As of November 2020, a 24.5 foot statue of a young woman’s face with hands covering her eyes was erected outside of the University of Michigan Museum of Arts (UMMA). A piece by Spanish artist, Jaume Plensa’s, ‘Behind the Wall’ collection was gifted to the University of Michigan for display.
“This new work is arriving at a critical time in our country and world, prompting deep reflection on deliberate ignorance and collective inaction,” states UMMA Director, Christina Olsen1.
This message is much needed to address today’s social injustices. However precise, the statue is even more ironic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Michigan was approached multiple times to provide emergency shelter for the unhoused population in Washtenaw County. A collaboration between Public Health, Ann Arbor City, Washtenaw County, the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, and local citizen groups, sought resources to provide an indoor space where people could safely stay throughout the shelter-in-place orders established on March 23rd, 2020. The groups reached out to the University of Michigan for assistance, but none was provided.
“The request was not successful and alternative options had to be found,” reports Washtenaw County Commissioner, Jason Morgan, reflecting on the situation.
Morgan, and a team have been working since April to coordinate shelter provisions for those living outside throughout the pandemic. During the lockdown, the Red Roof Inn was used which offered direct access to showers, day time shelter, and the ability to isolate or quarantine if need be. The plan worked in the moment, but was overall unsustainable. In October, the hotel closed, leaving many outdoors.
With the number of COVID cases rising throughout the county and the days getting colder, the need to find indoor shelter has come once again.
In September, Ann Arbor City Council member, Elizabeth Nelson put forward a resolution to get the university to the negotiation table. Nelson expressed concern for those who are affected now, as well as those whose housing insecurities are still to come.
December 31st marks the end of the Center of Disease Control’s moratorium on evictions. With employment fluctuation, and many still not receiving unemployment benefits, officials are concerned about the growing number of unhoused individuals in the coming months.
Nelson’s resolution calls for the University of Michigan dormitories or other potential spaces to be opened to non-student community members. This being best practice for improving health and safety outcomes. The resolution passed on September 21st, and a meeting was scheduled to develop this effort. However, the meeting was postponed and has yet to be rescheduled.
Ann Arbor City Council was not the only group to make this request from the university. The Washtenaw Camp Outreach (WCO) put out a list of their demands for the unhoused community. They too asked the University of Michigan to open the dorms.
“U of M should step up,” says Greg Pratt, WCO member. “It’s like they don’t see us as part of their community.”
Perhaps he’s right, however, even their own students have not gotten the response they’ve asked for. On December 3rd, president of the Central Student Government, Amanda Kaplan, spoke at the University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting. Ms. Kaplan gave an impassioned speech also putting forth a resolution advocating for shelter assistance. Kaplan later confirmed that nothing had been done. No one seems to be able to get a hold of U of M.
For an institution to so proudly summon a voice for sight, it seems odd to refuse assisting the community in which they are deeply embedded.
In September, the University of Michigan decided to bypass the concerns and recommendations regarding in-person learning. Students from all over the world stepped onto campus and into Ann Arbor. As a result, the number of Covid-19 cases in Washtenaw County spiked, causing an end to in-person learning and a return of many students back home. While U of M is assisting the Public Health Department in providing testing and contract tracing, it seems there’s potential for more.
In March, 2020, Suffolk University in Boston, MA initiated a program to utilize empty dorm rooms to house the unsheltered. With little notice, or true understanding of all the details, they jumped into action.
“This was unthinkable, quite honestly, two months ago or three months ago and now it’s right here on our doorstep. There’s no briefing and there’s no procedures in place to deal with this,” reports Boston Mayor Marty Walsh2.
“We stand ready to help in any way,” Suffolk University President Marisa Kelly said in a statement. “Boston is our home, and the University takes very seriously its responsibility to be a good citizen at a time when we are all being called upon to pitch in and help.”2
By the end of April, Sonoma State University in California had also set up a similar scenario. Apx. 150 individuals were placed in temporary housing to fully align with the state and federal mandates.
“We see this as an opportunity under these trying circumstances,” said Barbie Robinson, director of Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services.3
An opportunity indeed, to be a leader and best.
This is not to say the University of Michigan has been fully removed. In April, 2020, senior researcher for U of M’s Poverty Solutions Department, Jennifer Erb-Downward, published an article displaying the struggles and increased risks this population faces. Erb-Downward outlines potential solutions at the local, state, and federal levels, calling for protective plans at each. She lists using dorms and alternative spaces such as recreation and convention centers as temporary shelter.
In an interview, Erb-Downward raised concern that with the ending of the CDC’s moratorium, the number of people unhoused will increase.
“There is a huge number of people at risk,” says Erb-Downward.
One in every five Michigan rental households has fallen behind on their payments because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.4
Erb-Downward discusses, in her article, the already strained resources of shelters throughout this time. She adds with the potential of more people coming, a new practice needs to be considered.
“It’s possible; complicated, but possible.”
What it requires is innovation, creativity, and inclusion. It takes leadership, empathy, and a commitment to common good. It takes us adhering to our words and making them our work.