A team response to a community crisis: The closing of a hotel for the homeless

"We are working hard to get them housed, so these folks don't end up in a shelter, only to have to move in a month."

Sharon Dade, Vice President of Social Services

What do you do when a hotel that had been serving as a homeless shelter is being shut down, displacing upwards of 90 people? When you're Volunteers of America Michigan, you get to work.

The Magnuson Hotel on Lansing's south side had been serving as the home base for a nonprofit group, the Homeless Angels. On August 29, 2016, the hotel owner announced all residents would have to vacate for extensive renovations.

The community response was immediate. The City of Lansing declared a housing emergency and sought and received a temporary injunction to delay the closing of the hotel. City officials also convened a service fair to start the process of relocation.

Initial screening of Magnuson residents

Volunteers of America Michigan called in 16 staff members from across the agency to start the complex process of screening and assessing the best response for each household.

Sharon Dade, vice president of social services, devised a flow chart to direct people to the most appropriate housing resource for them. Her staff spent the next day starting people on the path to housing.

"Our goal is shelter diversion," Dade explained. "We are working hard to get them housed, so these folks don't end up in a shelter, only to have to move in a month."

It quickly became evident that these were complex cases. Some households had lived in the hotel for years. Many had evictions and overdue utility payments on their records. Some had criminal backgrounds. The population included 23 single adults, but many families, too.

Few resources were available in the community to accommodate such an influx.

The initial screening process is complicated. It starts with an evidence-based assessment of vulnerability called the Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (SPDAT). Based on the initial screenings, Volunteers of America Michigan immediately made referrals to all appropriate agencies, including Lansing Housing Commission. Each resource has its own application process, which can be lengthy.

Analysis of needs for Magnuson residents at Volunteers of America offices

First, any overdue utility payments need to be addressed. That means obtaining back copies of utility bills and coordinating efforts between Consumers Energy, the Lansing Board of Water and Light and the state Department of Health and Human Services. Every family screened had to be entered on the Housing Choice Voucher list. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority administers that waitlist for federal housing subsidies, in addition to providing funds for rapid rehousing.

The Lansing Housing Commission only had a few openings, but an apartment complex recently announced it could accept applications for federally subsidized vouchers. This was an encouraging development, but it's not an instant solution. Apartments are limited and each application can take an hour to complete, requiring the collection of various documents and writing letters of recommendation.

Three weeks after the initial announcement by Magnuson, several families have been housed. Others are still working their way along the path toward a solution. A lot of work remains ahead, and Volunteers of America has committed its Housing Assessment and Resource Agency (HARA) staff to that work.

Martha Jackson, community services housing resource specialist for the HARA, is one of the people on the front lines.

Because of the established professional relationships Jackson has with area landlords, many are willing to work with her to rent to people who have past evictions or criminal histories.

Martha Jackson, part of the Volunteers of America HARA team

"It's a blessing to work with the Magnuson families because we're creating a new hope for them," Martha said. "I'm a part of the history of the VOA, helping people who are in the most vulnerable positions."

Community Housing Senior Manager Julie Shaltry, who supervises most VOA community services in the Lansing area, said she is proud of the work by the HARA team. Although the Magnuson situation presents an emergency, she said those are not the only homeless clients needing service.

"There are still other people coming here who need help, but I think our team is doing a great job," she said. "I love their attitude. They never once complained about the workload. They're the HARA. That's what they do."

Diane Singleton, Community Services Manager, oversees the HARA team. She said having a plan and systems in place has put the team in a good position to handle the workload. The community experienced a similar crisis in 2014, when the Life O'Riley trailer park on the city's South Side was condemned, displacing more than 200 people.

"Because we have dealt with the Life O'Riley situation, we know what we have to do with the Magnuson," Singleton said. "Julie and Sharon have laid the foundation, but it's been smooth."

At the end of the month, the City of Lansing has another hearing on its temporary injunction. Meanwhile, the VOA team continues to seek the best housing solutions for the Magnuson residents.

"We don't know when they will have to leave," Shaltry said. "We're planning on every day being the day they have to be out."