Alpha House: Supporting Homeless Families in Washtenaw County

Flowers are blooming indoors all year at Alpha House through the generosity of many. “It is the Little Miracle on Jackson Road!” Photo courtesy Alpha House

By Donna Iadipaolo

Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor area has always been a strong proponent of local nonprofits, and the holidays are a great time to focus on those in need. 

With the cold winter months approaching, supporting the homeless is often top-of-mind and there are critical needs. 

One way to help is through Alpha House in Ann Arbor. Alpha House helps homeless families through coordinated efforts such as working with faith-based organizations and the community. 

We spoke with Ellen Schulmeister (Executive Director of Alpha House for the past three years) about their mission and work.

 “Alpha House is a program that truly seeks to rehouse people based on their situation, either through a shelter or ‘Rapid Rehousing’,” she described.  “The support we get from our congregations and Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital, and other donors and volunteers make it possible for us to provide more support for the families we serve. It is an organization that although quiet, many people invest in us. It is the Little Miracle on Jackson Road!”

“Children are the largest section of the entire homelessness community,” according to Schulmeister. “Homelessness is a result of poverty. Housing that is affordable at all income levels—in sufficient quantity in every community—is the solution for homelessness. It is a complex issue, but the more we realize that no person, child, or family should be without a place to call home, the more we make progress on ending homelessness in our community.”

Alpha House is instrumental in helping in that regard. According to Schulmeister, Alpha House’s main mission is “to support homeless families and their children as they build a better life.”

One major goal is getting them immediate shelter. 

“We provide emergency shelter for six families at a time, and housing support services in rapid rehousing for 36 families at a time,” Schulmeister described.  “We are a low barrier, ‘housing first’ shelter and focused on stability.”

She added that Alpha House currently works with 36 congregations of all major faiths.

“We welcome any congregation interested in supporting homeless families to go to our website and click on the volunteer tab,” Schulmeister added. “We can always use more help.”

Schulmeister retold one particular story about a homeless family (without using names or photos to protect the family’s privacy):

A single mom with two teenage kids lost her job, and then her home to foreclosure. She lived with her mother for a short period of time before moving into the shelter. With the help of rapid re-housing (at Alpha House) she moved into a new apartment.  She has now found stable employment after seven active months of searching for a full-time position. While she was looking for employment (that matched her skills and provided benefits) the temporary subsidy helped her to feel safe and secure. She can support her family, and all are thriving with the help of the rapid re-housing program. 

Schulmeister estimates that at the present time there are about 60 homeless families in Washtenaw County and at any given time the range is about 30 to 60 families, depending on various factors.

She added that the pandemic has further adversely impacted homeless families.

“Homeless families in Washtenaw County have experienced job loss due to closures and lack of in-person school, lack of child care for young children, online school/unstable in-person school, the breakup of families due to stressors, lack of food, the threat of eviction, the threat of utility cut off, and increased domestic violence,” Schulmeister stated.

She added that people may have misconceptions about the homeless.

“I believe most people consider homeless families with compassion,” Schulmeister explained  “Most families we see are single moms or single dads with children living in poverty. Sometimes they are made homeless because of Domestic Violence. Any major life event can cause the problem of not having enough money to afford the available housing at market rate.” 

The Interfaith Hospitality Network began helping families in 1984 with a rotating shelter. Alpha house opened in 2001. Schulmeister estimates that Alpha House serves a total of 75 to 100 families in Washtenaw County every year. 

There are many ways the community can help Alpha House.

Alpha House has a robust volunteer program and a wish list for in-kind donations. The website has information on donating dollars and in-kind items. 

“We appreciate all donations,” Schulmeister added.

“Yes, people want to adopt families to make Christmas and the holidays special,” Schulmeister stated. “We have a ‘Holiday Wishes’ program that provides gift cards for our rapid re-housing program; a ‘new start basket” giving program for providing household items when they are rehoused. We have a ‘stocking program,’ to provide each child in our programs with a gift and treats, and we have an ‘Adopt a Family‘ program for families in shelter at Christmas that consists of gifts and gift cards.”

“Our biggest need is for Meijer gift cards ($25 to $100) to give to families so they can provide gifts and food for their families. This helps the adults to make the holiday for their children.” Schulmeister explained.

 Alpha House: 4290 Jackson Road in Ann Arbor  (734) 822-0220  www.alphahouse-ihn.org 

For their mailing list or to donate, call Lisa Ziske (Development Director) at 734-219-5002

To volunteer, email Zach Crutchfield at zcrutchfield@alphahouse-ihn.org