vednesday January 23, 2013 // The S m E 5B
here's a regular-looking house on
* a regular corner of a regular Ann
Arbor neighborhood that has been a
symbol of growth for residents all over the
city for the past 20 years. It's nondescript -
three stories, tan, flanked by a long porch
- but the beauty of the house lies in this
subtleness, because the lives of the tenants
inside have been anything but subtle.
Of the six units that occupy the space
inside this tan house, five have rotated
residents over the last 20 years. These
five units have held a number of people
from all walks of life. There are more dif-
ferences than similarities, but the biggest
thing these people have in common is what
brought them to Avalon' Housing: home-
For 20 years,.Avalon has managed this
commonality, working to give the home-
less in Ann Arbor permanent shelter while
offering support services. The non-profit
has gone from the one house - six people in
six units - to more than 400 people in 280
units since its birth in 1992, often welcom-
ing individuals who would have no chance
of finding housing elsewhere in the city.
Back in the tan house on the corner of
West William and South Ashley streets -
the first residence of the Avalon founda-
tion - that sixth unit has stayed occupied
by the same man since the birth of Avalon,
the only constant in a sea of fresh faces and
His name is Paul, and that regular, tan
house saved his life.
"I don't think I would have made it with-
out Avalon, really," Paul said.
Before moving to Ann Arbor in the late
1980s, Paul lived in a house without heat,
electricity or running water for 15 years in
Detroit. The neighborhood he lived in was
full of ex-convicts, many of whom would
wind up back in prison shortly after their
Paul is still missing a few teeth from that
time span, the ones he lost after he was
beaten and mugged four times in the city.
There was also a case of attempted murder
- someone who knew he was home alone
broke in and tried to kill him. Paul fought
him off, but realized he needed to be in a
A friend referred him to the city of Ann
Arbor, where he moved before realizing
there wasn't any affordable housing in the
city. He protested and did other advocacy
work before Avalon began, which afforded
him his own unit and forgotten luxuries
like running water and electricity - neces-
sities he hadn't lived with in almost two
Paul has recently run into health issues,
including a bout with intestinal cancer, but
is in a place where he can deal with it safely
- a place with heat, water and support.
"(Avalon is) stabilizing people's lives and
allowing them to get on with their lives
instead of being homeless, which is just one
crisis after another," Paul said. "Even if you
get into the shelter, there's a time limit and
you have to be able to get a job ... (At Ava-
lon) you can have privileges, like if you are
flat broke they will give you a bag of food or
take you to one of the food pantries or take
you to the hospital if you need it."
Before Avalon was founded in 1992, Paul
protested with the Homeless Action Com-
mittee, a group that advocated affordable
and accessible housing for the disabled in
the 1990s. While his activist career has
ceased since moving into Avalon, Paul
hopes to work again to improve homeless
housing conditions and give back to Avalon
for what they've provided him.
"They have been real good to me, and
I want to return the favor," Paul said. "I
think they care more than others, and they
aren't just doing it as a sideline. This is
their main job, and they do it pretty well."
Avalon started in the shelters, the brain-
child of a board of directors that noticed
a disconcerting pattern among their resi-
dents. The shelter had already made steps
to become more than just a place to sleep,
implementing daytime programs and two-
year transitional housing. But there was
still something missing.
People would use up their two years in
the transitional housing and generally have
righted whatever issues landed them in the
shelter to begin with - challenges such as
mental illness, addiction or domestic vio-
lence - but still couldn't afford housing
in Ann Arbor. They would land back in the
shelters and begin to deal with the same
issues that brought them there in the first
place. There were solutions to short-term
housing, but long-term was still surround-
ed by questions.
Carole McCabe, who is now the execu-
tive director of Avalon Housing, was on
that board, watching people repeat the
same losing cycle over and over again.
"We knew exactly why they were losing
their housing - because landlords couldn't
deal with the behavior problems and the
illegal subtenants and all the things that
go along with unmanaged mental illness
or substance abuse or addiction disorders,"
McCabe said. "So, we were like, 'Let's find
a better way to do this."'
The better way is Avalon. Their first
house opened in 1992 with six residents,
Paul being one of them.
Avalon is succeeding for a variety of rea-
sons, but its most successful implementa-
tion lies in what they do differently than
every other landlord in Ann Arbor.
