talking about housing, but no one stepped in," McCabe recalls. "[Summerfield] was willing to move the shelter that way."

"We got into it because nobody was doing housing development for these folks," Summerfield recalls. "Nationally, most of the low-income, special needs housing did a lot of screening out. We wanted to focus on screening in."

The shelter had experimented with transitional housing and group homes, but the temporary nature of the former and the lack of staff oversight of the latter prevented either option from becoming a permanent solution. McCabe, at the time director of WIT House, the shelter's transitional home for women, saw firsthand the need for permanent low-income housing. Without it, "the women could get sober, could get their kids back, could get the right medication, could leave an abusive relationship—and still have no place to go."

The problem of finding rooms and apartments affordable for people with minimum-wage jobs or on public assistance was nothing new to shelter employees. And even when a place was found for them, shelter residents often weren't together enough to live on their own; like Morris, they kept coming back. "Some ran through every landlord in town," says McCabe.

While the Kline's lot house was being moved to 201 West William and rehabbed, Avalon's founding group worked on strategy. Says McCabe, "There had not been a lot of managing. We felt, because of the target population, this was the reason most hadn't been successful in rental housing. We developed 'enhanced management,' where we put human needs first. We use eviction only as a last resort."

Avalon's founders wanted to make mental health and other support services available to its residents. But, McCabe stresses, "we're not a residential [treatment] program, but permanent housing." Those Avalon tenants who need help with day-to-day problems beyond what their mental health case workers are able to provide can get it through CHIL, the Cooperative Housing and Independent Living Initiative. Staffed by Synod Residential Services and funded by Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (CMH), CHIL is part of an ongoing effort to treat CMH clients in the least restrictive setting—in this case, by allowing clients who would once have been housed in group homes a wider choice of housing.

Avalon works to avoid evicting clients by negotiating individual contracts with them beforehand to anticipate known problems. With mental health consumers, CHIL and the caseworkers are also involved. Most tenants are on month-to-month leases, which gives Avalon leverage in enforcing the contracts. Avalon staffers meet weekly with tenants' caseworkers and CHIL.

A condition of some of the leases is that the tenant must accept the help of a "representative payee," a person authorized to help manage their money, paying bills for them or doling out the money in small amounts, and teaching them money management. Says McCabe, "We negotiate this before they move in or if they bounce checks regularly." The representative payee helps people who have enough income to afford a room but can't keep their money long enough to pay rent.

Some of the returning shelter guests had been ousted from past apartments because of housekeeping problems (including spoiling, uncovered food), fire hazard-level hoarding, and plumbing problems. At Avalon, McCabe says, plumbing problems have included "putting food down the toilet and overflowing the bathtub or sink. Many wash a lot; one woman dyes her hair every day."

Avalon inspects regularly, both formally and informally, to catch hygiene problems before they get out of hand. CHIL helps by organizing cleanup days and educating tenants, while caseworkers refer people to clinics and work to get them on the best medications.

Another problem, according to McCabe, is that many of the Avalon tenants are fine on their own, but vulnerable to exploitation. "They'll bring in whole families or drug-using buddies or put up with abusive boyfriends."

One tenant was in danger of being evicted because her drug-using ex-husband would come and make a fuss at her place late at night. Finally, after nine months of discussion, she was persuaded by CHIL to let Legal Aid obtain a restraining order against him. In another case, a person on probation was bothering an Avalon tenant. McCabe went to the probation department and managed to have the person barred from Avalon property.

Drug users account for most of Avalon's failures. Working closely with CHIL, they have persuaded some tenants to go into treatment or into more structured settings. In half a dozen cases, however, Avalon has evicted tenants, McCabe says, "when we couldn't work anything out" to resolve substance abuse by tenants or their friends.

Tenant Mary Beth Matthews witnessed one such case. "There were three crack heads in the house. They had guys in their room. Avalon got them out, slowly, giving them every chance to mend their ways."

"We've learned our limitations," says McCabe. "We're currently screening out 'dually diagnosed'—people with both mental illness and chemical dependency. They're the hardest to treat; there are very few treatment alternatives." Avalon also refuses to house people known to be violent. But unwilling to completely admit failure, McCabe says, "We would always consider rehousing people, other than those with major violence, if they came back after x number of months of being clean."

