Partnering with UM to Provide Emergency Shelter

Sep 11, 2020 | City Council

Since the return of students for an in-person semester at University of Michigan, I am seeing a whole lot of debate about policies and procedures on campus. In public comment at our last Council meeting, we heard that the masks distributed by University of Michigan are failing the “match test” (this is an exercise where you try to blow out a match while wearing a mask- if you can blow out the match, the mask is allowing too much air through and is not effective). Staff and student organizations are protesting at the University, pushing for better health and safety protocols, more testing. I understand that some students on campus are already separated from peers, in quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID.

What I am seeing and hearing from campus makes me believe that University of Michigan is quite likely to follow in the footsteps of other institutions that started this semester offering in-person instruction. It’s more than likely that at some point we will see an outbreak and UM campus will transition to online instruction. If that were to happen – if students were asked to vacate University owned housing (as happened this spring) – I would like our community to be ready with a plan that meets a need and makes the best use of available resources.

At the next regular Ann Arbor City Council meeting (9/21/20), I am bringing a resolution to initiate planning with the University of Michigan to use empty dorms for emergency shelter this winter. If my resolution is approved, the City administrator will be directed to coordinate meetings with leadership of the University of Michigan to discuss local housing needs, specifically the use of University housing for non-student residents in need of shelter this winter.


This past spring, Ann Arbor’s Delonis Center was identified as a hazardous situation— people seeking overnight shelter at Delonis could not effectively isolate themselves, as recommended by public health experts. It was alarming to realize that supportive services for the least among us were actually increasing potential exposure to COVID-19. Our efforts to offer help were actually putting people’s lives at risk. We still have not fully addressed this problem. E.g. We currently have people temporarily housed at a hotel on Plymouth Road. Meanwhile, the potential for mass evictions still looms on the horizon.

When winter comes, the need for safe shelter (out of the elements) will be that much more extreme. Locally, many of our communities of faith participate in a “rotating shelter,” offering additional beds for people to sleep indoors during the winter months. I worry that these rotating shelters are not likely to happen this winter, due to crowding and COVID risks. The strategies we have used for emergency shelter in the past are inadequate (and particularly inappropriate) during this pandemic.

I recently learned that the idea of using University student housing as emergency shelter is not unprecedented. This spring, Sonoma State University made some of its unoccupied housing available to non-student residents in need of shelter in San Francisco. At the same time, Suffolk University worked with the city of Boston to offer its unoccupied student housing to the community. You can read about it here:


I wish that we had considered this idea six months ago – when UM students first left town, and isolation recommendations were most strict – but we didn’t. I think that was a mistake and I don’t want to repeat it. It’s important to me that we start planning now, for events that are probable and likely. If UM campus experiences a serious outbreak and if students are encouraged to vacate University owned housing, I would like us to have a plan to make use of those housing units to shelter people this winter. The housing units should not be wasted, allowed to sit empty. The problems Ann Arbor is experiencing right now – people desperately in need of housing – are likely to get worse in the coming months and we should be looking ahead, anticipating solutions.

As drafted right now, my resolution proposes a meeting (to discuss this and other housing issues) between City Council and University leadership before November 1; this allows six weeks to arrange such a meeting, well before the weather turns cold. I also propose a meeting between the County Health department and any other local entities that would facilitate such a plan in Ann Arbor. I am hopeful about prompting a discussion that seriously considers the best use of local resources to keep people safe and in shelter during this pandemic and in anticipation of winter.