Formally called supportive housing,
Avalon does all the things a regular land-
lord does - maintenance, repairs, manage-
ment, etc. - but also offers support services
for all their tenants. Most landlords screen
out tenants - Avalon screens high-risk ten-
ants in. They can do this because of their
support services, which are run mostly by
social workers. Even though the sessions
are voluntary, more than 80 percent of ten-
ants participate, and even the ones who
don't participate fully still use the services growing even during a recession - but
in some capacity. they are still quite a ways away from total
"We believe that housing is a basic financial comfort. Part of that comes from
human right," McCabe said. "It's a pretty Lansing and its reluctance to dedicate a
clear hierarchy of needs. If you don't have constant stream of funding for supportive
a stable shelter, then you really can't have a housing, and part comes from a drying up
job or take care of your business." of donations after the recession. Though
Avalon offers a range of services to their these factors are important, the biggest
residents. There are rsome in Avalon who funding that Avalon faces comes from the
have both addiction problems and mental national perception of supportive housing.
health issues, and the support services for Over time, supportive housing programs
those tenants can be intense. can save local, state and federal govern-
Fifteen Avalon residents also need help ments significant funds.
taking their medication in the morning. Example: Avalon has a first-year resi-
Those 10 morning minutes are the differ- dent who suffers from a litany of physical
ence between being able to live indepen- and mental issues, so much so that he took
dently in Avalon housing and going off a Huron Valley ambulance to an emergency
their meds,spiraling out of control, getting room 27 times last year.
evicted and winding up in another shelter. Ambulance rides are not cheap, and for
It's a little bit more complicated than a homeless person who doesn't have any
that for most of the other residents in Ava- money, much less health insurance, these
lon, but the goal remains the same for the rides are impossible to pay for.
non-profit, no matter how high-risk or low- In the one year this resident has lived
risk the residents are. The goal is for every in Avalon housing, he has ridden an ambu-
resident to maintain their housing and not lance a grand total of three times.
get evicted, and the support services are a "You can calculate right there the sav-
big part of that. ings to the community and the health sys-
"... We don't require people to be clean tem," McCabe said. "We have evidence
and sober when they move in - we screen in of saying that if you give us a little bit of
people who are screened out by every other money up front to pay these social workers,
landlord," McCabe said:"We are often the that keeps people out of your system."
last housing option for some folks." "Healthcare is housing. The connec-
There's also the price of living in an Ava- tion's between all of these things - housing
lon house: Rent goes for about half of the underpins all of these other things."
market value on average. Average doesn't Tax dollars do help pay for some of the
mean everyone, though, because Ava- social services and support systems for
lon has a lot of tenants that are on a fixed Avalon residents, but in the long run, sup-
income, relying on social security and dis- portive housing like Avalon makes a lot
ability pensions as their only source of more sense than the current pay-later
According to the U.S. Department of It's not here yet, but Avalon is gaining
Housing and Urban Development, an indi- some of that trust. This year, there was a
vidual who pays more than 30 percent of multi-year grant given out by the Obama
their income towards rent is considered Social Innovation Fund to organizations
to be "cost-burdened." For those residents that help or combat frequent users of emer-
who don't have jobs or income besides the gency health care. Four places in the entire
monthly checks, 30 percent isn't a whole country were given this grant: Los Angeles,
lot of money, significantly lower than even San Francisco, the state of Connecticut and
what would be considered affordable hous- Washtenaw County.
ing. "It's because we have a good head start
But at Avalon, giving housing to resi- on that and because they like what we do
dents with that income is encouraged. here," McCabe said. "I think we have a big
future ahead of us if we can figure out how
*** to financially sustain ourselves and con-
vince everyone to invest more public dol-
Incredibly, Avalon operates debt-free. lars in it."
There are no loans from the bank and Ava- Want an example of economically sus-
lon owns every house and property they tainable housing working? Go to the tan
rent out. Often times, units are built from house and sit on the porch. Listen to Paul
the ground up to adhere to specific accom- tell you about the meningitis he had as a
modations. kid, the beatings and robberies he endured
Avalon has achieved this by drawing in Detroit, the cancer that has appeared,
from anyone and anything they can. The disappeared and reappeared in his intes-
money for the physical buildings comes tines and the brain shunt that doctors put
mostly from the government whether from in his skull to drain excess fluid.
the low income housing tax credit pro- Watch him tell you all of this wit4 a smile
gram, subsidies, grants, IRS programs or a on his face, cracking jokes about the things
litany of other programs. that almost killed him. He can joke because
Avalon is in competition with every he was given the opportunity to joke, more-
other human service agency for local gov- over, given the right to joke on his regular-
ernment dollars and foundation grants, as looking porch attached to the tan house.
well as private donations. He can joke because Avalon gave him a
They've been able to make it work - chance.
"I don't think I would have made
it without Avalon, really."
By Everett Cook