Just as Avalon has been learning as it goes how to deal with the problems of its target population, the group also has been discovering what kinds of housing work best. After finishing the William Street house in the fall of 1992, they purchased two older houses on North Main (532 and 618), one of them previously run by the shelter. Both were suitable for single room occupancy (SRO), with private bedrooms and shared bathrooms and kitchens. Next they bought three houses of the same vintage on South Division (518, 520, 522), setting a pattern they would follow with future purchases: involving the city and the county, both of which have given direct grants, in-kind assistance, and help in finding other sources of revenue—HUD through the city and human services through the county.

Avalon concentrated on SRO's initially because they were the cheapest units. But they soon discovered that people preferred the privacy of an apartment. There were also fewer interpersonal problems when tenants didn't have to share bathrooms and kitchens. So when a fourteen-unit apartment complex at 211 Davis came onto the market, Avalon bought it. Next was an apartment complex on Stimson, near South Industrial, which had larger apartments suitable for families. The most recent purchases are a house at 610 West Summit with six apartments, and two duplexes on Allen Street for single mothers, a joint endeavor with Safe House.

None of these projects proceeds until funding is arranged that allows rents affordable to the people Avalon is trying to serve. Most of its tenants have incomes of around $450 a month. SSI (Social Security benefits for people on disability) is about $450 a month; a single mother with one child gets $401 from AFDC; while minimum-wage jobs bring in about $680. Avalon rents range from $204 for an SRO room to $375 for a two-bedroom apartment. To keep its units affordable, McCabe explains, "we do the opposite of for-profit groups. They decide on rent based on their costs. We decide on the highest rent we can charge and still make the project worth doing and then work backward." To get money to fill the gaps, they appeal to multiple agencies, private and public, for grants and low-interest loans. At the opening ceremonies for the Stimson Street property last spring, there were seven speakers, all representing agencies that had loaned or given money for the project.

When a project is being considered, McCabe visits with a delegation. Among the people she calls on are Larry Friedman and Glen Ziegler of the city's community development department; Mark Robey from CMH; Realtor Doug Smith; and Terry Alexander, an architect who volunteers as an advisor on project feasibility. Because of all the groups involved and all the steps needed, the projects often take a long time to complete; but once they have been decided on, Avalon sticks with them until they work out.

Despite the slow process, McCabe has found an increasing willingness among sellers to work with Avalon. Some come back with a second offering after selling them one project. "They're calling us more," says McCabe. "They know we always get our reports in on time, that they are accurate. We have earned their respect."

Once Avalon acquires a property, they rehab it to the highest level they can afford, often doing "twenty years of deferred maintenance," says McCabe. "We never will sell the properties, so we do as much as we can at first. We get a lot of scrutiny from neighbors. We improve the physical structure and grounds. We spend more than a landlord who will sell in a few years."

McCabe thinks this investment may be one reason Avalon has experienced so little opposition. "Neighbors are often our best supporters. They see the same tenants, but with more maintenance. They've offered to talk to new neighborhoods. When an unwanted friend broke a window [at one of the houses], the neighbors helped board it up." Avalon gives neighbors a twenty-four-hour beeper number and encourages them to call with any problems.

Bob Barackman is another reason the neighbors are so cooperative. As Avalon's director of maintenance and rehab, Barackman works hard to create good relations, doing things like shoveling neighbors' walks when doing an Avalon property. A retired Wayne County sheriff's deputy, Barackman finds the people skills he learned in nineteen years as a cop are handy in Avalon.

Gruff and sometimes inclined to tease the idealistic young Avalon staff, Barackman is as concerned about the residents as anyone. "I enjoy the job," he says. "It's not just the ordinary landlord-tenant relationship. Whatever the problem, we'll solve it. We juggle people around when we have tenants who don't get on."

