By Everett Cook, Managing Sports Editor
Published January 20, 2013
There’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.
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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 differences than similarities, but the biggest thing these people have in common is what brought them to Avalon Housing: homelessness.
For 20 years, Avalon has managed this commonality, working to give the homeless 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 welcoming 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 foundation — 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 stories.
His name is Paul, and that regular, tan house saved his life.
“I don’t think I would have made it without 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 release.
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 safer environment.
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 — necessities he hadn’t lived with in almost two decades.
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 Avalon) 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 Committee, 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 brainchild of a board of directors that noticed a disconcerting pattern among their residents. 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 violence — 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 surrounded by questions.
Carole McCabe, who is now the executive 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.