On a warm fall day, Barackman drives me around in his truck, showing me the Avalon properties. At the home of "Susan," the woman who finally had the restraining order placed on her ex-husband, he becomes worried when she doesn't answer his knock. "She's truly a victim, but we've seen her turn around," he explains. "She divorced her husband, got her sponging daughter out. She lost her key, which had the address on it, so I made replacing the lock the first priority that day." Susan doesn't answer the door, but Barackman learns from another Avalon employee that she was up late the night before.

Barackman proudly shows me another Davis Street apartment he is working on that had been untouched for years before Avalon came in. "The previous landlord couldn't get [the tenant] to move. Finally he agreed to move down the hall while we fixed it up."

A corner unit at Davis Street is used for the CHIL offices. Soon after my morning with Barackman, I spent an afternoon there, talking to Peggy Plews, the CHIL coordinator. Plews, a slight blond woman with an impish grin who often wears bib overalls, is assisted by a young, enthusiastic staff of seven, two of them part-time. All have social service backgrounds.

Plews came to CHIL from Washtenaw Interventions, where she worked as a shelter outreach worker, matching people with services and housing. (She found that mentally ill people often resisted services until they had a place to live.) CHIL works with tenants to keep them in Avalon housing, responding to middle-of-the-night crises and mediating conflicts as well as taking people shopping or to appointments, helping with laundry or budgeting, reminding people to take their medicines, and organizing recreational activities.

The CHIL office still looks like an apartment, with a functioning kitchen and furnished dining room and living room. There's even a cat, Casey, whom the staff is watching until his owner feels ready to care for him. The day I visit, a CHIL employee is sitting at the dining room table talking to "Sandra." A little while later, another tenant comes by, wearing a wig and dressed in a pink evening gown, to borrow the vacuum cleaner.

CHIL began operating in January of 1994. Plews recalls, "Substance abuse was a big issue when we started. We had to do serious crisis intervention, kicking people out of hallways, working with the police, focusing on making it a safe place. We ultimately had to get rid of some [tenants], but not to just throw them back in the shelter. Those who didn't make it went into more supported housing or a treatment center."

After six months of working through the worst problems, CHIL could then turn to helping the rest of the mental health consumers. "Mental illness can be treated, but not cured," say Plews. "Needs change over time. There may be periods when they don't need a lot of support, but they know CHIL is here."

Beyond helping Avalon's mental health consumers deal with everyday life, CHIL tries to help them reach personal goals and to become integrated into the community. "We encourage them to do something as a community member rather than a mental health consumer, like go to the Top of the Park or play monopoly or chess at coffeehouses. But they're used to doing things like going to the movies or Dairy Queen with other consumers. When I first started and would say, 'What would you like to do?' clients would answer with things they've done before,... like 'Go to McDonald's.' It takes a long time to start to build a life outside; their lives have been defined by their illnesses."

Although the differences between Avalon, the landlord, and CHIL, the service provider, are easily defined on paper, they are often blurred in reality. Many tenancy issues are related to mental illness, and tenants talk to whomever they feel most comfortable with. CHIL and Avalon work closely together. "Maggie [Camacho] does this stuff as second nature," praises Plews. "She treats every tenant with kindness, she's not fazed by delusional behavior, hallucinations... Some think only professionals can manage with someone psychotic. But all you have to do is listen for the person behind the psychosis, because they're always there."

Tenant Mary Beth Matthews is just as grateful for CHIL, saying "I owe my life to CHIL." She is not exaggerating. Plews, finding Matthews ill, rushed her to the hospital, where she was found to have a life-threatening blood clot in her lungs. Without CHIL, she could easily have been one of the homeless people we read about in the newspaper who are found dead because no one noticed they needed help.

Originally from the Detroit area, Matthews came to Ann Arbor in the 1970's to take part in an obesity study and stayed on, working mainly in hotel housekeeping. She became homeless after she returned to Ann Arbor after living with her sister in Florida. "I thought I could get jobs like I did before, but I'd gained three hundred and fifty pounds and was using two canes to walk with," she recalls. "I was not in shape to work." She was also suffering from severe depression, although she didn't know it—"I thought it was just my philosophy of life."

Matthews ended up living at the shelter for five months, an experience she describes as "the hardest thing I ever did." The worst part of being homeless, she says, was that "there was no place to sit and be left alone. Most want you to drop dead and go away. You're as valuable as a piece of shit. I was tired all the time. They kick you out at seven in the morning and you can't come back until six. I wanted to be alone. The only place I could be alone was the police station. I would go up there and read books."

Finally the shelter found Matthews a place in a house on Ingalls, where she lived with a group of other mental health consumers. The main drawback of the place was that the shelter couldn't afford to provide the level of oversight needed. Matthews says the more capable tenants had to look after the others. Experience with this house was one reason the shelter decided they needed to set up something, like Avalon, with enhanced oversight. Today, most of the Ingalls residents live in Avalon housing.

Matthews now lives in a two-bedroom apartment, which she shares with a friend from Ingalls Street. In the downstairs of an older house, with a fireplace and original woodwork, the apartment has been furnished by Avalon with a comfortable old couch and other used furniture. Sitting on the couch, wearing a yellow housedress, Matthews apologizes that her apartment is not neater, although it looks good to me. She is recovering from her hospital stay; when she regains her strength, she hopes to do volunteer work with seniors and maybe go back to school. "At forty-nine, I'm an old person at the beginning of life."

"Sandra" is an Avalon tenant who heartily agrees with CHIL's philosophy that encourages integration into the community. Looking like the U-M student she once was, with her long hair and Indian-print dress, she meets me at Amer's for coffee.

"Getting where I am was a miraculous accomplishment," Sandra tells me. She suffers from auditory hallucinations, which means she hears voices. Though she cannot be cured, she is learning to live with it, "learning to make the best of the best times."

When her illness first manifested itself, Sandra left school to live nearer her parents. She returned to Ann Arbor as soon as soon as she thought she could manage it. When the money she had to tide her over until she found a job was stolen, she ended up in the shelter, an experience she describes as "terrible. There were a lot of streetwise people there. I didn't have the skill. It was frightening. When I was in Ann Arbor before, I was in school, working, and living on the west side. Now I was in the shelter. It was an emotional blow."

After five days at the shelter, a staff member moved her to Acute Services House, a CMH emergency treatment center in Ypsilanti. Once her condition was stabilized, she moved to the Y, then finally found her way to Avalon. "The first year I was filled with gratitude," she recalls. "I felt safe. It gave me time to recover, but now I want to get back in the community."

She hopes to return to school to finish her degree in anthropology and art, do more writing (poetry and articles about mental illness), and to make friendships beyond the circle of mental health consumers. She says, "I'm trying to create a different place to fulfill a different need, a different level of life, not just get off the street."

One-half to one-third of Avalon tenants are mental health consumers. The percentage varies because when Avalon buys a new property, the people already there are allowed to stay until their leases run out, or to stay permanently if they meet the income guidelines. Depending on the funding source, an individual's income must be under 30 percent or under 50 percent of the area's median income to qualify. Avalon tenants have no trouble meeting those requirements—their incomes are all under 30 percent of the area's median (the SRO tenants' are under 15 percent). Although a lot of the Avalon tenants are doing better financially, none so far has had income surpassing the limit that allows them to stay. Besides the mental health consumers, tenants include single mothers, disabled, and the working poor.

Ron Brumbaugh, brown-haired and energetic, the tenant who told Camacho that he had a job at the Y, is an example of the last group. Before Avalon, he was in and out of the shelter, although, as he explains, "I always had a job. I was never on welfare. I worked and worked; it's just that I couldn't afford rent of six or seven hundred plus electricity. There was not enough left for food."

Originally from Pennsylvania, Brumbaugh came to Ann Arbor ten years ago while hitchhiking to California. He liked it. "I like the diversity, the huge anti-racist stand. It's clean, and low crime, not like Detroit where you hear guns go off." And now, because of Avalon, he can afford to stay. "Thanks to Avalon, I have a normal life. I have a place to go when I get off work. I have food in the refrigerator, and I have a car, now that I can afford insurance."

Unlike Brumbaugh, Ron Yarrington, forty-seven, always had relatives who were willing to put him up. But like the other tenants interviewed, his story is also one of climbing his way back up to self- sufficiency. He's used a wheelchair since 1983, when, he says matter-of-factly, "I came home to find my roommate drunk. Ten minutes later he shot me. I didn't see him pull out the gun."

Yarrington had come to Ann Arbor from Louisiana to go to the U-M but, short of funds, left school to work in construction. That he was in good physical shape when he was injured helped him recover, although it still took three years of physical therapy for him to become mobile. He returned to school and earned a degree in architecture. Learning of Avalon in one of his classes, he signed up.

"It was a chance to live on my own," he explains. "I have privacy. I can have friends over." He now works part-time at the U-M in computer graphics, drives a car, and takes care of himself with a little help with housecleaning. A member of Avalon's board of directors, he helped Bob Barackman design a handicap-accessible unit at Davis Street. He tells young people, "Don't wait until what happened to me before you realize there's more to life than partying."

Dorothy Brown, the mother of two children ages thirteen and eighteen, came to Avalon from the rotating homeless shelter run by the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a coalition of churches and synagogues that put up families in their basements. Reluctant to talk about her marriage, Brown says simply, "I left home because it was not a good place to be; it was not working out." Although grateful to the hospitality network for giving her refuge, she says, "It was hard to go week to week, building to building, just living in a curtained-off square with everyone breathing on each other. It was particularly hard on the kids, to live a well-to-do life and then wake up one morning and find it all changed." Now happily settled in a two-bedroom Avalon apartment. Brown says, "I'm starting to enjoy life again."

In three years, Avalon has successfully found ways to house a wide range of people, learning as they go. But there are still challenges ahead. The waiting list was reopened briefly at the end of last year, but had to be closed again after it reached 200 names. As federal and state social service benefits are cut, the need for housing will continue to grow. To meet the demand, Avalon will need bricks-and-mortar money (HUD, its most consistent funder, is itself likely to be drastically cut by Congress) and operating money, which is even harder to find. Rents cover basic costs but not the labor-intensive enhanced management that makes Avalon so successful. Still, McCabe believes, "it is more cost-effective for the community to support Avalon than to keep people in the shelter."

At a recent retreat, Avalon's board discussed a number of fund-raising options. Assuming the group can continue to find the money it needs, the biggest challenge will be to continue its enhanced management, handling problems on a person-by-person basis, as the organization grows larger. Right now, Avalon has few enough tenants to deal with them individually, which is no doubt one reason for its success. The first tenant death came last year, that of an eighty-three-year-old alcoholic, who had few friends and died with very little known about him. Michael Appel, who found the man's body, has been researching his life in an effort to give his death some dignity.

Avalon tenants have become part of Ann Arbor. They work at Dominick's, the Y, the VA Hospital. They hang out at coffeehouses (where one of them beats all comers at chess), the Fleetwood, the Top of the Park, at poetry readings, and the Michigan Theater. Their lives attest to the fact that these people are more able to enjoy and contribute to the community when their living arrangements are not a constant worry.

"Maggie and Carol are like friends, not money-grubbing landlords," comments tenant Mary Bern Matthews. "Other landlords, when they hear you are mentally ill or homeless, say 'Forget it,' or 'We just rented it.' But people like us need to live somewhere."

Photo Captions:

Crucial to Avalon's success is its close collaboration with the county's Cooperative Housing and Independent Living Initiative (CHIL). Based in an Avalon unit, CHIL staffers provide whatever mental health and support services residents need to live independently.

Avalon head Carol McCabe saw the need for "enhanced management" to help people escape the shelter permanently.

Kurt Gardiner and Bob Barackman at work. "It's not just the ordinary landlord-tenant relationship," says Barackman, a retired Wayne County sheriff's deputy who oversees maintenance and rehab at all eleven Avalon properties. "Whatever the problem, we'll solve it."

Avalon site manager Maggie Camacho and resident Dorothy Brown. Before coming to Avalon, Brown and her two children had been moving from place to place in the rotating shelter run by the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Now, Brown says, "I'm starting to enjoy life again."